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View from India: PM urges industries to look for plastic alternatives

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On the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi's birth, Narendra Modi, India's Prime Minister, has made a nationwide appeal to make the country free of single-use plastic (SUP). The phased-out activity has a target completion date of 2022.

Originally, the country had planned to outlaw six single-use plastic products on 2 October 2019. These include plastic bags, cups, plates, small bottles, straws and certain types of sachets. However, now it is intended to gradually phase out their usage instead of an immediate blanket ban. An immediate ban could probably be far too disruptive, leading to job losses. A broader perspective indicates that it may even result in an economic slowdown. 

Yet, certain sections of the Government have already taken the initiative. Ram Vilas Paswan, the Union Food and Consumer Affairs Minister, has banned single-use plastic under his wing. This extends to the various departments as well as the public sector units (PSU) including the Food Corporation of India (FCI) under his operations. The department of fertilisers has also lent its support towards the cause.

In an effort to reduce its plastic footprint, Indian Railways has urged its vendors and staff to use reusable bags. The Railways is enforcing the ban on single-use plastics.

The Government of India (GoI) has appealed to state governments to discourage the use, storage and manufacture of single-use plastic products such as polythene bags and Styrofoam. GoI is encouraging industries to opt for alternatives to plastic. Likewise, e-commerce firms are being advised to lower the plastic consumption, which it is believed accounts for almost 40 per cent of India's annual plastic usage.

As GoI plans to achieve the 2022 vision of stamping out single-use plastic, it’s an impetus to unlock the value within the existing plastic waste.

Waste management technology needs to be implemented for standardising and sorting procedures, backend operations and waste collection procedures. Radio frequency identification (RFID) cameras and sensors will help in identifying and sorting out plastics. Artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms can be applied to sort out plastic from huge landfills. Then data will reveal specifics like weight and volume. 

Internet of Things (IoT) has the ability to send and receive data in real time and this is how it is a must-have technology for diverse verticals. Here too, IoT will help in determining energy and water-saving solutions that are integrated to convert plastic for reuse. Tech solutions need to be used to melt hard plastic.

Coming to plastic pollutants in our water bodies, big data and analytics can be leveraged to detect plastic waste. This will either be floating on water or settled as debris in the ocean bed. Satellite imagining and machine learning (ML) could help capture plastic trash. Mobile apps will also help trace ocean plastic. Perhaps we can have devices that can go right down to the ocean bed for a cleanup.  

Plastic waste in landfills and water needs to be converted into renewable and reusable raw material which can be processed into products. All this requires infrastructure. Cost and availability are factors influencing potential shortfalls. Government-initiated policies should open up capital investments for building the recycling industry. We need recycling efficiency.

Recycling plastic infrastructure should be treated as an entity and not just a make-do kind of thing. Recycling facilities need to be treated on par with manufacturing units. This will give them the much-needed respect and large-scale acceptance. In the process, it will open out new jobs for many people who would have otherwise been rendered jobless due to the plastic ban.

Startups can look for innovative means of creating recyclable, affordable and sustainable options for consumers. Plastic waste recycling will comprise stakeholders such as engineers and designers who can help identify way of bringing plastic waste back into the product-value chain. This will help India to fully iron out plastic, which clogs landfills and oceans.

Plastic has given rise to the throwaway culture, becoming a threat to human health, the environment, livestock, birds and marine life, but this waste could now create new streams of revenue.  

We had already got a feel for Modi's concern about plastic during his Independence Day Speech in August. It’s a nationwide appeal due to a growing concern for the environment. We need to build consumer awareness about single-use plastic. Scientific research and entrepreneurial ides should open out business opportunities for affordable plastic alternatives.

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