Announcements on the need to move away from plastic are important steps forward but, as can be seen by the complexities of the material and the types of stakeholders involved, it needs to be one step of many. There must be clear goals and objectives for India that are monitored and evaluated moving forward
Time and again, the policy makers have expressed the need to move away from plastic, especially single use plastic (a variety of this ubiquitous material designed to be used only once, such as plastic bags at a supermarket, plastic cutlery from a delivery company, straws at a cafe etc.). Again, from time to time, by implementing the announcements the policy makers have been attempting to transition India away from a method of consumption and production that affects all areas of society, from the most impoverished individuals to the largest companies. As we move along the path to sustainability, there is a need to understand the complexities that drive the plastic economy.
The Waste Pickers
It has been estimated that there are “1.5 to 4 million waste pickers in India, who pick up, clean, sort and segregate recyclable waste and sell it further up the value chain”. These manual workers evaluate the products that they collect around the streets of towns and cities throughout India. Their understanding of value in the case of plastic and other recyclable material is pivotal to the current levels of waste, this is to say that without them the country could be in a much worse state.
Complexities of Plastic
The waste pickers’ expertise in sorting and segregation is seen profoundly when detailing the varieties of plastic. In brief, the main categories are: Polyethylene Terephthalate, High-Density Polyethylene and Polyvinyl Chloride, which are often recyclable but that depends on the facilities available; the Low Density Polyethylene, that are even more dependent on the quality and resources of the recycling centres; and unrecyclable plastics, such as Polypropylene, Polystyrene or Styrofoam and Miscellaneous Plastics (polycarbonate, polylactide, acrylic, acrylonitrile butadiene, styrene, fiberglass, and nylon) that exist in this array of polymers.
For a material that has become an intrinsic part of the day to day functionality of almost every person on the globe in a tremendously simple way, it is inherently complicated in terms of the type and recyclability. Waste pickers assist in managing this within India, but just like a single announcement about the need to reduce plastic use, they must be one part of the whole in order to improve current levels and move the country toward a more environmentally conscious, sustainable position. Any changes that policy makers implement to the current system must include individuals at the lowest socio-economic levels. Not only because it is the humane thing to do, but also because their skills and knowledge are an asset that an improved system requires.
In order for nationwide policies to be successful, there must be an understanding of how current systems function and what alternatives hold value for the country. The current system is, predominantly, a linear economy, which “traditionally follows the ‘take-make-dispose’ step-by-step plan. This means that raw materials are collected, then transformed into products that are used until they are finally discarded as waste. A sustainable version of the system is one that values the items and stakeholders within it, not as waste but as a resource. The suggested system to replace a linear system is a circular one because “sustainability is sought in increasing the eco-effectiveness of the system. This means that not only the ecological impact is minimised, but the ecological, economic and social impact is even positive”. A large part of this is valuing all stakeholders and processes involved.
In addressing the issues of plastic waste, there are numerous examples worldwide that can be assessed to see if it can provide examples moving forward. France, for instance, has had a plastic ban since 2016, within the law there are clauses that specify that “the replacements of these items will need to be made from biologically sourced materials that can be composted”. On a larger scale that parallels India’s population, “China made it illegal for stores (small or big vendors) to give out plastic bags (in 2008) and allowed them to keep any profit they made for themselves. End result, after two years of the law implementation, usage of plastic bags dropped by a whopping 50 per cent”. Both are designed for their own situation, just as India must design their own to transition away from plastic and just as large Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) companies can use templates made by smaller companies but design it for their scale and reach.
Giants Who Use Plastic
The FMCG sector is the “4th largest sector in the Indian economy with household and personal care accounting for 50 per cent of FMCG sales in India”. The increase in popularity has notably been “led by a combination of increasing incomes and higher aspirational levels (with an) increased demand for branded products”. In addition, research has found that the unorganised FMCG market share is also falling, replaced with organised sector growth due to brand consciousness, in part promoted by growth in retail chains promoting a less diversified range of brands.
Small Scale Moves Away From Plastic
There are businesses and individuals in India who are making products that do not follow the trend of large FMCG producers. In Bangalore, for example, Bare Necessities Zero Waste India uses “the best ingredients that are zero waste and ethically sourced”. They also “believe that if an ingredient is too hard to pronounce or if it sounds like it belongs in a chemistry lab, it can’t be good for you to put in or on your body”. Amazingly, which shows a true trend away from methods from big FMCG companies, they state openly that their “products are designed not to last”, but not in the way of single use items from FMCG companies. Instead, they note that “since all our products are handmade fresh, have no chemical preservatives, and come in small quantities, they won’t last years on end”, which means that they do not contain chemicals that would be detrimental to your body or waterways. The small, women run business, also employ and upskill women from lower socio-economic classes in Indian society. They help to hand make items fresh to order, using natural ingredients from India, of special note is their love of coconut oil and other natural oils that are sourced from South India.
Benefits of a Transition With Clear Timelines
An immediate shift for large companies to the methods employed by small organisations is difficult. However by placing clear timelines in, with set goals and objectives as well as simplifying processes and materials, they have the opportunity to help transition the country towards a more sustainable future at a tremendous scale.
It’s Not Just Single Use Plastic
Without a systems approach to addressing the issue of plastic reliance in the country that is so intrinsically ingrained in modern day life, and produces in excess of $1.3 billion economic impact (according to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, an estimate of impact on marine plastics to tourism, fishing and shipping industries in the region) annually, change is unlikely to occur. A transition away from single use plastics is a positive step, yet the problem is far more complex. It relates to all the varieties of plastic spoken about above and how the material is used.
According to the Central Pollution Control Board, “Approximately 70 per cent of plastic packaging products are converted into plastic waste in a short span”. Research has also highlighted that within India, the composition of waste has changed significantly in the last couple of decades because of consumer habits and demands for ease, efficiency and simplicity that plastics can offer. This is provided the consumer is not looking at the environmental impact that the product has after use. In addition the United Nations has noted that “about 47 per cent of the plastic waste generated globally, came from multi- layered packaging waste. Nearly half came from Asia”, thus waste pickers managing waste, and, policy makers announcing new initiatives must work with all other stakeholders within the system in designing new methods of operation and promoting innovation in packaging and manufacturing among other areas.
Truly this is a universal issue. It affects waste pickers as much as it will impact FMCG companies and all the consumers in India. Announcements about reducing plastic are important but no more than individual choice, with the first important choice being to take responsibility for one’s actions. Consumers changing their habits can help to move the current system from a linear methodology to a circular one. It can provide a voice for those in lower socio-economic groups in society and can encourage large businesses to transition from the use of plastic and other harmful materials.
Consumers can ensure that awareness and education, that starts from large public announcements by policy makers, reaches the hearts and ears and pockets of other consumers within India by actively involving themselves in a transition. There are blueprints out there for consumers to know and understand what it means to live a zero waste life. Consumer choice can make a difference and lead a transition away from the use of this ubiquitous material. Importantly though, this needs all stakeholders to be involved and knowledgeable.
Transition Away From Plastic
Announcements on the need to move away from plastic are important steps forward but as can be seen by the complexities of the material and the types of stakeholders involved, it needs to be one step of many. There must be clear goals and objectives for India that are monitored and evaluated moving forward. All stakeholders must be involved to keep each other accountable and responsible to these ambitions that will require clear timelines and a transparent process in order for a permanent transition to more sustainable practices to occur.
The writer is a Sustainability Consultant and Education Officer