Plastics: Polluter can
with Circular Economy Solutions
first synthetic plastic – Bakelite – was produced in 1907, marking the
beginning of the global plastics industry. Since its large-scale
production from 1950, plastics have become a ubiquitous modern-economy
material, combining unrivalled functional properties with low cost. Its
unabated use and increasing release into the environment has placed the
ecosystems under stress and poses various threats to the health of
living beings as evident by the day. Plastic pollution has grown to
become one of the greatest and most complex sustainability challenges of
the 21st century.
A global material balance study estimates (Figure 1) that the world has
produced about 8,300 million metric tonnes of plastics between 1950 and
2015. Of this, around 80 percent is plastic waste, a meagre 9 percent of
this waste has been recycled, and 12 percent of the waste has been
incinerated. The rest, as much as 79 percent of the plastic manufactured
in the world, ends up in the landfills and marine environment. A study
by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that, by 2050, the amount of
plastic in seas and oceans across the world will weigh more than the
As is the much of the world, India is struggling to manage its growing
quantities of plastic waste. It is estimated that India generates around
3.3 million metric tonnes of plastic waste per year. For comparison
(Figure 2), in 2016, India’s per capita plastic waste generation at
19.88 kg per year was one-fifth of that of the United States at 105.30
kg per year. While India’s plastic waste problem may not be as huge as
that of the economically rich world, it is definitely growing with
increasing income of the societies and their tendency to become more
wasteful. The COVID-19 pandemic has only added to per capita plastic
waste due to the unprecedented rise in demand and supply for
plastic-based PPEs and medical equipment as well as packaging materials
for online shopping and takeaway services.
While plastic pollution is a burning issue India and the world are
grappling with alike, it is worth noting that plastic is a unique
material that is cheap, versatile, lightweight and resistant, and offers
many functionalities. It also provides environmental benefits by playing
a critical role in maintaining food quality, safety and reducing food
waste. It has also proven its worth in protecting the world during the
COVID-19 pandemic through PPEs and medical equipment. The trade-offs
between plastics and substitutes (or complete bans) are therefore
complex and could create negative knock-on impacts on the environment.
At the intersection of
such complexities, Circular Economy principles offer immense opportunity
in improving and effectively managing the plastic waste systems while
delivering social, economic and environmental benefits in a holistic
manner. As per estimates, Circular Economy
principles can unlock around USD 500 billion worth of economic value in
India by 2030, and USD 4.5 trillion globally. Of this, proper management
and recycling of uncollected plastic wastes alone can create 1.4 million
new jobs and a potential to add USD 2 billion to India’s GDP.
There are & numerous conceptualisations of the Circular Economy and
diagrams to demonstrate the ways in which resources can be
circulated. One example is the accompanying diagram& (Figure 3)
representing circular economy strategies. This conceptual
diagram is useful as a comprehensive representation of Circular Economy
strategies, which are also prioritised from the most circular and high
priority at the top, and the less circular and lower priority strategies
at the bottom.
While there are many successful Circular Economy initiatives across the
world, some of the existing and emerging circular business model
initiatives for management of plastic waste in India are:
Connect: Provides decentralised waste management solutions and
technology for cities in the developing world — powered by the informal
sector. Uses ICT and IoT based technology to deliver cost-effective and
low-carbon waste management solutions.
Eco Eclectic Technologies: Converts industrial and other wastes
(including plastics) into high-value products. Has 100+ innovations to
its credit, and has R&D and Knowledge Bank as important area of work. It
integrates social, economic and environmental aspects in its business
EcoEx: By introducing a digital ecosystem that makes the process
of buying or selling these plastic credit certificates quick, secure &
equitable, EcoEx is enabling the efficient and economically viable
nation-wide implementation of the extended producer responsibility.
Considering the pros and
cons of plastic in the time of the pandemic, it can be more of a
protector than only a polluter – provided it is managed properly and
complemented by the Circular Economy strategies in terms of reduction,
recycle and recovery, and thereby preventing leakage into the
environment. From the implementation perspective, this would require an
enabling ecosystem that fosters disruption and innovation. A holistic
approach is needed to understanding plastic flows and supply chains,
disruptive technologies, enabling public policy, circular business
models, innovative financing models, and initiatives led by communities
and industry. Collaborations and partnerships would be critical for
accelerating the transition towards Circular Plastics Economy in India.■
R. Geyer, J. R.
Jambeck, K. L. Law, Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made.
Sci. Adv. 3, e1700782 (2017).
World Economic Forum,
Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Company, The New Plastics
Economy — Rethinking the future of plastics (2016,
Central Pollution Control
Board (CPCB) Annual Report 2018-19, Government of India.
K. Law et al. 2020.
Centre for Science and
Environment. Managing Plastic Waste in India - Challenges and Agenda.
Neha Parashar, Subrata
Hait, Plastics in the time of COVID-19 pandemic: Protector or polluter?
India’s Circular Economy Shift A Half-Trillion USD Opportunity -
Future-proofing growth in a resource-scarce world. (2018,
Julian Kirchherr, Denise
Reike, Marko Hekkert, Conceptualizing the circular economy: An analysis
of 114 definitions, Resources, Conservation and Recycling. (2017,
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