Plastic menace: Problem and its solution

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Ironically, only two years ago, this award was given to a young lawyer from Mumbai – Afroz Shah – for the cleanliness work done by him and his team to transform the Versova beach, in other words, to remove largely plastic waste washed into the sea and accumulated near the coast.

It is said that in 70 years since plastic has been around, humans have created 9 billion tons of it – most of which still exists. Question is whether the existing strategies for tackling plastic pollution – viz. reusing and recycling – are really making any difference? Is there a solution to the plastic menace? Or should use of all type of plastics be banned, forever?

Apparently, we are in for harsher laws related to use of plastics. This was evident from a speech given by a Union Minister in his speech at a conference on Plastic Recycling and Waste Management organized by Indian Centre for the Plastic in the Environment (ICPE). The minister said that scaling of recycling is a laudable exercise but more needs to be done. In a clear warning, he said that the industry will have to come forward with some concrete steps or there will be a mass movement.

Those in the know say that India consumes only 10% of per capita plastic in comparison to the USA. Use of plastic in developed countries like Japan and Sweden is several times more than it is in India. These countries have not gone about banning plastics from coming to the markets. What then is the right approach to use of plastic?

Experts in petrochemicals like Avinash Verma of Indian Oil feel that the solution does not lie in removing use of plastic. Today, plastic is being used in far more industries than we can think of. Be it spaceships or aeroplanes, cars and trains, household items or office stationery, hospital equipments like X-Ray machines or even the daily use syringes – all have plastic component in them. Says he: “Plastic is a wonder material. This product offers much more solution in terms of needs of Indian society and its usage will continue to grow.” However, he agrees that the policy makers are alarmed, public is anguished and stricter rules are coming. Industry need to come forward and develop India specific solutions towards plastic recycling and implement it.

Plastic recycling refers to the process of recovering waste or scrap plastic and reprocessing it into useful product. Due to the fact that plastic is non-biodegradable, it is essential that it is recycled as part of the global efforts to reducing plastic and other solid waste in the environment.

Attempt by ICPE is to create a bridge between industry and consumers and make both of them more aware of their responsibilities. The key is the segregation at its source and publics have to be made aware of it, feels KG Ramanathan, President-ICPE. He asks why the problem has not reached such alarming proportions in countries where usage of plastics is many times more. Answer lies in awareness and the people’s willingness to contribute towards making society cleaner and healthier for future generations.

Even in the case of UN award-winning Afroz Shah who is said to have cleared 4000 tons of garbage from the Versova beach in Mumbai in one year, and whose attempts drew attention of Bollywood personalities as well as Mumbai municipality – all coming forward in his support – the efforts would have born no fruit if there were no solutions for recycling this accumulated 4000 tons of waste.

Eventually, creating public awareness and not strict laws towards banning plastic is the key. It is the public who has to get ready to segregate the waste suitably. If efforts of one person can bring such phenomenal results, what if the awareness drive reaches our villages and smaller cities!

For an ultra-durable material like plastic, the goal of the system was to get public to use less by reusing what they had already made. Today, new innovative ways of re-circulating our plastic are being road-tested, literally in this case.

Use of plastics in building rural roads has already begun in South India. Recycled plastic pellets are mixed into asphalt to make longer-lasting and cheaper roads.

In the recent past, several waste-to-wealth mechanisms have been adopted to recycle and reuse plastic in innovative ways.  One such trend has been the conversion of plastic waste to fuel and making it usable for both domestic and industrial purposes. India generates over 15000 tons of plastic everyday and the prospects of conversation to fuel are abundant provided there is sufficient infrastructure available. It is here that we have to focus rather than finding solutions that are not viable.

Countries like Japan, Germany and the Unites States have already implemented the plastic to fuel conversion process with much success. These three have also been successful in creating business models out of the conversion process, resulting in the conversion model becoming a profitable business one. About 75 per cent of plastic waste in the US ends up in landfills, out of which only 10% is being recycled while the rest is combusted for energy. In this regard ICPE has already conducted an intensive study with ACC way back in 2008 on thermal treatment of plastics and found it is entirely safe.

Ulhas Parlikar, ex deputy head – Geocycle India – of ACC gives another altogether different solution to the menace caused by plastic. He talks of co-processing solutions as vital for zero waste future. Says he: “Expired chocolates and lipsticks, stale food items and several other products which do not have any residual value are being utilized in cement plants extensively. We can use co-processing to utilize the resource value of such waste materials including plastics. It is here that the Government’s focus must lie, towards helping or even luring the cement manufacturers with small sops to go for co-processing.”

Single-use carry bags of course need to be banned. And in this regard the resolve of PM Narendra Modi is commendable. We must use this as a base to plan and execute ways and means to recycle plastic or use its residual value to our advantage rather than banning it altogether, which is not possible at all. Use of plastic in daily lives is bound to increase and solutions will come only if sense prevails among the publics!

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