Plastic is both a miracle and a curse for the modern world; miracle owing to its far-reaching usage and its strength and adaptability and curse because of the fact that those long polymer chains that make plastic so indispensable also render it nondegradable. Truly the world is full of ironies; take the case of single-use plastics, for example, we use single-use plastics for maybe a few hours at most but they remain on the earth’s surface for hundreds of years before disappearing from the face of the planet.
What are single-use plastics?
Single-use plastics are those kinds of plastics that are disposable in nature and as the name suggests are used only once before throwing it away for recycling or for filling up landfills and oceans. Straws, plastic cups, almost all food packaging, disposable water bottles, plastic sachets, coffee stirrers are some of the common items that fall under the category of single-use plastics.
What are the various plastic types that can be recycled?
Broadly, there are seven plastic types that can be recycled and used back in the plastic chain.
Can single-use plastics be recycled?
Recycling single-use plastics is an extremely labour-intensive process and, in many cases, they cannot be recycled owing to some fundamental, feasibility and technical difficulties. That means even if we ramp us the recycling industry and improve the supply chain management so that recycled plastic pellets effectively enter the chain of raw materials to plastic production factories, it is just not economically feasible.
The problem at hand
Now coming to the question at hand, it is difficult for India to get rid of single-use plastics by 2022. During the year-long period of 2016-2017, India generated about 1.6 million tonnes of plastic waste and during the same time, India consumed around 16.5 million tonnes of plastic. Now the mind-boggling fact is that out of this consumption, a staggering 43 percentage constitutes single-use plastics.
Although India’s per capita usage is nearly not as much, if one combines this per capita usage with the population the country has, things begin to pile up really bad.
Will banning single-use plastics help?
Plastic is linked to every major industry not only in India but the entire world and curbing single-use plastics can impact the growth rate of these industries by a massive margin. The plastic industry in India is sprawling with an estimated annual revenue worth of Rs. 3.5 lakh crore in the financial year of 2019. There are an estimated 50,000 units associated with the sector with the majority of them belonging from the small to medium enterprise range. Besides, India earns a significant amount of revenue by importing plastics and raw materials related to plastics.
Supply Chain Management problem
Recycling single-use plastic requires a solid infrastructure, and coupled with a robust supply chain management would help the environment get rid of unnecessary plastic waste. As seen from the picture above, the percentage of recycling in India is quite high but it is largely driven by the poor.
In fact, most of the rag pickers are young who have sacrificed their childhood and education and taken up rag picking. Government intervention is the need of the hour and through funds, more and more eco-friendly start-ups need to be encouraged to tackle the problem head-on.
What can be done
Recycling should be the government’s first goal as it provides the best sustainable option for industries and people to continue using single-use plastic without its disastrous consequences.
Seeing the challenges that India face, operation and supply chain wise, India can adopt some of the measures that are already in full swing in other countries-
- Projects similar to the Ocean Cleanup Project
The Ocean Cleanup Project was started by a very young Dutch inventor, Boyan Slat in the year 2014 and it leverages technology to clean up waste from the oceans. Recently the company launched their autonomous interceptors that work with the help of solar energy to collect trash from rivers even before they enter into the world’s oceans.
- Anaerobic Decomposition of Plastic to yield fuel
Plastic can be converted back into its initial form (oils) through the process of anaerobic decomposition, i.e. heating of plastic in a vacuum environment, which is termed as plastic pyrolysis. Through the process, plastic transforms depolymerization to gasification and finally condensation. The final product releases less carbon monoxide and pollutants into the atmosphere when mixed with conventional fuel to run automobiles. Recently, Satish Kumar from Hyderabad has been operating a plant that pyrolyzes plastic into fuel.
- Burning plastic to give energy
One of the more unconventional methods to dispose off plastic waste is to burn it to release energy and then use that energy to generate electricity to either power or warm houses during the harsh winters. Trash consisting of mostly plastic wastes replace the traditional coal or gas in thermal power stations. Sweden has been using this method for many years now and now it imports trash from other countries for this very purpose. The energy generated is used to power the plants as well and to power the various filters that make sure that no harmful gases get released into the atmosphere during the entire process.
According to me, it is extremely difficult to be free of single-use plastics by 2022 because of the intricacies involved and the deep and far-reaching implications of the plastic industry on other major industries. More important than the question of “Can: India be single plastic free, is the question of “Should” India be single plastic-free. Sustainability is the need of the hour and through recycling and other methods discussed here, stability can be maintained so that a strong feedback loop forms that directly feeds into the primary supply chain.