Plastic waste management: Here is why we need to be more robust about reuse and recycle

“Plastic will be the main ingredient of all our grandchildren’s recipes” 

–Anthony.T.Hincks, Author

Plastic- a friend but a bigger foe. It has assumed the place of utmost importance in our lives since ever its inception in the early 20th century

When we think of plastic-articles like wrapping and packaging material, containers, toothbrushes, cosmetic storages strike our mind. But, these seemingly simple things have seeped deep into our survival. From medical equipment, machinery to furniture plastic proves to be durable, strong oftentimes, and most importantly, light on the pocket. 

Almost every industry now uses plastic. As we know it, all of it does not biodegrade over a couple of years. Plastic will probably outlive the whole of humanity. It makes an interesting remark, for something that isn’t even a century old yet, and it is destroying us and our environment. Hence, reusing and recycling is a fair way forward.

The lifecycle of plastics: Source: WWF Australia/ Stef Mercurio

Reuse of plastic waste

As societies become more affluent and urbanized, they become more wasteful. Rich states like Goa produce 60 grams per capita per day, while the national average accounts for 8 grams per capita per day.

Plastic reuse is often overlooked in elite societies. If equipped with proper awareness and encouragement, plastic reuse can be increased at household and community levels.  

The most basic exercise should be waste segregation. Dry waste- which does not decompose over an extended period of time, can include plastic, paper waste, fabric, leather, metal, etc. The organic or wet waste can be decomposed or used as garden manure.  

Plastic can be easily reused in innovative ways. Indian households are often seen going for reuse. But, we fail at waste segregation. 

Polytene bags used in purchasing groceries are used again in storing various items. But, articles like plastic wrapping sheets, packaging material, office stationery such as pens, markers, toys, trays, baskets, disposable cutlery, personal grooming equipment, etc end up embracing landfills. 

When the plastic ends up in garbage landfills, some of it enjoys the privilege of recycling. And the rest enters the cycle of living till eternity. 

Every plastic brush, every sanitary pad, every plastic straw that we ‘threw away’ isn’t exactly away from us. It is physically apart. But, all this plastic will enter our food chain in the form of microplastics. 

This is choking aquatic life and in turn, disrupting equilibrium in the ecosystem. 

How is Plastic Recycled?

To put it briefly, plastic is

  • Sorted by polymer type
  • Shredded
  • cleaned/ washed
  • Melted
  • Pelletized
  • Made into new products

This seems like a rather easy process to get done with. But, the huge amounts of plastic waste that fill recycling units have another story to tell. 

According to Plastic waste management rules -2016, out of 15,000 tonnes of plastic waste that gets generated, only 9000 tonnes is collected and processed. Around 6000 tonnes of waste is not processed. 

This means most of the plastic lies there without any active recycling intervention.

Plastic recycling is a myth we all choose to ignore

The growing population is only going to add to this distress of a global issue. We are made to believe that, plastic can be easily recycled hence its usage means the least harm. 

The rich woke up to harsh reality when China came up with National Sword Policy in 2018. All the refuse that was sold and shipped to China was now at a halt. Soon other south Asian nations like Indonesia and Malaysia turned away all plastic waste. This was a huge blow to small plastic waste collection and recycling units across Europe, the UK, and the USA.

The global waste management market is expected to reach $484.9 billion by 2025. 

Although India’s plastic waste problem is not as huge as developed nations, it keeps growing. 

The recycling industry is not a bankable venture in India yet, it lacks the investment required to produce long term and sustainable solutions. 

Recycling in India

Around 60% of India’s plastic produced, is recycled according to various sources. 

More than 1031 km of roads have been laid down by DRDA in Tamil Nadu using the plastic waste along with Bitumen since 2015. This was also extended to include Kerala, Karnataka, Pondicherry, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, and Uttara Khand.

Around 80% of PET bottles are recycled in India-Source : Indian Express Web

A firm in Goa, M.K.Aromatics works on processing the plastic into procuring hydrocarbons/crude oil. Many industries are coming up with processes that enable use of plastic into creating yarns used in textile making and footwear production. 

In another remarkable milestone, India is now recycling around 80% of PET bottles as of 2019. India, in this case, has beaten the US and European nations. 

What more can be done? 

With the population and societies becoming increasingly aware of this menace, many alternatives and ways to reduce plastic consumption are popping up. 

Campaigns such as Zero-waste, the sustainable and minimalistic living are amassing huge buzz. 

Although complete plastic elimination is too idealistic to be true, dependence on plastic should be rapidly minimized to save ourselves from drowning in this ocean of polymers.

Here is what I and you can do to minimise plastic production further,

  • Quit the use of plastic straws and disposable cutlery as largely as possible.
  • Embrace the consumption of seasonal produce to avoid packaged and frozen foods.
  • Switch to alternatives like menstrual cups, cloth pads, or biodegradable pads for menstrual hygiene. 
  • Instead of buying new bottled water, reusable bottles can be used.
  • Switch to shampoo bars etc for personal grooming.
  • Use cloth bags while grocery shopping.
  • Invest in experiences instead of materials. 
  • Be a wise reuser of plastic packaging. 
  • Quit running behind fast fashion trends. 

It may seem trivial when compared to the global consumer scenario. Yet, these small actions can add up quickly.

Not only do they decrease waste production, but also reduce the negative impact on health as we become more mindful of our choices. Not to forget, one small step you take may inspire many more around, to switch to a sustainable lifestyle.

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