The spectre of solid waste has given us an awakening call not a day too soon. There exists no single corner on land or sea within our reach that is exempted from squandering, as coruscated by gargantuan heaps of plastic garbage. Statistics suggest, have we been able to recycle or use global plastic refuse entirely, we could have saved 14 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. This also explains why waste management issues are often overlapped with or talked in obscurity with ‘Climate Change’. To expunge this nightmare, systematic waste management and recovery system mustn’t remain an idea but a ground reality.
Chemically, plastics are high molecular weight synthetic polymers that can be moulded into objects, driven into ﬁlms and ﬁlaments. Juxtaposed the non-biodegradability is their petroleum-based feedstock and energy requirements during manufacturing with the humongous swathes of plastic dump grounds and seabeds being the most visible but catastrophic repercussion of decades of insouciance. The plastic waste generated by manufacturing and agricultural sites is ubiquitous and causes a scathing impact on human health, biodiversity, resources, and climate.
Given our country’s demographics and economic viability, metamorphosing this waste into wealth seems beﬁtting. This praxis already actualized has enabled us to sight waste as piles of preciousness bespeaking of opportunities. As envisaged by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, India can generate 1075 megawatts of electricity from waste by 2031. How tremendous is this transformation that can, from plastic bags, power a bulb in the darkness of penury!
With the application of paving tiles, slabs in pedestrian walkways, and the production of other made-from-plastics building materials, the construction sector is bound to undergo a paradigm shift. The initiative undertaken by a 33-year old entrepreneur to build a ‘plastic house’ in Hyderabad is applaudable, where the construction of each home utilises 2.5 tonnes of plastics waste. It also offers the added advantage of not warming up in hot summers. Likewise, all-weather, durable ‘plastic roads’ with diminished maintenance cost and enhanced fatigue life are constructed. They constitute 6-8% thermoplastics which implicates lesser use of bituminous coal. A two-lane road stretching one kilometer utilises a staggering one million plastic bags. A lakh kilometers of plastic roads already laid out marks a quantum-jump en route to sustainability.
The ‘3Rs’ (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) stands afﬁrm as an immortal rubric to abate the waste consternation. The third R being the most crucial in the plastic context underscores energy recovery by means of pyrolysis, gasiﬁcation, incineration and sometimes co-processing in cement kilns to extract oil or fuel. Moreover, a myriad of articles with striking unlikeness from the starting plastic is produced, a slender of which are, bags, ﬂower pots, seed trays, car-bumpers, bottles, polyester fabric.
Since its inception in 2010, the Rudra Environmental Solution Company processes 100 kilograms of plastics tantamounting to 55-70 liters of ‘poly fuel’ which apart from being used in generators, furnaces or boilers is supplied to the hinterlands. This cheaper and cleaner alternative to kerosene also helps avert health hazards starring rural households’ women. Another enterprise, Protoprint, partnered with ‘Solid Waste Collection and Handling’ converts in its labs HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene) bottles to ﬂakes and subsequently extrudes them into ﬁlaments which serves in the omnipotent 3D printing as feedstock. Recycling can now be web-mediated, thanks to the several online platforms for earmarking this uncanny method of disposing of recyclable plastics. Herein the trash contributes are also paid. Personal Protective Equipments’ (PPEs) use and disposal are at an unprecedented high in the wake of COVID-19 worldwide. A recent study by researchers in Uttrakhand has provided room for manoeuvre by suggesting a method of converting single-use PPEs to biofuel, alleged to be as efficient as fossil fuels.
India’s legislative repertoire has the potential to play a prophetic role, given its strong multifarious pronged, Plastic Waste Management Rules (PWM), 2016. They are deemed quite robust to help decrease our plastic footprint for their stringency on EPR (Extended Producers Responsibility) norms which provides for ‘polluter pays’. It calls for the collection of plastic waste by its manufacturers encompassing aﬄuent companies, retailers, small shopkeepers, vendors, registered under a centralised registration system. It atones for an increase in the thickness of plastic carry bags which will hereupon increase their cost. This will help plummet proﬂigacy and negligence by consumers. Fine will be charged on non-abiding multi-layered plastic sellers, importers. This waste management mechanism will incentivise corporates to scientiﬁcally process, recycle waste, and accustom to alternatives. These protocols are also expected to be included in ‘ease of doing business’ obligations for producers. Additionally, the rules’ propensity to empower local bodies and panchayats will ensure stronger implementation and accord them with ﬁnancial autonomy and synergism thereby strengthening federal governance.
At this vantage point, India spearheaded the ‘beat plastics pollution’ campaign as a global host on World Environment Day, 2018. When placed in the sun, it ambitiously declared to eliminate single-use plastics by 2022 and was enthusiastically joined by 22 states and UTs. Under the aegis of PM-STIAC, on the lines of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the waste-to-wealth mission launched at Invest India this year is an arrow in the right trajectory to tap and deploy sumptuous technologies for a successful waste management scheme.
The scourge of microplastics is yet another sub-domain plaguing every nook and cranny of the biosphere. These ﬁne shreds of plastics either manufactured for use in cosmetics or formed from the breakdown of quotidian plastic debris pollute not just our vast seamless oceans but the most remote water bodies, posing a threat to marine species, namely, whales, turtles, and zooplanktons. This plastic menace has furthered its prevalence to litter groundwater and fraught human lives with danger by contaminating drinking water, entering our diet in the form of salt via the food chain. Advanced technologies such as membrane bioreactor, retroﬁltration, etc., are presently used to treat this wastewater. However, India has been one of the few countries pioneering research in microplastics. Haven’t fallen by the wayside hitherto, we need to put our zealous efforts, break new ground, and extract treasure out of this trash!
The concept of a regenerative circular economy, as being practiced by Unilever, is fancied as the best bet against the entrenched plastic-intensive market. The extent to which plastics can facilitate a circular economy is unparalleled. Contrary to the linear or make-use-dispose economy, this aims at making the maximum use of resources along the value chain only to reproduce new materials at the end of their life cycle. This sustainable model also offers the country economic beneﬁts, as illustrated by the EU market.
Major strides have been achieved in making biodegradable and compostable plastics. Biopolymers such as polylactide, protein blends, bagasse, and seaweed-extracted products are extensively used as bottles, cutlery, and packaging material. Worryingly, not addressing the bone of contention from the production standpoint will only leave us to face the sword of Damocles. In hindsight, the intrinsic design of manufacturing has to be ‘revolutionised’ to avert the recrudescence of plastic-waste despite protracted targets faring well. It must be sought to utilise biomass-based feedstock and staunch waste damaging the environment. These rudimentary changes can help indemnify the dwindling nation’s coffers accruing to the heavy budgetary allocations and investments the now available solutions demand.
Nevertheless, the sustainability and greenness of the recycling methods call for ﬁne-grained analysis. The evolution of obnoxious gases on incineration endangers frontline workers’ lives along with irreversible environmental damage. Even scientiﬁcally engineered landﬁlls now seem off the mark. The nascent idea of ‘sponge cities’ which overarches the use of porous construction materials is repugnant to the impervious plastic roads, where the latter also poises leaching and toxicity aftermath. The exorbitant prices of plastic houses disincline homebuyers. The much-hailed PWM Rules are only poorly implemented. Four years hence, no company has fulﬁlled its EPR obligations completely and CPCB’s report that most states are reluctant in furnishing requisite information, reﬂects forbearance, and calls for accountability. To enforce them in letter and spirit, we need to plug the loopholes, remove the ambiguity around various clauses and deﬁnitions, loosen up the regulatory burden on companies but bring under the scanner unassailable stakeholders dereliction, secure informal waste-pickers, and bulwark corporates from intervening in policymaking. The 90% of microplastics which is not recycled is a sizable part of the conundrum. Further degradation leads to nanoplastics whose traceability and treatment aggravates our woes. And yet this concerns just 40 percent of the countries. Besides, South Asian countries including India should propound a futuristic steadfast policy framework both in individual capacities and as members of transnational forums to survive the machinations of developed countries and reverberate action against dumping of garbage on its lands.
Energy-efficient and cost-effective alternatives must be encouraged and recycling methods ruminated. Users of plastics in all forms and quantities must scour their incessant consuming spree and attune to ‘use less and contribute more’. Behavioural change is the plank that can bring about this segue and make us better informed, responsible consumers. Not settling for anything beneath ‘plastic-free sunlit uplands’ should be a responsible citizenry’s modern utopian resolve.