Is plastic waste recycling really making a difference?

Is Recycling Plastic Waste in India Making a Real Difference?

India produces over 3.4 million metric tonnes of plastic waste annually, and recycling has been hailed as the solution to this issue. However, the reality is that the situation is far more complex than that. Currently, only high-value plastic is being recycled into new products, while medium-value plastic is used mostly as fuel in cement kilns. As for low-value plastic, it often ends up in landfills, where it slowly seeps into the soil or ends up in the ocean. So, the question now is: does recycling actually make a difference, and how can we improve the process?

The State of Plastic Recycling in India

Since 2016, plastic consumption in India has increased by 40%, yet plastic waste output has doubled in the same period. Currently, over 65% of the plastic that is recycled is only high-quality plastic, using mechanical recycling. Other recycling methods are still in their infancy, due to a lack of infrastructure, funding, and interest. Unfortunately, the conversation around recycling tends to focus on technology and processing infrastructure, when in reality, much of the existing infrastructure is highly under-utilised and suboptimal. The real challenge is creating a seamless and transparent connection from the source to the processing.

Segregation at the Source

The primary challenge for effective recycling is segregation at the source. Once waste ends up in landfills without being segregated, the recovery efficiency of recyclable plastics drops dramatically. Low-value plastics will never be picked up from the landfills, so we need to focus on mandating source segregation through strict regulatory enforcement. Additionally, we need to develop efficient linkages between the source and processors and introduce collection charges. Strategies for optimising the capacity of the recycling ecosystem and increasing the volume and types of plastic waste collected and recycled are also necessary.

New Plastic Waste Management Rules 2022

The new, stringent Plastic Waste Management rules 2022 (PWM) aim to address these issues. Apart from the existing requirements for brand owners on 100% collection and recycling, there are now targets for the proportion of recyclable plastic in packaging, increasing the thickness of packaging plastic, and labelling guidelines to improve collection efficiency. However, the success of these new guidelines requires the development of the overall ecosystem.

Costs of Plastic Recycling

Recycling plastic is expensive, and it is unsustainable until waste generators shoulder some of the costs. The waste value chain from homes, collection points to processing and final distribution of recycled material requires every stakeholder to take responsibility. Source segregation at the household level is where we need the most concerted effort. Behavioral change to segregate waste at homes can take up to three years of sustained and reinforced communications to become second nature for people. At some point, municipalities also need to think about penalising non-segregation, monitored through digital tracking systems. Along with activities to drive behavioural change, we need to make people treat waste management as they would any other municipal utility like electricity, water, or gas supply.

The Benefits of Rethinking the Recycling Industry

Rethinking the recycling industry has multiple benefits. Our communities will benefit from fewer landfills overflowing with waste, stakeholders can create a sustainable economy of waste, the government can generate employment and revenue, and people earn a source of livelihood through the opening up of employment opportunities in the waste space. Waste-to-wealth need not be a pipe dream but a genuine case for investment and opportunity.

In conclusion, the plastic waste recycling industry in India is making progress, but there is still a long way to go. Effective segregation at the source, developing efficient linkages between the source and processors, and optimising the capacity of the recycling ecosystem are necessary for the industry’s success.