The Matter of Plastic, The Informal Sector and Waste Infrastructure
This is the fourth piece of a collection of articles written for Bare Necessities- Zero Waste India dedicated to discussing plastic bans in India, all relating to the plastic announcement on October 2nd 2019. The collection aims to discuss the enforcement of policies, design and innovation of new ideas and important steps that have already taken place that will assist in transitioning the country toward a new, more sustainable system along with other areas that will be expanded upon on a weekly basis.
It has been estimated that there are “1.5- 4 million waste pickers in India, who pick up, clean, sort and segregate recyclable waste and sell it further up the value chain” (source). These manual workers sort, segregate and evaluate the products that they collect around the streets of towns and cities throughout India. This type of work is one of the “most accessible means of livelihood for the impoverished in India as it requires minimal skills, knowledge or capital investment” (source).
Yet, despite the fact that waste pickers are estimated to “recycle 20% of the country’s wastes” (source) they often lack the support that they need to lift themselves from this level of poverty.
With discussions on how to move toward eliminating plastics from India currently taking place, their livelihoods must be taken into account. For, if a product that is a valuable resource to them is no longer available their livelihoods will be negatively affected. Thus, there is a need, when discussing the elimination of plastics from India, to understand everything and everyone that is involved in the process and to know and understand plastic as an entity.
Single-use plastics are “used for packaging and include items intended for use only once… (Described by the European Union as) products made of plastic such as cotton bud sticks, cutlery, plates, straws, sticks for balloons, cups, food, beverage containers made of polystyrene and products made of oxo-degradable plastic” (source). While larger industries tend to view single-use plastics differently, considering “‘100 per cent recyclable material with a thickness greater than 50 microns and a minimum 20% recycled content as non- single-use plastic’... That implies plastic below 50 microns with less than 20 per cent recycled content makes for single-use plastic” (source), which leaves a large amount of fossil fuel-derived plastics (source) still able to be used with the potential of harming the environment.
This type of criteria is difficult to understand from a well-educated perspective, let alone the waste collectors who are a key part of India’s waste management system. More confusing still is the number and types of plastics and how recyclable they are. Globally there are the following types of plastics, Polyethylene Terephthalate (used for textiles, carpets, pillow stuffing, life jackets, storage containers, clothing, boat sails, auto parts, sleeping bags, shoes, luggage, winter coats), High-Density Polyethylene (used for plastic crates, lumber, fencing), Polyvinyl Chloride (used for flooring, mobile home skirting) which are often recyclable but that depends on the facilities available (source). While Low-Density Polyethylene (used for garbage cans and lumber) are even more dependent on the quality and resources of the recycling centres (source). As for unrecyclable plastics Polypropylene (used for ice scrapers, rakes, battery cables), Polystyrene or Styrofoam (used for insulation, license plate frames, rulers) and Miscellaneous Plastics- polycarbonate, polylactide, acrylic, acrylonitrile butadiene, styrene, fibreglass, and nylon- (used in outdoor decks, moulding, and park benches) exist in this array of polymers (source).
Confusing? For a material that has become intrinsically 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.
Part of the issue with plastic is that there are now so many types that are used for so many different things.
To ban all single-use plastics without a simple, structured approach, is fraught with danger. Noted above is the criteria made by industry in order for them to still be able to use certain polymers but not others, it is a good step forward certainly but the use of a polymer under “50 microns with less than 20 per cent recycled content (making up) single-use plastic” (source) still means that a product that is created out of a material that is bad for the earth can still be used.
Whether this is a way that industries are choosing to embrace plastic bans or as a way to move around policies and regulations is as yet uncertain. However, what is known is that “around 62 million tons of solid waste is produced in (India) every year, of which less than 20% or only 12 million tons are treated. This essentially means that the remaining 52 million tons of waste remain ‘untreated’ and contaminate land or make its way into rivers, lakes and wetlands” (source).
Therefore no matter what criteria industries choose to use with plastics in the future there is still an enormous problem that needs an improved approach because the amount of wasted material is growing to uncontrollable levels.
One method of improving this situation in India is that stakeholders within the country could value waste pickers to a higher level. On a similar note local, municipal, state and national government could come together to improve the infrastructure and support the informal sector within India. The same actors could collaborate with industries and businesses to, as a first step, simplify the types of material being used because the array of materials and confusing levels of recyclability is a hindrance to an effective recycling system. Lastly, the aforementioned stakeholders could see this as a first step, a building block to simplify, educate, improve people’s livelihoods (who are in desperate need of having their livelihoods improved), generate an economy that promotes cleanliness, efficiency, effectiveness and reusability in all its developments and helps lead the country toward a green future where all stakeholders, from all diverse backgrounds, that this country has, are part of the next stage in a structured solution to resolve this plastic conundrum that humanity has found itself in.