It is a testament to the mainstreaming of climate change that people are now aware of the 3Rs: reduce, reuse, and recycle. While the first two Rs are yet to take off in terms of scale and popularity (although they are much more critical in the fight against global warming and pollution), recycling is becoming increasingly common in most parts of the world. In fact, commitment to recycling is now considered to be an integral part of the bona fides of an environmentally conscious customer or eco-warrior. If you don’t recycle, you simply don’t care for the planet.

Several compelling reasons for recycling are now common knowledge – brings down carbon emissions, less pollution and waste, saves energy, conserves resources, and helps keep the environment clean and green. For instance, recycling aluminium can save up to 95 per cent of the energy needed to make new cans from fresh raw material.

Then there’s the fact that recycling is so much easier to do; reducing or reusing means a complete change in thinking and attitudes—not only at an individual level but on a societal one. It means moving away from a culture of overconsumption, instant gratification, and (illusory) overabundance to one of a measured lifestyle where resources are used in proportion to one’s actual needs and superfluousness becomes an extraneous, discredited concept.

Recycling in the rest of the world
Despite being a popular way to contribute towards a green planet, not all countries are doing a good job of recycling. According to Eunomia, an environmental consultancy, Germany has the best recycling rate followed by Austria, South Korea and Wales – all of whom manage to recycle between 52 and 56 per cent of their municipal waste. Pristine Switzerland is in fifth place. As expected, countries that perform well have ambitious targets. Wales aims to achieve zero waste by 2050 and the EU is considering adopting a new target of 65 per cent for 2030. The rate for United States is below 35 per cent, while producing 25 per cent of the world’s total waste. Australia had a national plastic recycling rate of 11.8 per cent in 2016–17.

With China throwing a spanner in the works by refusing to accept and recycle foreign waste, many of these countries in the global North will have to start recycling their own rubbish. China is currently the world’s largest importer and recycler of scrap metals, plastic and paper.

As per a 2010 report in Science journal, China led the world in terms of mismanaged plastic waste, followed by Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam. Judging by these figures, Asian countries are doing little to clamp down on or recycle the gargantuan amounts of waste being produced by their populations. Another report – Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean – published in Science found that the same countries were the main contributors to plastic pollution in the oceans. Among OECD members, developing countries like Turkey and Chile were at the bottom of the recycling list.

In a report last year, The Economist magazine took a fairly sympathetic view of plastics and why it wasn’t as bad as some other environmental problems. More interesting were the data points – since 1967, the global plastic production has grown from around 2 million tonnes a year to 380 million tonnes, nearly three times faster than world GDP. Of the 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste produced since the 1950s, only 9 per cent has been recycled and another 12 per cent incinerated. The rest went straight to landfills or the natural environment.

The state of recycling in India
What about India? Data on the actual recycling rates are not easy to estimate. The good news, right now, is that compared to rich countries, the per-capita usage of plastics in India is quite low. The average Indian uses approximately 11 kg of plastic each year, about a tenth of an average American’s. The US, predictably, is at the top end with 109 kg per person, while China is at 32 kg, with the world average being 28 kg. However, this number will go up with increasing development and higher consumption patterns. Estimates suggest a 10 per cent (CAGR) growth in plastics consumption over the next four years.

A 2013 estimate by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) found that Indians generate 15,342 tonnes of plastic waste every day (25,940 tonnes as per the 2015 study), of which about 60 per cent is recycled, mostly due to the informal sector. Unfortunately, over 6,100 tonnes of plastic are still dumped in landfills, water bodies, or groundwater resources. The average plastic waste generation is around 6.92 per cent of municipal solid waste. 94 per cent of total plastic waste comprises of thermoplastic content, such as PET and PVC, which is recyclable. Other studies suggest that PET bottle recycling rate in the country is 70 per cent, easily one of the highest in the world. A 2012 study by Columbia University found that the informal sector recycles 70 per cent of plastic waste and up to 56 per cent of all recyclable waste.

While the formal recycling industry is yet to achieve scale or efficiency, the informal plastic recycling sector, steered by waste pickers, is the reason why our cities and towns are not yet drowning in plastic pollution. Largely unregulated, waste pickers manually gather high-value plastic such as PET bottles and shampoo bottles. Low-value items like carry bags are rarely collected.

A study in 2012 found that waste pickers recovered approximately 20 per cent of waste in six Indian cities, with 80,000 people recycling approximately three million tonnes. It is estimated that every tonne of recyclable material collected results in the avoidance of 721 kg CO2 emission per annum. The same report stated that most of the recyclable waste in the country is collected by this informal recycling industry, both before and after the involvement of formal collection bodies.

The first step towards recycling is waste segregation at source. Since most Indian cities do not have strict rules around this, most people simply mix up their recyclable and non-recyclable waste, leading to waste pickers doing the hard and critical job of segregating them. For example, the rate of waste segregation in Hyderabad’s households is one-third, in Mumbai it is about 27 per cent, while Bengaluru is at a more respectable 45 per cent.

Plastic packaging is a major contributor to plastic waste and most companies are only just waking up to this problem. According to a World Economic Forum (WEF) report, by 2050 plastic-packaging production globally will be more than the overall plastic volumes today, with the economic cost of greenhouse gas emissions at $40 billion. Around 95 per cent of the economic value of plastic packaging is lost after their first use. Sustainable packaging, therefore, should be an important issue for FMCG and packaging companies if they truly care about the environment and their CSR (as they profusely state in their annual sustainability reports). There is evidence of some movement on this. Unilever plans to make all its packaging ‘reusable, recyclable or compostable’ by 2025, while last year PepsiCo announced its plan to introduce its first-ever 100 per cent compostable plant-based packaging for Lay’s and Kurkure. Coca-Cola has a global target to help collect and recycle a bottle or can for every bottle it sells by 2030. Nestlé India has reduced the use of plastic packaging by 1,500 tonnes through optimisation. Companies in India should make sustainable packaging a key part of their environmental initiatives. If not, a lot of their sustainable talk will be seen for what it is—noise and bluster.

Success stories
In India, smaller cities have a better track record of waste management than the big metros. A 2018 report by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) found that while parts of the Delhi NCR region were the worst, towns like Vengurla and Panchgani in Maharashtra and cities such as Alappuzha and Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala were leading the way in efficient waste management. Among cities with a million-plus people, Indore and Mysore performed well.

A common factor among the well-performing cities and towns is waste segregation at source. Most households duly segregate their waste as per the local regulations. Many have created decentralised systems for waste processing, usually dividing the city into various smaller zones. Some have decentralised at a household level too. Cities like Panchgani, Vengurla and Alappuzha have also adopted a zero-landfill model.

Through education and awareness campaigns initiated by the local government, more than 2 lakh households in Mysore segregate their dry and wet waste into different coloured bins. After being collected by community workers employed by the local government, the waste is separated into 24 categories. Recyclable materials are segregated and categorised (coloured plastics, white plastics, milk covers, etc.) and then sold to recyclers. Biodegradable waste is composted into organic manure. The goal is to convert all waste into resources. A similar decentralised model is employed in Alappuzha. Panaji has local composting facilities for residential areas, while commercial waste is processed at bulk composting centres.

Vengurla in Maharashtra is already making waves, not only due to its rate of waste segregation at source (which is more than 90 per cent) but also because it is generating revenue from its waste processing. Through the sale of products, revenues of about Rs 1.5 lakh per month is generated from processing 7 tonnes of waste per day. This is enough to cover operation and maintenance costs of its processing centre and the salary of its staff. The city has banned plastics of less than 50 microns and imposed a fine of Rs 500 for its usage. Penalties are also levied for littering and non-segregation. To earn additional revenue, the municipality collects user fee from households, apartments, hotels and restaurants. To encourage reuse, unused items are dropped into a box placed under a tree, called the tree of humanity.

Then there are plenty of startups doing some interesting, and often exemplary, work in waste management. For example, Saahas Zero Waste has set up decentralised waste-management centres at the community level and facilitates bulk waste generators in recycling waste on their premises. They operate on-site waste-management services for tech parks, corporate campuses and housing complexes, such as the one in Indian Institute of Management Bangalore. A reverse-logistics mechanism has been implemented for packaging companies and e-waste producers to bring back plastic waste into the recycling chain by collecting, sorting, and compacting the material in a material-recovery facility, and then transporting to recyclers.

Karma Recycling enables the reuse and recycling of mobile devices and tablets. Customers can get instant quotes on their used devices. Protoprint and Let’s Recycle work with waste pickers who collect and supply plastic waste, which are then recycled and reused at these companies (Protoprint uses the recycled plastic to make 3D printing filament). Attero Recycling, which is India’s largest and the world’s cheapest recycler of e-waste, has already built three factories, collecting waste from 950 locations across 22 states.

There are good reasons why plastic is as ubiquitous as it is now – it’s cheaper, easier to handle and carry, chemically resistant, lightweight, etc. Inherently, plastic isn’t the most terrible choice when it’s recycled and disposed of properly. This is where efficient waste management becomes critical, starting from waste segregation at source, including separation of dry (inorganic) and wet (biodegradable) waste and recyclable materials. Improving waste-management infrastructure, such as transportation of waste, and promoting the use of bio-based plastics will also result in significant benefits for the environment and the economy. At the government level, clear targets and objectives along with frequent monitoring and evaluations are needed, especially with respect to recycling. Funding of the agencies engaged in this should be more than adequate, while a mix of financial incentives should be deployed to encourage citizens to recycle, like taxes on residual waste treatment and disposal, refund schemes, etc.

Clear and mandatory rules around segregation at source along with strict enforcement will be the critical difference between success and failure. Penalties need to be levied on households that don’t follow the law. For instance, in Bengaluru, HSR Layout is one of the areas where violators are being penalised regularly, leading to a segregation rate of a whopping 85 per cent. Pune Municipal Corporation’s (PMC) model of working with a waste pickers’ cooperative, SwaCH, has reaped huge dividends, not only for the workers but also for the city, with a segregation rate of about 55 per cent. The workers collect waste, including recyclables, for a fee that each of the 400,000 households pays directly to them. The 2,600 waste pickers collect 600 tonnes of solid waste a day, saving the PMC Rs 15 crore every year. Even then, some reports suggest that all is not well in this model city.

There are signs that the law is trying to keep up with the realities of a circular, multi-stakeholder process. The most important of these rules is the extended producer responsibility (EPR) enshrined in the Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016. As per this law, plastic producers, importers and brand owners (like FMCG companies) have to contribute to collection of plastic waste they introduce into the market, especially multi-layered plastic packs that are particularly hard to recycle. While the law makes complete sense on paper, implementation is a separate story. Plastic-ban laws in many states also suffer from the same problem of enforcement – you can read the CB feature on the Maharashtra plastic ban here.

Efficient waste management will require strict rules and adequate infrastructure around a multipronged strategy of recycling, composting and waste-to-energy solutions. The informal sector should necessarily be a part of all plans by the government to streamline, improve and promote the recycling economy. India’s current plastic-recycling rate is high thanks to their efforts and they will be integral to efforts to keep up with the huge quantities of plastic waste and the ever-increasing demand for recycled materials.

As some of the success stories have demonstrated, both public agencies and private sector are capable of solving India’s waste-management problem. Recycling and reusing waste is not just a theoretical proposition, it is practically achievable. With higher priority and greater investment from central and local governments, absorbing informal waste pickers into well-paid, formal jobs in the organised sector, and partnerships with innovative private companies, there is no reason why India cannot be a global leader in this field. The opportunities, success stories, and basic infrastructure are already there – all it needs is some genuine intention and efforts from all stakeholders.