Indian Waste v/s Global Waste

As per UNEP’s report, 72% of plastic litter on the Hathi Ghat in Agra is “low-value plastic.” Unlike the rest of the world where high, medium & low-value waste is collected and brought to one handling facility for sorting, in India high-value waste is captured by the informal waste collection segment. As a result, in India & other emerging economies, low value waste & residual municipal waste that is not collected gets left behind and leaks into the rivers. Further, this waste leads to litter that is highly time-consuming to collect & hence does not get captured by the informal sector.

Located just outside the city of Agra in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, the Taj Mahal is among the most beautiful architectural masterpieces in the world. A symbol of love, the iconic mausoleum was commissioned by Shah Jahan in honor of his wife Mumtaz Mahal.

But you’ll be faced with an all-too-familiar sight if you travel few streets into Agra: an unofficial landfill spread over an acre and rising several meters high, its base strewn with plastic cups, polybags, wrappers, packaging materials, and other detritus of our everyday lives that have recently been discarded.

India is struggling to dispose of its rising volumes of plastic waste, like most of the world, considering how pervasive it has become, from our toothbrushes to debit cards. According to a 2012 CPCB, India produces close to 26,000 tonnes of plastic a day. Worse, a little more than 10,000 tons of plastic waste a day is still uncollected. The amount of plastic in seas and oceans around the world will weigh more than fish by 2050, says an Ellen MacArthur Foundation headline-grabbing prediction.

A comprehensive research was done by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) titled “Promotion of Counter Measures against Marine Plastic Litter in South East Asia and India”. The objective of this activity was to assess the on-land plastic waste management in the four cities (Haridwar, Agra, Prayagraj & Mumbai) to identify the major hotspots, which would serve as the points of plastic leakage into the riverine and marine ecosystem. The study was conducted by UNEP on Identification of Plastic Leakage at Hathi Ghat, on the banks of River Yamuna in Agra. They found the plastic litter classification as follows:

Figure: Breakup plastic items in terms of weight (UNEP Report)

A report named “Stemming the Tide” by Ocean Conservatory with association with Mc Kinsey foundation categorized plastic litter into Low, Medium and High Value. We reclassified the littered plastic in Agra using benchmarks mentioned in Ocean Conservancy’s report; to arrive at the following:

When it comes to the plastic waste issue, while single-use plastics used as bottles appear to dominate the headlines, the issue of low-value plastics is often set aside. But the fact is that low-value plastics, including poly bags, also accounts for a large proportion of global landfill waste. These low-value plastics need to be handled if we are to tackle the plastic waste problem adequately and reduce the environmental, health and social impact.

So, What are Low-Value Plastics?

Most of us experience low-value plastics on a regular basis. These are the flimsy plastics that are made of single-use shopping bags, condiment sachets, confectionery wrappers, and thin layers of packaging. Also, sometimes categorized as Flexible Plastics.

These plastics are almost difficult to recycle since they appear to be, mixed with other layers of materials and contaminated by food waste or other organic waste or inert waste. Attempts to melt and reprocess this form of low-quality plastic by recycling is also an expensive method that generates lower-value products that are unlikely to make a profit.

This makes it unprofitable for waste pickers to collect them, ensuring that most low-value plastics, let alone recycled, do not end up being collected at all. It is unlikely that they will be recollected, washed, and segregated for recycling once they are left to rot in landfills.

We discovered a bitter truth indicating our obvious fears. In Agra, 72% of plastic litter (on Hathi Ghat) by weight are Low-Value Plastics. It is far by a huge number and a distinct indication of why our waste management especially plastic waste is inefficient.

It is more likely that plastics with low residual value will spill into the ocean. Waste collectors i.e. people who collect waste materials and then sell these materials to recyclers tend to base their efforts on high-value plastic. Waste pickers face many health threats and are also part of vulnerable communities. Their inclusion and empowerment, together with their recognition of working conditions and long-term plans to improve them should be an explicit objective of any solution. Only about 20 percent of the municipal plastic waste stream has enough value to encourage waste pickers to collect it; what remains is more likely to leak into the ocean.

This offers an opportunity for early-stage investment in the identification, collection, sorting & recycling of low-value waste. New technologies for real-time monitoring of low-value waste could prove critical in plastic waste management in cities located on rivers & seas. Innovations for the collection of low-value waste & cost-effective sorting of these plastics from organic & inert waste will boost the recovery of these materials. Most importantly, we urgently need a [decentralized] recycling or upcycling innovation for creating utility out of the low-value plastic litter.

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