Plastic Waste Management in India: Challenges and the Path to a Circular Economy

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Since its invention in 1907, plastic has become an integral part of our daily lives due to its convenience and cost-effectiveness. It is used across multiple sectors, including packaging, building, construction, transportation, industrial machinery, and health, among others. However, the lack of sustainable plastic waste management (PWM) poses a serious threat to our environment and natural ecosystem globally. From 1950 to 2015, around 8.3 billion metric tonnes (BMTs) of plastic had been produced globally, and of this, 80 percent – 6.3 BMTs – was accounted as plastic waste. Of these 6.3 BMTs of waste, only 9 percent was recycled, 12 percent incinerated, and 79 percent dumped into landfills, oceans, or water bodies.

Single-use Plastic and Its Impact

Single-use plastic, often referred to as disposable plastic, is commonly used for plastic packaging and includes items intended to be used only once before they are thrown away or recycled. These include grocery bags, food packaging, bottles, straws, containers, cups, and cutlery. While it is cheap, strong, and hygienic for transporting goods, it is the most difficult to recycle. The environmental, health, and economic impacts of single-use plastic are significant. It takes thousands of years to decompose, leading to soil and water contamination and posing hazards for land, water, and wildlife. Open burning of plastic waste leads to air pollution and littering at open spaces results in welfare losses accounting for the indirect social cost of plastic pollution.

Plastic Waste Recycling

In India, the Plastic Waste Management Rules of 2016, 2018, and the recently announced amendment of 2021 focus on single-use plastics. The rules detail the various categories of plastics and recommend recycling methods based on the type of plastic polymer used. However, the plastic in polystyrene (PS) and other categories are non-recyclable and a threat to the environment. Various manufacturing industries across the globe produce 400 million tonnes of plastic waste per year, with the packaging industry being the largest contributor.

The Circular Economy Approach

The circular economy is defined as an alternative to the linear ‘take-make-waste’ approach. It seeks to design out waste, regenerate natural ecosystems, and keep materials and products in use for as long as possible. The circular economy entails new business models, strategies, and innovations focusing on the optimization of processes and products. Adopting a circular economy results in extended life of products and assets by recycling/upcycling end-of-life products and closing the loop.

To manage single-use plastic waste, an integrated model that focuses on minimizing plastic waste generation, improving waste management through improved collection services, a recycling industry, and ensuring the safe disposal of waste to controlled (scientific) landfills is required. This model should adopt a circular economy approach that looks at recycling good quality plastics and different ways of minimizing the production and usage of single-use plastic including plastic bags and styrofoam.

In conclusion, while plastic waste management poses significant challenges in India, adopting a circular economy framework can offer a path towards sustainable solutions. By reducing, reusing, recycling, and recovering plastic waste, we can minimize environmental impact and make the most of this versatile material.