Plastic recycling: the whys and the hows

According to UN estimates, the world consumes 500 billion plastic bags annually. 50% of the total plastic consumed is single-use or disposable items such as grocery bags, cutlery and straws. According to a study conducted by the Indian Environment Ministry, India generates 25,940 tonnes of plastic waste a day.

With our coastlines and waterbodies choking, bearing the brunt of this assault, it’s time to look at the monstrosity that is plastic in our reality today. Despite being aware of the idea of recycling and reusing plastic, a whopping 70% of all plastic consumed is discarded as waste. And this is the start of the problem with plastic waste. Where does it go, once discarded? To oversaturated landfills, into the earth via leaching into ground water, down the drain into our sanitation systems, through waterways and eventually the ocean. A lot is indiscriminately burnt, adding to green gas and carbon emissions entering our atmosphere. These systems are all intrinsically connected back to us. Whether in the form of the water we eventually drink, the seafood we consume, the soil that grows our food, and the air we breathe.

Up to 12 million tonnes of plastic is entering our oceans every year – that’s a rubbish truck full every minute. There are 500 times more pieces of microplastic in the sea than there are stars in our galaxy and by 2050 it is estimated there will be more plastic than fish. Mismanaged solid waste is front and centre of many debates and discussions around the environment and the way forward. It is interesting to note our contribution to this as a country.

On the one hand, countries like China are taking drastic steps like banning plastic waste coming in for recycling from the UK. In addition to recycling its own waste, Norway also imports waste from other countries to pump into its waste-to-energy incineration plants. In India, 17 states and union territories now have officially banned the manufacture, sale and use of plastic carry bags. However, ironically, this ban somehow excludes the use of polythene bags, making the entire exercise myopic and counter-productive.

Without looking at how we use plastic in our daily lives, the touchpoints at which single use plastic enters and exits our lives it would be impossible to create the right kind of policies to curb the growing issue of plastic waste management. A measly 9% of the plastic produced over the last 79 years is recycled. It is rather self-evident that given the durability and multi-purpose nature of plastic, reusing and recycling it in a way that can optimise it’s lifespan is a logical way to begin combatting this growing menace.

With governments banning the manufacture and sale of single-use plastic, the hope is that citizens are encouraged to examine their relationship with plastic, starting from within their homes. Reusing single use plastic bottles and bags is an easy and effective place to start. Next, examine where it would be good to transition to alternative storage like glass, steel or wood, instead of plastic. Also, look at the largest sources of plastic to enter our homes. Is it the takeout containers for the food you order? Or the groceries that are delivered to your doorstep? A little bit of thought extended to why and how these actions impact the trash one generates might make us aware and curb the extent to which we depend on them.

At a policy level, governments must create and sustain pressure on industries to seriously curtail and rethink the amount of single use plastic they generate, the amount of plastic waste in their production as well, and the ways in which they are willing to reintegrate and recycle plastic back into their systems.

Recycled plastic is a highly malleable source of raw material that can be useful to any industry willing to add it into their manufacturing process. This will significantly reduce the burden currently on our environment and landfills. Further, recycling plastic consumes far less energy than producing new plastic does. This is not only energetically economical, but also means that the energy saved can then be routed into another channel of production. If industries were forced to think about this, and consciously walk the talk, consumers would be forced to comply and follow. After all, there was a time before the push to use plastic from manufacturers the world over tipped the balance and has us hurtling to a point of no return. It is time to revisit other forms of packaging. To look at the impact of the waste we generate at multiple levels. To reimagine what we do with the plastic we generate, consume and thoughtlessly throw away.