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World Environment Day 2021: Plastics – A wonder to use but a nightmare in the refuse

air populationMLPs consist of a layer of plastic coated onto other materials such as foil or paper.

By Rahul Chaudhary, 

When Alexander Parkes presented the world’s first man-made plastic at the London International Exhibition in 1862, little did he know how significant his invention would go on to be.

The plastic industry has grown by leaps and bounds since the time Mr. Parkes developed ‘Parkesine’ all those years ago. From automobiles to prosthetics, the usage of plastics is growing with every passing day and it is easy to see that these polymers are here to stay.

Unfortunately, that last statement is too literal for our own good. The issue with plastics is that most of them are not biodegradable and are estimated to take several hundred years to decompose completely in the environment. Plastic waste is a growing concern all over the world and India is no different.

According to a report released by the Central Pollution Control Board for the 2018-2019 period, India generates 3.3 million metric tonnes of plastic waste per year. To give that figure a better perspective, that’s the equivalent weight of approximately 126 Howrah Bridges, but in plastic trash!

Although every responsible citizen will go out of their way to throw their plastic waste into the recycling bin, the unfortunate truth is that it is making little or no difference to addressing the challenge. According to various studies, only a paltry 9 percent of all plastic waste actually gets recycled. And the rest finds its way into landfills, oceans and some of it even makes its way into the food we eat.

In India, plastic recycling is estimated to become a 53.72-billion-dollar industry by the end of 2023. However, as of today, the recycling system in the country remains largely unorganized. At the ground level, rag pickers collect the plastic waste and then sell it to dealers who then proceed to sell it to recyclers. The segregation at every step is very rudimentary at best, and the waste that reaches the recyclers is of all types, sizes, colours, and contamination levels. Improving this whole system to become more efficient would involve such high capital that it would make the whole recycling process economically unviable.

Then, there are those plastics that cannot be recycled. Multi-layer plastics (MLP) are one such type that has tremendous applications as a packaging material in a myriad number of industries. MLPs consist of a layer of plastic coated onto other materials such as foil or paper. These plastics cannot be reclaimed easily and whatever processes that do exist to recycle them are expensive and extremely polluting to the environment.

So how do we put an end to this issue that is currently snowballing out of proportion? The most obvious, yet extremely demanding solution would be to circumvent the usage of plastics as much as is possible. In fact, the Government of India had declared that India would be free of single-use plastics by 2022. Although this deadline has since been withdrawn, people are beginning to take cognizance of the fact that plastic waste is wreaking havoc with the planet and recycled paper and cloth bags are gaining momentum in India as a replacement for single-use plastic bags.

Mandatory segregation at source is another aspect that can be looked at. This would need the active participation of the citizens and the local administration alike, which would go a long way in the effective sorting of plastic waste before it reaches the recyclers, thus reducing this burden on them by a large margin.

As for tackling the challenge of dealing with plastics that cannot be recycled, a value chain needs to be created even for these types to help prevent them from being dumped into the environment

Many innovators have stepped up to the fore, determined to find solutions to the growing concern of dealing with plastic waste. Firms are researching technologies that utilize plastic waste as a raw material for the resurfacing of roads. Some are repurposing unrecyclable plastic waste into sheets that would work as substitutes for plywood and roofing panels. Others are dabbling with extracting fuel from plastics through a process called pyrolysis for use in automobiles. These efforts seem promising but have miles to go before they become sizeable enough to effectively tackle the problem of plastic waste head-on.

Although India is currently placed 94th with regard to per capita production of plastic waste, our appetite for this wonderfully convenient – but dangerously resilient – material is growing and it is time to nip it in the bud. Innovation, incentives, and smart policies will go a long way in ridding India of its plastic waste in an ecologically friendly and economically lucrative manner.

(The author is Director, Ricron Panels. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)

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