ENCASH THE TRASH
PLASTIC – FROM WASTE TO WEALTH
We are in the midst of a global pandemic, a plastic pandemic that started in the early 1950s. Without doubt these polymers have had a huge impact on our lifestyle and culture and continue to do so.
Being extremely diverse in their physical and chemical characteristics, plastics are ideal for manufacturing a wide array of consumer and industrial goods.
These low density polymers are light weight, durable, corrosion resistant, have excellent thermal and electrical insulation properties and most importantly, inexpensive and have hence found application in almost every sector of the global economy.
But the world is choking on plastics. In the last decade we have produced more than that of the whole of the previous century. Historically, production increased exponentially from 1.8 million tons in 1950 to 465 million tons in 2018. In fact, production is forecast to more than double by 2050 according to a report published by the American Chemistry Council in 2019.
The production, consumption and distribution of this miracle material continues to rise owing to the population growth rate, rapid industrialization, over consumption and increasing purchasing power of individuals in developed and developing countries alike. This in turn has led to a situation where our land, oceans and air are being indiscriminately terrorized by garbage posing a grave threat to our environment.
Some researchers suggest that by 2050 there could be more plastic than fish in the oceans by weight.
Plastic wastes are trashed into the environment where they endure for long durations due to the fact that they are non-biodegradable. Landfills are over-flowing dreadfully affecting the health, productivity and cleanliness of communities.
Cities are grappling with the problems of high volumes of waste, disposal technologies and the cost involved. Combating the menace of plastic waste pollution has become a global challenge. Like governments around the world, The Government of India is massively funding urban solid waste management.
However plastics are not the problem, it’s what we do; or rather don’t, with them. Looking through the climate lens, the mantra for efficient management of waste involves reducing consumption, reusing what we can, upcycling products, recycling and minimizing the amount of waste reaching landfills.
In a world limited by finite resources it proves costly to be discarding valuable waste. ‘Waste is merely raw material in the wrong place’, Frederick A Talbot famously said in his book, Millions from Waste. Plastic waste is everywhere, a sitting wealth waiting to be tapped. It is possible to convert it into resources by changing our attitude towards it.
The latent issue here is that waste in itself can never be wealth; otherwise generators will never discard it. But by adding value and moving it from a platform of exhausted utility to a desirable level for generation of wealth thereof, is the core idea of waste to wealth economy. It also ensures new lease of life to India’s sustainable journey.
The classic industrial production design involves taking resources, making products and disposing the consumed end materials after their period of utilization. This in turn leads to resource depletion and high environmental impact.
Transition from this linear model to a more circular model, where the value of products, materials and resources is maintained within the economy for as long as possible and the generation of waste is minimized is the need of the hour.
While addressing environmental issues it also accelerates the economic engine and aids in wealth creation.
Redesigning and reengineering of waste into useful raw materials encompasses the core concept of a circular economy.
Plastic waste contributes to a meaningful amount of refuge created by man. From the environmental and socioeconomic standpoints, the best answer to managing this problem is waste recycling. Being versatile, plastics are a valuable asset to a green recycling program and crucial building blocks of a green economy. Therefore, an urgent need for repurposing plastic waste, identifying recycling techniques and procurement of necessary tools is fundamental.
Composite materials made from plastic waste have resource and energy efficiency. Plastics are often recycled to make clothes, carpet, containers, bottles, pipes, films, grocery bags, etc to name a few.
Reclaimed or repurposed plastics can be obtained by reengineering post-consumer and post-industrial wastes.
Recycling companies collect millions of tons of plastic waste and process them into plastic pellets, filaments and bales which in turn are used as raw materials for manufacturing end products.
Plastics can be used as either additives or re-enforcements in construction industries. Incorporation of pulverized plastic waste materials into concrete mixture increases the mechanical strength of the cement.
The mixture of plastic waste in cement matrix tiles improves the physical strength of the produced tiles.
Addition of shredded plastic to bitumen during construction of roads improves binding, provides higher resistance and reduces moisture retention thereby making it more durable than conventional roads.
The global energy market is witnessing a shift towards waste to energy technologies due to growing energy demands. The rapid depletion of conventional sources of energy and concerns over environmental pollution has only accelerated this change further.
A waste-to-energy plant is an ecological and cost-effective way of energy recovery by converting waste into electricity or heat.
The energy hence produced can help stabilize the price of electricity, meet the demand of communities and decrease our reliance on fossil fuels.
The largest market for plastics today is packaging industries which account for nearly half of all plastic waste generated globally; annually billions of dollars are spent on production of these materials that are intended to be discarded within minutes after purchase. Repurposing can help resolve these issues.
While it is commonly assumed that textiles derived from natural materials like cotton and silk are far more ecofriendly than those by synthetic materials, this notion appears to be inaccurate in the case of polyester fiber. Plastics are more durable and cheap.
Creative repurposing of plastic waste by people to make intricate art forms, sculptures, beads, baskets etc has cultural value as traditional designs are used for expression of art to draw public attention and to create awareness.
However the main challenges faced today are waste management and material recovery as a result of high population density in countries like our own. The biggest issue in tackling waste segregation in India is the lack of awareness among waste generators and improper waste disposable systems. Our ‘throwaway culture’ has only made matters worse.
The global campaign to gain control over plastic waste is one of the fastest growing environmental causes ever mounted.
With climate change being the buzzword today, the need to reduce atmospheric emissions has become all important. Therefore collective action by public and private enterprises as well as individuals needs to be taken for framing uniform policies, effective implementation and sincere follow up of the same.
The most heartening development in recent times is the explosion of attention and efforts to address the problem by people all over the world. Encouragingly, several promising initiatives are under way. Conversation around plastic waste is changing from aversion to repurposing.
Governments are undertaking several ambitious programs to reduce our plastic footprint.
Several countries have banned single use plastics, plastic straws, bags, etc. and have imposed stringent laws and steep fines on violators.
Development of novel technologies, scientific innovation, establishment of recycling units, international treaties, extensive research and development, individual actions and most importantly a roadmap to achieving zero waste goals can help turn the tide on plastic waste.
Mounting pressure by concerned public is forcing corporates to rethink industrial designs and to shift to more circular closed-loop models as it is essential to provide new avenues of growth. A regenerative circular economic pattern creates enormous possibilities in its wake. It generates employment and an impetus to wealth creation while being environmentally sustainable. The net welfare gain from economic activities can improve the quality of life of all stakeholders along the value chain.
Several multinational companies around the world like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Unilever, are responding to strong public opinion by employing alternate strategies and endorsing business plans to improve recyclability.
Globally around 18 % of plastic is recycled. India has a recycling rate of about 47- 60%. In fact, a major portion of the plastic bags, approximately 60-80% of the plastic waste generated is collected and segregated for recycling. For every ton of plastic that’s recycled, reports estimate that seven yards of landfill space is saved.
The Government of India has taken up some bold initiatives like the Swachh Bharat Mission for a clean India, Waste to Wealth program by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, framing guidelines for waste generators issued by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, ban on single use plastics, amongst several others to help invigorate and fight the plastic trash movement.
Plastics have made modern life possible. One could either see a truck load of waste or a truck load of opportunities. After all waste plastic is still plastic. One small step in the right direction can go a long way in saving our planet.