Rethinking the future of plastics

May 4, 2018 3:15 AM

We are living in the age of plastics, and the time is right to deliberate upon the impact of this ubiquitous material on the modern economy. The New Plastics Economy, a concept unveiled at the World Economic Forum 2018, can pave the way to completely rethink the future of plastics and its relationship with us.

plastic, plastic saving, natural resourcesThere is an economic opportunity in reuse and recycling, and reducing leakage of plastics into natural systems.

We are living in the age of plastics, and the time is right to deliberate upon the impact of this ubiquitous material on the modern economy. The New Plastics Economy, a concept unveiled at the World Economic Forum 2018, can pave the way to completely rethink the future of plastics and its relationship with us. The concept focuses on the need to develop a radical approach on using plastics in a sustainable manner. This requires dialogue and consensus between stakeholders—the government, industry, academia, policymakers and public.

When we talk of plastics, the popular sentiment in India is fuelled by unscientific information peddled through social networking and messaging platforms. The New Plastics Economy concept can be implemented only after understanding the importance of plastics in our lives, different types of plastics, their applications and methods of recycling.

The plastic used for making a carry bag is different from the plastic used to make water bottles, or, say, a shampoo container. Each plastic is represented by a number, from 1 to 7, encased inside a cyclical recycle triangle. Among different plastics, PET (polyethylene terephthalate) and HDPE (high-density polyethylene) are endorsed for their safety of not leaching chemicals and, therefore, are used as materials for food packaging.

All plastics have a different chemical structure, which lends them unique qualities and applications. Any severe environmental exposure for long hours can result in possible health safety issues, due to the wrong application of a particular plastic. Once we collectively understand the science behind plastics, we will be able to leverage this “great invention of mankind” more resourcefully and efficiently.

Plastics are vehicles for sustainable development and are fully amenable to recycling. For assessing actual environmental performance of plastics, we should use the life-cycle analysis (LCA) approach; it assesses the full environmental impact of a product—also called the cradle-to-grave vis-a-vis cradle-to-cradle analysis. It evaluates the environmental impact at the following stages—raw materials, at the production stage, and at the time the product is disposed off or recycled after use. A combination of these factors gives a holistic image in tune with the ground reality. A comparable LCA clearly indicates that plastics are economically affordable, socially acceptable and environmentally effective. After all, plastics dutifully perform the role of a carrier from the doors of the producer to that of the consumer.

One thing is for sure that “plastic is indispensable” in our lives, and it could take many years in the near future to invent a new material that could be a viable alternative. Until then, it merits we live in harmony with it. The concept of New Plastics Economy evaluates the benefits of transforming the linear sector to a circular economic model and identifies a practical approach to ensue this shift. The genesis of this concept is a 2013 report “Towards the Circular Economy” developed by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which showed that shifting to a circular model can generate $706 billion worth of economic opportunity, with a significant share of the packaging industry.

Plastic packaging accounts for 26% of the total volume of plastics used globally. The volumes are expected to double in 15 years and increase four times by 2050, to 318 million tonnes annually—which is more than the entire plastics industry today. However, 95% of plastic packaging is lost to the economy after first use. The vision of the New Plastics Economy is that “plastics never become waste; rather they re-enter the economy as valuable technical or biological nutrients.” The aim is to create an efficient after-use plastics economy which delivers better outcomes for the economy and environment.

In the Indian context, there are some key takeaways from the New Plastics Economy initiative. w Increase the uptake of reuse and recycling: This will not only benefit the environment, but also presents considerable cost benefits. Within the plastic packaging market, plastics used for making commercial films and PET-based water/beverage bottles offer great cost benefit from recycling. As per a study by the National Chemical Laboratory, India recycles 95% of the 900 kilo-tonnes of PET, annually. This percentage can be further boosted and extended to other plastics, with the help of new technologies and by incentivising waste management.

Reduce leakage of plastics into natural systems: The only way to achieve this is through a robust collection and recovery infrastructure. It is especially important for developing countries like India, where recovery is unable to match pace with production and usage. This requires strict adoption of the extended producer responsibility (EPR) strategy, under which producers are given a significant responsibility—financial or physical—for treatment or disposal of post-consumer products.

The government machinery needs to take a driver’s seat and ensure its effective implementation and adherence by producers. Another aspect is to develop an execution strategy for the points listed in the Plastic Waste Management Rules 2016, such as source segregation, making waste pickers, recyclers and waste processors an integral part of the whole system, and adopting the polluter pays principle.

At the root of these visionary solutions is the human behaviour towards plastics. Awareness and knowledge will create an intent, which, when supported with efficient waste management systems, has the capacity to yield remarkable economic and environmental benefits for our country.

By Anup K Ghosh

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