Dealing with plastic: lessons from India

For decades, plastic has been the ultimate material – lightweight, durable and cheap. Unfortunately, this has led to global overconsumption through a disposable and single-use mentality which has turned this innovation into an environmental disaster. One million plastic drinking bottles are purchased around the world every minute, and 5 trillion plastic bags are used annually. In total, half of all plastic ever produced is designed to be used only once before being thrown away.

So, what are we doing to combat this issue and would you be surprised to discover how India is a driving force on the road to change?

In 2018, 193 sovereign states gathered in New York for the United Nations 73rd annual meeting. Here, global leaders and change-makers came together to discuss the burning issues of our time and set the global agenda for the year ahead. After deciding that beating plastic pollution was the number one priority, India was selected as the global host of World Environment Day.

Together, India and the UN Environment made the 2018 World Environment Day one of the largest and most impactful campaigns in the 45-year history of the event.

Atul Bagai is the head of the Indian Office for the United Nations Environment Programme. He says India emerged as a global leader during the Beat Plastic Pollution campaign in 2018 and through policy change, is continuing to spearhead solutions for the plastic crisis.

“I think the most important part of the World Environment Day was the focus on policy when the Prime Minister announced the elimination of single use plastic by 2022,” Bagai said.

“India has taken a leadership role – not only did they announce that but during the UN Environment Assembly in March this year in Nairobi, they also steered a resolution for [removing] single use plastic from the world.”

Developing countries like India are continuing to emerge as leaders in the plastic-free initiative. In many ways, this is because they have reached their crisis point and drastic change is the only way forward.

But Bagai warns: “It’s a global problem.”

Plastics and climate change

The plastic pollution crisis that overwhelms our oceans and is taking space on our lands is also a significant and growing threat to the world’s climate. According to a recent study by the Centre for International Environmental Law: “ … in 2019, the production and incineration of plastic will produce more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases.” This is equal to the emissions from 189 coal power plants.

Global plastic impact – statistics by WWF and UN Environment. Source: Indiana Lysaght.

For decades, Australia has been shipping plastic waste to be recycled in developing countries such as China, Malaysia and India. Last year China enforced an import ban on 24 types of recyclable materials, including plastics. This means China won’t be buying plastics unless they are 99.5 per-cent uncontaminated.

This shook the global recycling industry. For 25 years, China had imported 45 per cent of all plastic waste but China’s change of heart put pressure on other south-east Asian countries to take in plastic waste from the developed world, including India. As a result, India’s plastic imports increased from 12,000 tonnes in 2016-17, to 48,000 tonnes in the 2017-18 financial year. This included 13 per cent of Australia’s plastic waste.

Plastic waste piling up in Indian communities. Source: Indiana Lysaght.

Overwhelmed by their own piling garbage, India has now followed China’s lead by completely banning the importation of solid plastic waste into the country. They’ve refocused their attention towards domestic waste and its recycling capacity.

India is not alone.

Thailand has temporarily prohibited plastic waste imports and says a full ban will be in place by 2021. Malaysia has revoked import permits from 114 countries. Vietnam is working towards no plastic imports by 2025 and is no longer issuing new licences. Taiwan has declared they will only import single source plastic waste.

For every nation that reduces their import capacity, Australia loses yet another major recycling outlet.

So, what now?

The latest National Waste Report by Australian consultants Blue Environment assessed waste produced and exported for recycling in the 2017-18 financial year on behalf of the Federal Government. It reports that plastic is Australia’s highest waste export at 70 per cent. Over the last 12 years Australia has shown an increasing trend of plastic exports. The nations that allowed for this increasing trend are now closing their borders.

Not only are exports of plastic waste becoming increasingly difficult, but overall Australia is only recycling 12 per cent of its total plastic production. The other 87 per cent ends up in landfill, with 1 per cent converted to energy.

The report states: “Australia’s plastic recycling rates could be improved by greater onshore investment in plastic sorting and cleaning equipment to enable onshore or offshore recycling.”

Additionally, modelling by the Centre for International Economics in 2017 suggests that a 5 per cent increase in the recycling rate could add $1 billion to Australia’s GDP.

Looking towards the developing world

Aravindhan Nagarajan is a PHD Candidate at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, India. His research focuses sustainability surrounding plastic production and recycling. He says there is global sentiment that plastic production needs to be slowed drastically, however it is the developing world that is implementing the policies required.

“If you actually look at legislation, so that’s one of the things that I did, across the world, the developing world has put in far more stringent regulations on plastic than the developed world has,” Nagarajan said.

Signs across Mumbai remind citizens of India’s environmental goals.
Photo: Indiana Lysaght.

He goes on to explain how the economics of recycling and waste management help India stay steps ahead of Australia.

“The very fact that there is a general lack of infrastructure and funding, you would have waste management losing out in priority to various other imperatives,” he said.

“In that sense, it’s probably a trap of the developed world, where in the absence of paying attention to infrastructure and capacities for waste management and recycling, or not adding waste from industry which is a feature of waste management, it is something which we could then avoid and be aware of.”

India: a case study in single use plastics

According to a 2019 study by the World Wildlife Fund, nearly half of all plastics tossed into landfill, our oceans and littering our world were created after 2000, and over 75 per cent is already declared waste. This is due to the ‘use and throw’ single use mentally adopted by producers, distributors and consumers.

Every day single-use plastics. Source: UN Environment Report 2018.

Since India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the pledge for a plastic- free India by 2022, nearly every state has implemented a ban on single-use plastics. Maharashtra (Mumbai’s state) led this movement on March 23th 2018 when the state’s governing civic body, the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (BMC), announced the ban on the manufacturing, usage, transport, distribution, sale, storage and import of plastic bags below 50 microns.

Reminders of the single-use ban across highways in Mumbai, Maharashtra.
Source: Indiana Lysaght.

BMC Officer on Special Duty Anand Jagtap has worked in the solid waste management department in Mumbai for the last 22 years. He said one of the biggest problems the BMC faced was how to avoid and stop the use of the plastic carry bag due to the inability to recycle the plastic from which they are made.

“The issue with carry bags which have very small microns is that they cannot be used for any other purpose,” he said.

“The utility of the reuse of the carry bag is very minimal because it doesn’t have much economic value. Other plastic can be used, reused and it can be recycled.”

Penalties for using single-use plastics in Maharashtra range from 5,000 rupees ($104 AUD) for first-time offenders to 25,000 rupees ($520 AUD) and the threat of three months’ jail for those caught repeatedly using single-use plastics.

These consequences don’t exist in Australia.

Victoria, which uses 1 billion plastic bags annually, has only just announced the foreshadowing of a single-use plastic ban, set for November this year. New South Wales has not yet submitted a proposal.

The penalties are working. Jagtap says large corporate houses in Mumbai have stopped distributing plastic bags and are seeking alternatives such as cloth bags which are becoming standardised through supermarkets and malls.

“There is a certain level of awareness now, an increased awareness amongst the corporate bodies – they understand the impact of the [plastic] carry bags and they are discouraging their use,” he said.

“They are coming up with alternatives, a standard type of alternative.”

Despite bans and levies being implemented in India which are drastically improving consumer behaviour, Jagtap says the responsibility needs to be rest with manufacturers.

Extended producer responsibility

Extended producer responsibility was introduced into India’s Plastic Waste Management Rules in 2016. EPR gives the producer the responsibility for seeking environmentally sound management of their plastic product. The rules state that the producer must work with their urban development departments towards effective methods of waste management collection. This takes a ‘cradle to grave’ approach to plastic production, shifting responsibility for waste collection from the local government onto private industry and their customers, thereby internalising the costs of waste management into the product price. Consumers will ultimately pay for waste management collection at the time of purchase, but the physical, financial and environmental responsibility of a product’s lifecycle is on the producer. It may take the form of a reuse, buy-back or recycling program.

Compared to Australia, India’s EPR rules are advanced. The Australian Council of Recycling stated in Blue Environment’s report: ‘it’s especially needed to enhance our comparatively immature approach to producer responsibility schemes where the unmitigated risks and unclaimed opportunities are growing.’

A new way forward

New technologies are beginning to emerge out of India, providing innovative ways to use otherwise unrecyclable plastics. The CSIR-Indian Institute of Petroleum developed a method of converting plastic waste made from polyethylene and polypropylene to gasoline and diesel. These are derived from products such as shampoo bottles and plastic carry bags which account for 60 per cent of plastic waste. The process is capable of converting 1kg of plastic to 750ml of automotive grade gasoline. Not only does the quality meet Euro III standards, but IIP also states that a vehicle using this fuel could run for up to 2km longer per litre.


India has been a pioneer in building roads from waste. In 2006, Dr R Vasudevan, a chemistry professor and the dean at Thiagarajar College of Engineering discovered the perfect mix of substances to create durable, safe and cost-effective roads. The raw materials consist of plastic bags, plastic cups and foam packaging – unrecyclable and non-biodegradable waste that would otherwise end up in landfill. The process was patented in 2006.

In 2015 the Indian Government announced plastic roads would be the default method for most city streets. Any urban area with more than 500,000 people is required to construct roads using waste plastics. Nearly 34,000km of plastic road has been laid.

Working towards a clean and green India. Source: Indiana Lysaght.

Australia has a long way to go in the waste management and recycling sector. It is an easy default position to assume that we are more progressive in this space than the developing world, but India is a great case example of breaking this assumption. With the technologies and advances of the western world at our disposal, it’s time to make a change within our own lives, and nationwide.

Nagarajan puts this perfectly. “All the efficiencies and resources that you’ve done to let’s say monitor emissions or pollution control levels, you have that wealth of literature, tools, techniques available to you and maybe it’s time that we simply use it for specific types of waste. It’s not unfeasible, it’s not impractical. It’s also a question of your priorities.”

Categories: Environment

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