India recycles only 8 percent of its plastic waste, reveals a new study. And if the “business as usual” continues, the recycling capacity would only marginally go up to 11 percent by 2035, with India’s plastic use expected to rise to 70.5 million tonnes (MT) by then from the current production of 24.1 MT.
The astonishing findings are part of a report titled ‘The National Circular Economy Roadmap for Reducing Plastic Waste in India’ prepared by leading research organisations, three each from India and Australia. These organisations are Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), Council of Scientific and Industrial Research-National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (CSIR-NEERI), Development Alternatives, the University of New South Wales and the University of Technology Sydney's Institute for Sustainable Futures.
“India often reports recycling rates for plastics of 60 to 70 percent, which may be true of some valuable plastics. However, the comprehensive material flow account (MFA) of plastics undertaken for this study determined a total circularity rate of 8 percent in 2019 – that is, only 2.0 Mt of the 24.1 Mt of plastic consumed is returned to another use,” reads the report.
Suneel Pandey, who was the advisor to the project from TERI, told THE WEEK, “It is shocking.” “During our interactions with recyclers, it was learnt that even if around 50 percent waste is being collected, for instance in case of Delhi, it is not reaching the recycling units. That is the reason the percentage of recycled plastic waste is really low,” he said.
He added that some portion of the collected plastic waste may be going for production of fuel but as per the waste management hierarchy, all collected waste should be sent for recycling and not for burning.
Most of India’s waste is handled either by small businesses or workers in the informal sector, fragmented and difficult to track, claims the report. This results in the sector dominated by low skilled labour, manual segregation, uncertain pay, lack of social security, weak medical and human health support, and weak environmental protections against leaching into soil, air and water.
Dr Mashhood Alam, senior research associate, BRCG research and development foundation said, “India is facing a significant challenge when it comes to managing its plastic waste, particularly the waste generated by informal sector. With plastic consumption projected to increase exponentially, the country’s waste management infrastructure, particularly in rural areas, is struggling to cope.”
The rules like extended producer responsibilities (EPRs) framed in 2016, which expects producers to ensure the waste generated by their products reaches them back, have also not helped. “Many of them are yet to register for compliance,” said Alam.
Suresh P. Singh, senior director, VeKommunicate, a public policy research and advocacy organisation said, “The country produces at least 26,000 tonnes of plastic waste daily, amounting to 3.46 MT annually, ranking behind only the US and the European Union. Despite efforts like extended producer responsibilities and a 2022 ban on single-use plastics (only covering about 10% to 15% of plastics used), compliance remains very low and the challenge continues.”
The reason could be, assesses the report, gaps that exists between policy intent and policy design, “compounded by multiple barriers at implementation level”. “These include gaps in data flow and data transparency posing a barrier for tracking and design of effective strategies, technological limitations in recycling, inadequate infrastructure for collection of products at the end-of-life, market and price barriers for secondary plastic-based products, alternatives to single-use plastics and business models that do not include the potential of the large informal recycling sector,” the report finds.
The report suggests circular economy alternative to the problem. “A circular economy would use as little virgin plastic as possible and maximize the use of recycled material,” states the report.
Pandey, who is the senior fellow and director at TERI added that one of the key findings is to improve the quality of recycling as well and make sure that the material recycles 7-8 times.
Besides a more informed policy and robust implementation, the report also highlights behavioral change at the households level in the way they purchase, use, and dispose of plastic in their everyday lives. Dr Atul N. Vaidya, director, CSIR-NEERI, wrote in the preface of the report, “Despite the regulatory mechanisms, the transition from linear to circular economy for plastics, warrant immense efforts from all stakeholders across the entire plastic value chain.”
The efforts must materialise before plastic, one of the great inventions of the 20th century, now, one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century does not become one of the greatest disasters in future.