This is a guest post by Dr. Seetha Coleman-Kammula, Simply Sustain LLC (www.simplysustain.com)
Can we live without plastic packaging? “It is impractical and undesirable to impose a blanket ban on the use of plastic all over the country. The real challenge is to improve municipal solid waste management systems”, said Mr. Jairam Ramesh, Minister of Environment and Forests as he released new rules for the management of plastics waste. Here are my thoughts on why the new rules might be effective and what else is needed to make plastics waste management work well. Both are based on economic arguments.
The new rules require that manufacturers make plastic bags thicker and in white or only in colors set by the Bureau of Standards. You might wonder how this will prevent the blight of plastic bags everywhere. The thinner bags blow around, spread easily, cost very little so vendors give them away for nothing, and most importantly, people do not feel guilty about throwing them away and littering, because they weigh almost nothing. So making the bags thicker could improve their chances of a next life, maybe even a higher next life, instead of dying a very slow death on streets and in gutters. Thicker bags will fetch more per bag for the rag pickers, so there will be an incentive to collect them. Requiring that the plastic bags be white or a single color will increase their chances of being recycled into gizmos (or articles) of higher market value because a mix of multi-colored bags can only be made into lower value black gizmos. Consumers must understand that unlike with cotton, the colors in plastics can not be washed out. Recyclers have to add carbon black to mask all the colors and make a uniformly-colored article. Requiring that the bags be thicker and in one color constitutes what we call “design for next life” a principle that is good for the planet, for people and for the economy. There are plenty other such examples, if you do think of any, would love to hear back from you.
Now for what is missing. The rules hold municipalities responsible for setting up waste management systems and for performing associated functions, such as collection, storage, segregation, transport, processing and disposal of plastic waste in a way that does not damage the environment. The rules also require the setting up of centers for the collection of plastic waste involving MNCs such as Hindustan Unilever, Coca Cola etc and ensuring channelization of waste to recyclers.
Even if municipalities want to do all these things, which many Indians do not believe, they will have a hard time to make the economics work. Our research shows that in countries where good solid waste management including recycling exists there are very high gate fees for disposal in landfills. This in turn raises the gate fees for other disposals such as cement kilns and incinerators. Waste that has no cost of disposal will never come down nor will it be sorted much for recycling. In the Netherlands where land is scarce, recycling rates – be it through mechanical recycling to other plastic articles or thermal recycling to energy and fuel are high. In Poland, where land is abundant and landfilling costs are low most waste goes to landfills. This pattern also applies to different states in the US. High gate fees force industry and communities to reduce, reuse and recycle and finance the building of infrastructure for collection, sorting, segregation etc.
Lastly, if there is one thing that you can do to help matters, that is segregate all plastics waste in dry waste bins separate from wet waste in your homes. This first step is essential for making the economics of the rest of the steps work. Whoever is collecting the waste can pick out the plastic articles that can be mechanically recycled meaning melted and re-shaped into other gizmos and sell these articles. If this stream is clean and dry, they will get a better price and their costs of sorting will be lower. The rest of the plastic packaging such as foil and film packaging used for potato chips, biscuits and sachets and thin plastic shopping bags can be thermally recycled, meaning converted into diesel or gasoline in pyrolysis units or used directly as fuel in cement kilns. Our Life Cycle Analysis work shows that for this particular plastics waste stream thermal recycling is the best option as it recovers its high calorific content and that mechanical recycling is not environmentally prudent. . However, there is a caveat; to make the economics work, the plastics waste must not be contaminated with paper, food or vegetables as this lowers the average calorific value. Today cement kilns will not pay much for this stream, in fact they will charge for it to be fed into their plants as it adds costs to their processes. Most importantly, segregation makes rag-pickers’ work more hygienic and dignified and keeps the premises free of vermin. Lastly, dry and wet segregation followed by collection of the wet waste could lead to production of good quality compost, a much-needed and highly-valued product
So embrace Yes In My Back Yard – YIMBY and increase the value in your waste.
About the author
Dr. Seetha Coleman-Kammula is one of the founding partners of Simply Sustain, a management consulting company dedicated to making organizations profitable by strategic use of natural resources without leaving a legacy of waste. She has more than 25 years of experience first at Royal Dutch Shell, and later at Basell, a Shell BASF Joint Venture. Seetha currently sits on the Sustainability advisory board of Dow Chemical Company and has been actively engaged leading an end to end value chain collaboration geared toward conserving energy and materials.