By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
In June 2018, prime minister Narendra Modi announced that India will ban single-use plastics by 2022. Canada and the European Union have promised to ban some single-use plastics by 2021.
Last month, Modi promised to elaborate on the scope of India’s ban on 2nd October, the 150th anniversary Mahatma Gandhi’s birth.
Even the most casual visitor to India would be aware of its serious waste management problem, where waste disposal remains the responsibility of the informal sector. In 2012, Katharine Boo won a Pulitzer Prize for Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, an account of life in Annawadi, a settlement on the outskirts of Mumbai, some of whose residents make their living by waste picking. If you’ve not read this book – please do. I recommend it highly.
Despite the efforts of these residents of Annawadi – as well as thousands of other Indians – huge amounts of plastics foul India’s rivers. Ten rivers that carry 90% of plastics waste into the oceans are located in Asia, according to the World Economic Forum, and two of these, the Indus and the Ganga, flow through India.
The issue isn’t whether better waste disposal – of which control over plastics comprises a key element – is necessary in India. Per the FT:
“The situation in India is so severe that the ban is really required,” said Sourabh Manuja, an environmental engineer at The Energy and Resources Institute.
But the details of what exactly will be banned next month are still not known. Over to the Economic Times:
According to Reuters, the government could ban six items, including bags, cups, straws and certain sachets. Another news report pegged the number of items to be outlawed at twice as many. These reports have pushed industry lobbies to issue statements highlighting the adverse impact of a ban and to take out advertisements in newspapers in defence of plastic.
The composition of plastics waste in India differs from that in many Western Countries. PET water bottles, for example, are single-use plastics elsewhere, but in India, 90% of these are reused.
Moreover, India already recycles more of its trash than the global average. Over to the Economic Times:
India’s plastic recycling rate is 60 per cent , three times higher than the global average of 20 per cent , and India’s per capita plastic consumption — at 11 kg in 2014-15 — is less than half the global average of 28 kg.
Bt that still leaves a lot of plastics waste, some of which cannot be recycled. The most common is multilayered plastic (MLP) packaging, used for potato crisps, biscuits, chocolates, etc., and also includes single-use sachets of common toiletries (which are supplied to guests at hotels geared to domestic travellers rather than foreign tourists). Other forms of single-use plastics include grocery bags, straws, cups, glasses, cotton buds, and takeaway packaging. A telling issue will be whether India tackles to problem of plastics packaging, which currently comprises a third of its plastics consumption, according to the Economic Times.
Again, over to the Economic Times:
India generated 26,000 tonnes per day (TPD) of plastic waste in 2017-18, the latest year for which data is available, according to the Central Pollution Control Board. Of that, 15,600 TPD, or 60 per cent , was recycled. The rest ended up as litter on roads, in landfills or in streams. Uncollected plastic waste poses a huge threat to species on land and in water.
India has a much lower per capita rate of use of plastics, and by instituting a ban now, has the chance to arrest or at least ameliorate the plastics problem before it gets worse. India’s emphasis on the reduce, reuse, and recycle mantra is on the first two legs – with less reliance placed on what I’ve elsewhere identified as the recycling fairy, who with a wave of her magic wand can make the plastics problem disappear, although she’s certainly not ignored in India (see here).
What this means: Although its disposal problem is dire, if India takes steps to reduce her plastics consumption before it approaches Western levels, that approach is more sustainable, over the long-term, than a misguided reliance on recycling per se.
By contrast, we see the state of California – which perhaps more than anywhere in the world relies on various technofix fairies to address social problems – adopting new recycling plans, as Waste Dive reports in California legislature wraps session with unprecedented recycling action. So we see California applauded for its new legislative initiative to require 50% recycled content in its plastic beverage containers by 2030. Knock yourselves out, guys! Waste Dive notes:
“The bill also had support from some in the recycling industry.”
Similarly, AB 1583, the California Recycling Market Development Act, requires:
First, the Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) will convene a new Statewide Commission on Recycling Markets and Curbside Recycling by July 2020. This group – which will include representation from “public agencies, private solid waste enterprises, and environmental organizations with expertise in recycling” – is tasked with finalizing multiple policy recommendations by January 2021.
The one bill that may have done something, and put California more in line with European Union standards, was stymied. Again, according to Waste Dive:
The biggest of them all never came to a vote before lawmakers adjourned. The politics involved remain complex, despite opponents moving to neutral or supportive in the final days. While notable opponents are still out there, including industry giant Waste Management, supporters are ready to take this back up when legislators return in January.
“The immediacy of the plastics and waste crises, combined with the extraordinary coalition of local government, waste haulers, businesses, and environmental organizations pushing the measure would have most likely carried the day, which is why the failure to act on this crucial bill was so disheartening,” said Sen. Ben Allen, sponsor of SB 54, in a Monday statement. “We’ll be working during the interim and bring this bill back in the coming year.”
“If they continue to try to block this stuff then we have no choice but to go to the voters,” Eric Potashner, vice president and director of strategic affairs, told Waste Dive. “I can guarantee what we end up putting in front of the voters will not be as conciliatory.”
Global Recycling Capacity
Has India avoided being seduced by the recycling fairy? We won’t know the full answer to this question until the Modi government announces its plastics plans. But to the extent the new emphasis is on banning, yes, I think at least for its domestic waste management issues, the Indian government understands that the country already has a reuse culture in place – and has perhaps maxed out on what can be achieved via domestic recycling.
That leaves reduce as the other part of the mantra it can promote to alleviate its still significant waste management problem.
Yet solving its own waste management problems is only part of the puzzle. And alas, in the quest for lucre, India may be taking on some of the recycling burden of the rest of the world. Meaning while India’s policymakers may understand that recycling per se is never going to be an adequate solution for the country’s domestic waste management issues, other private sector actors – with the tacit acceptance of authorities – may take on some of the burden of other countries who have succumbed to the delusion. Including those of the US.
As Waste Dive reports in What’s the next recycling boom market? ISRI roundtable weighs in:
For years, China reigned as the top spot for U.S. recyclers to sell recovered materials. Now that import restrictions and tariffs have turned that on its head, the big question is whether a new boom market will rise.
The most simple, but ambiguous, answer is: It’s complicated.
Last week, speakers at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) Commodity Roundtables in Chicago tackled this question head on. The panelists covered conditions, domestically and abroad, that could influence which countries present the best opportunities for recyclers looking to sell their materials. All agreed that despite new opportunities, no single country is capable of picking up the slack from China’s change of course.
India places number three in the top five global markets for US scrap in 2018 (by dollar value), according to Waste Dive:
- China – $3.5 billion (-38% from 2017)
- Canada – $2.3 billion (+6%)
- India – $1.5 billion (+63%)
- Mexico – $1.4 billion (23%)
- South Korea – $1.2 billion (+60%)
It places first amongst the top five foreign growth markets in 2018, again according to Waste Dive:
- India – up $586 million to $1.5 billion
- Malaysia – up $550 million to $736 million
- Taiwan – up $498 million to $1.1 billion
- South Korea – up $465 million to $1.2 billion
- Germany – up $319 million to $1.2 billion
Waste Dive offers an “optimistic” assessment of India’s capacity to accept more of our rubbish:
India and Southeast Asian countries are considered markets with major promise for accepting more recyclable materials from the United States. In fact, ISRI will conduct a trade mission to Malaysia and Indonesia in March 2020 to identify and foster favorable business relationships. …
Although the Southeast Asian countries are expected to have quicker growth, “India has tremendous growth potential in terms of scrap consumption over the next several years,” said Joe Pickard, ISRI chief economist and director of commodities. “In 2018, India was the largest growth market for scrap, but that cooled off a little bit [this year].”
Yet Waste Dive also advises some caution:
Despite the growing interest, panelists offered a long-term cautionary statement about doing business in India.
“They have every intention to become self-sufficient… in scrap development. They can’t turn on a dime like China does, but I think it’s a long-term vision that in 15 to 20 years the government can put into place the infrastructure,” Adler said. “Take advantage of the development opportunities, the trade links, the consumption demand, the interest to do business with overseas suppliers. But there is that long-term indication.”
It remains to be seen whether the Modi government will accede to such blandishments and ramp up India’s capacity to be a dumping ground for more foreign waste, at the same time it is trying to take bold steps to reduce the amount of plastics waste it generates domestically.