World Environment Day 2023: Social enterprises in India are taking proactive measures toward eradicating plastic waste and promoting environmentally sustainable practices by endorsing eco-friendly alternatives
Plastic is an essential part of modern life and used across various sectors globally, making it an integral part of the industrial value chain. Its low-cost, durability, and flexibility have led to a significant increase in production. Plastic pollution has a severe impact on the environment and a costly impact on society, estimated at approximately $139 billion per year. Its effective management is hindered by the lack of segregation, as different types require specific recycling technologies.
According to a FICCI report, India could lose over $133 billion worth of material value used in plastic packaging by 2030. Uncollected plastic packaging waste accounts for $68 billion of this loss.
India's waste collection aided by an unorganised sector of 1.5 - 4 million waste pickers and traders, who manage 70 per cent of the total waste by collecting, sorting, recycling, and selling valuable plastic materials. Due to a lack of economies of scale, the unorganised sector prioritises high-value plastics, leading to low-value plastics like Single Use Plastics (SUPs) being disposed off in landfills or municipal waste collection systems.
With 59 per cent of plastic consumption in India dedicated to packaging, this trend greatly affects the future demand driven by the growth of industries like pharmaceuticals, FMCG, retail, and more.
The Indian government is taking several initiatives to mitigate the impact of plastic waste;
1. Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016, require manufacturers to take responsibility for the collection and recycling of their plastic products and prohibit certain types of plastic such as bags below 50 microns in thickness.
2. In 2022, the government imposed a ban on single-use plastic items, such as straws, cups, and plates, which is expected to reduce plastic waste by 20-25 per cent.
3. Promoting sustainable alternatives like cloth bags, bamboo straws, and steel bottles and offering incentives to businesses using them.
4. Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) framework is another such policy instrument that puts the onus on managing waste on producers where they are required to take steps to collect and recycle the plastic waste that their products generate.
However, the informal nature of the waste sector makes it challenging to implement EPR effectively, especially in establishing proper traceability from origin to disposal of waste. This lack of transparency hampers waste management efforts and creates obstacles for waste startups, operating as Producers Responsibility Organisations (PROs), to fully benefit from the EPR scheme.
To address this, waste management startups like Bintix utilize digital platforms and systems for waste tracking and documentation, enhancing transparency and accountability. Recognising the power of innovations in solving waste management and disposal issues, the Swachhata Startup Challenge, a collaborative initiative was launched between the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA) and Agence Française de Développement (AFD). This initiative aims to improve efficiency, increase social impact, enhance transparency, and reduce single-use plastic. These efforts can enhance existing local innovations for decentralised waste management, including collection, recycling, upcycling, and sustainable product alternatives. The program also facilitates collaboration between urban local bodies (ULBs) and startups, promoting the adoption of innovative technologies at a larger scale. Collaborations like these, led by the Indian government and organisations like AFD, offer hope for a cleaner and sustainable future.
Social enterprises in India are taking proactive measures toward eradicating plastic waste and promoting environmentally sustainable practices by endorsing eco-friendly alternatives. Startups like Saltech and Zerund, manufacture lightweight bricks, paver blocks and other construction materials from plastic waste, reducing the amount of plastic that ends up in landfills and incinerators. Not only are these alternate building materials strong, durable, and environment-friendly, but they are also affordable and easy to use.
To promote a circular economy and address the challenges of plastic waste, several key strategies need to be implemented:
1. Encourage circular supply chain models, which involve supporting innovations in bio-based polymers and developing carbon-based feedstock that utilizes greenhouse gas emissions released by industries or waste management processes for sequestration.
2. Another approach is to focus on recovery and recycling by upcycling plastic to create higher valued products, enabling segregation at source, and recovering energy through incineration.
3. Promoting innovation in refillable and reusable formats, designing durable products, and establishing repair and refurbishment mechanisms are key to extending product lifespans and reducing waste generation.
4. Adopting a product-as-a-service approach, where ownership transfers from consumer to producer and durables can be rented or leased, thereby creating a thriving second-hand market.
Embracing these circular economy business models allows Indian companies to make a significant impact in reducing plastic waste and fostering a sustainable future.
(Ananth Aravamudan is sector lead, Climate Action, Villgro.)