Redrawing Plastic Waste Management Landscape

By Abhay Deshpande June 05, 2023

World Environment Day 2023: We can drive the change required to effectively address plastic waste by embracing the concepts of the circular economy, utilising technology, establishing partnerships, empowering consumers, and campaigning for governmental reforms

Redrawing Plastic Waste Management Landscape
Biodegradable plastics have been identified as one of the solutions to the single use plastic problem. Jitendra Gupta/Outlook

Plastic waste management has become a crucial environmental challenge in recent times, with its detrimental impact on our ecosystems and public health. According to UNEP, we are producing 400 million tonnes of plastic every year worldwide and if this growth trend continues, global production of primary plastic is forecasted to reach 1,100 million tonnes by 2050. Approximately, 36 per cent of all plastics produced are used in packaging, including single-use plastic products for food and beverage containers, approximately 85 per cent of which ends up in landfills or as unregulated waste. To mitigate this challenge, innovative approaches and sustainable solutions are necessary.  The issue demands urgent attention and innovative solutions. There is an increasing need to adopt holistic and sustainable approaches to tackle plastic pollution. 

Acknowledging the Problems:

Lack of education and information: Improper waste disposal has a severe impact on the environment, contributing to pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and degradation of ecosystems. The lack of awareness and education on waste management practices exacerbates this issue. It is crucial to provide people with clear and accessible information about proper waste disposal methods and raise awareness of the impacts of improper waste management.

Behavioural issues: Littering and dumping waste in public areas is a common problem in India. This behavioural issue usually occurs due to a lack of knowledge about the environmental impacts of inappropriate practices. If there are no penalties for littering or rewards for recycling, people may not feel compelled to properly dispose off their waste. 

Lack of source segregation: One of the biggest challenges in waste management system is the lack of source segregation. Waste is not separated at the source, making it difficult to recycle and reuse.

Lack of traceability and data: There is a lack of traceability from waste generation to final disposal that leads to unregulated disposal methods and can harm the environment.

Lack of infrastructure: As a developing country, India struggles with inadequate waste infrastructure, which includes Material Recovery Facility (MRF) Centers, treatment facilities, and recycling plants. The lack of proper facilities and insufficient waste disposal systems all contribute to the intensification of the waste management problem. 

It is important to acknowledge the seriousness of these issues and work towards a comprehensive solution. 

Embracing Circular Economy:

At the heart of revolutionising plastic waste management lies the concept of the circular economy. By shifting from a linear model of "take-make-dispose" to a circular model that emphasises recycling, reusing, and reducing waste, we can achieve sustainable resource management. This paradigm shift calls for collaboration among stakeholders, promoting a closed-loop system that minimises waste and maximises value creation.

Several stakeholders play a crucial role in managing plastic waste. These include governments, waste management companies, recyclers, industries, corporates and individuals. 

1.    Governments formulate and enforce policies such as legislation related to waste collection, recycling, and disposal. They provide funding and support for infrastructure development, awareness campaigns, and research. 

2.    The Government of India has introduced several policies and frameworks regarding recycling and waste management. Two of the most significant policies are Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) and the ban on the import of scrap. 

i. Under EPR, producers of goods are held responsible for the disposal and recycling of their products after use. This means that they must ensure that their products are recyclable, and they must bear the cost of their products' disposal after use. EPR has greatly incentivised producers to reduce the amount of waste generated and make their products more eco-friendly. 

ii. In 2016, the government also implemented a ban on the import of scrap, which was primarily aimed at reducing e-waste. This ban has led to a significant improvement in the recycling of electronic goods in the country and has encouraged the development of a domestic e-waste recycling industry. 

iii. Apart from these, several other policies and frameworks have been introduced, including the Solid Waste Management Rules 2016, which aims to promote segregation of waste at the source, and the National Green Tribunal's guidelines on the management of waste in the country.

iv. The public IEC programs like Swachh Bharat have also enhanced awareness and educated the masses on the importance of waste management.

3.   All these policies and frameworks have played a significant role in promoting waste management and recycling in India.

4.   Waste management companies collect and transport plastic waste to recycling centers or landfills, ensuring that it is disposed off  in an environmentally friendly manner. 

5.   Recyclers are responsible for transforming waste material into pellets, conserving natural resources, reducing landfill waste, and minimising pollution.

6.   Additionally, individuals, businesses, and industries have a significant role to play in plastic waste management by adopting responsible practices, supporting sustainable initiatives and policies, and promoting awareness among their communities. 

The collective efforts from all the stakeholders in waste management can create a significant positive impact on the environment and contribute to creating a sustainable future.

Innovating with Technology:

As per the report published by UNEP, of  the seven billion tonnes of plastic waste generated globally so far, less than 10 per cent has been recycled. Technological advancements present unprecedented opportunities to address such plastic waste management challenges. From smart sorting and recycling systems to blockchain-enabled traceability, we can harness the power of technology to optimise waste collection processes. By integrating digital platforms and data-driven solutions, we can create an ecosystem that fosters transparency, efficiency, and accountability.

1. Leveraging AI to Scale Waste Processing- AI-powered technologies enable the identification, classification, and sorting of plastic waste accurately and efficiently. AI can be used to monitor waste streams in real-time and track waste from its origin to its disposal. 

Moreover, AI can help in predicting and preventing plastic waste accumulation by analysing data from weather patterns, population growth, and consumption patterns. This knowledge can help policy-makers to take proactive measures to minimise plastic waste production. AI algorithms can also be used to analyse large amounts of data from recycling companies to identify patterns and develop effective recycling methods.

2.  Digital marketplace for scrap: Smart technology can aid in buyer-seller mapping by creating a platform to connect buyers and sellers of recyclables. This platform can provide real-time information on the types and quantities of waste or recyclables available for sale or purchase, as well as the location of the sellers and buyers. By using the platform, buyers and sellers can negotiate the price, and arrange for the transportation of materials. Technology can also help in tracking transactions and providing traceability of quality waste materials. Virtual marketplaces can connect businesses in search of waste materials to those who have the waste materials for sale. This can create a system of interconnected firms, ensuring that the waste is diverted from landfills and reused instead. 

3.  Circularity in production: Production circularity in waste management can be defined as the process of producing new products by using the raw materials derived from the waste. Processes like waste sorting and segregation, traceability, and transparency are digitally empowered reducing human error. Technological solutions can verify that the waste used for producing new products is authentic, and meet the standards of industry and regulatory requirements. 

4.  Corporate Awareness Programmes: Awareness programs can be highly effective in promoting environmental sustainability and reducing the negative impact of waste on the environment among employees and company stakeholders. By leveraging smart technologies, companies can gain a better understanding of their waste streams and identify opportunities to reduce waste and increase recycling rates. They can also use the data collected to develop targeted waste management strategies and measure the effectiveness of their initiatives over time. With this visibility, corporates can get compliance on their sustainability from regulatory agencies.

5.  Adoption of digital DRS- Digital DRS (Deposit Refund System) initiative has been successfully deployed at Kedarnath during the Char Dham Yatra season in 2022. The deployment of this digital solution is a significant step towards efficient waste management and sustainability in the region. The initiative has received the Digital India Award 2022, which is a testimony to its success and impact. Adding two more dhams, Gangotri and Yamunotri to the operational areas is another positive step, as this will increase the adoption of advanced waste management practices in these regions. 

Digital DRS involves providing unique QR codes to distributors of consumer goods, which are then affixed to the product packaging. Customers are required to pay a refundable deposit at the point of purchase, which may vary from Rs. 2 to 10 depending on the type of packaging material. When the packaging material is returned to the collection center after usage, customers are refunded the deposit upon scanning the QR code. This cycle of waste collection and recycling ensures circularity of waste materials, promoting sustainability and responsible waste disposal habits among residents and tourists. The digital DRS system applies to various types of product packaging, including chips packets, water and cold drink bottles, sachets, shampoo and other personal care product bottles, tetra packs, milk packets, aluminum cans, and glass containers. 

Digital DRS is benefitting Municipal Corporations and other government bodies in India. 

The way forward: 

Collaborative Partnerships:

Revolutionising the plastic waste management landscape requires collaboration on a global scale. There is a need for fostering partnerships with governments, NGOs, industry peers, and local communities to establish effective waste collection and recycling infrastructure. Through collective action, we can pool resources, share knowledge, and leverage expertise to tackle this complex problem comprehensively.

 Empowering Consumer Responsibility:

Transforming the plastic waste management landscape necessitates a shift in consumer behaviour. As thought leaders, we have a unique opportunity to educate and empower consumers about sustainable consumption practices. By raising awareness, promoting responsible packaging choices, and encouraging recycling habits, we can create a collective consciousness that drives long-term change.

Advocacy for Policy Reforms:

To ensure sustainable progress, it is essential to advocate for policy reforms that support effective plastic waste management. We must actively engage with policymakers and regulatory bodies to shape legislation that incentivises recycling, promotes extended producer responsibility, and encourages the adoption of eco-friendly alternatives. By advocating for the right policy framework, we can create an enabling environment for sustainable plastic waste management practices.

Overall, revolutionising the plastic waste management landscape requires visionary leadership, innovative solutions, and collaborative efforts. As industry leaders, we have a crucial role to play in driving this transformation and shaping a sustainable future. By embracing the principles of the circular economy, leveraging technology, fostering partnerships, empowering consumers, and advocating for policy reforms, we can spearhead the change needed to combat plastic waste effectively. Together, let us embark on this journey of transformation and create a cleaner, greener, and more sustainable world for generations to come.

(The author is Founder & CEO, Recykal)