View from India: Digital tracking in plastic waste management

The 2020 draft of the Uniform Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) framework has set the ball rolling. State governments have come forward with innovative efforts and a couple of farsighted companies have also made a move in this direction

The Union Environment Ministry announced the draft Plastic Waste Management (Amendment) Rules 2021 in March. The Ministry has proposed a blanket ban on various categories of single-use plastic items, among other changes.

Several state governments have already begun to address the plastic litter and are well ahead of the curve. The district administration of the Tamil Nadu state government has gone that extra mile towards achieving a plastic-free environment by banning the use of single-use plastic (SUP). Self help groups (SHGs), non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and community organisations have stepped in to spread the word on plastic waste management and the 3Rs Rule: to reduce, reuse and recycle plastic. Palm leaves, aloe vera, banana fibre, terracotta and cotton cloth are being used as alternatives to plastic. Skill-training units have been initiated in the Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu to make products out of plastic alternatives, while plastic shredder units have been introduced to recycle plastic waste. As a plastic-waste-free district, Tirunelveli has won recognition.

Various speakers have shared their experiences through the CII webinar 'EPR fulfilment – Sharing Experiences of Stakeholders and Way Forward'. “We are building on existing systems to reduce the impact of plastic waste on environment in India. This is happening through a partnership with Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Private Limited, Hindustan Unilever Limited, HDFC Bank & Coca Cola India Foundation,” said Prabhjot Sodhi, head (Circular Economy) Plastic Waste Management Project, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). UNDP was felicitated as a key partner by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs at the Swachh Survekshan Awards 2020 under the Swachh Bharat Mission.

The aim of the collaboration was to bring traceability within the system and connect all stakeholders. “This has led to a partnership with aggregators to trace waste maintenance after it comes into contact with the material recovery facility. Technical partner Mindtree helped establish a cloud-based traceability and accountability among all stakeholders,” added Sodhi.  

Municipal Corporations were brought into the traceability fold. Here the focus is on Safai Sathis or waste pickers who pick up the waste. Their accountability happens through scalable digitised procedures used for maintenance-dispatch-raising invoices. The programme, which is operational in several cities, has helped institutionalise waste pickers, who now have bank accounts and take advantage of medical checkups. The plastic waste that is collected and segregated is recycled. The endeavour is a move towards a circular economy.

There’s a belief that if you want to make a difference then go backwards, back to the roots. It’s understandable that PepsiCo India decided to create awareness among school children. “A partnership with waste-management firm NEPRA led to an educational waste-management initiative with schools in Kurseong, Darjeeling. Students from over 10 schools have donated post-consumer multi-layered plastic (MLP) at collection points in the school,” shared Juhi Gupta, sustainability head, PepsiCo India. The most pro-active students have been rewarded with a zero waste to landfill badge and certificates. The MLP will be used in cement plants.

Also in association with NEPRA, a dry-plastic waste-management programme has been launched in schools in Varanasi where students have donated dry plastic waste. These are used to make chairs and tables that are donated to NGOs. “As part of our EPR policy, our company has worked with waste-management firms to sensitise students and public at large,” added Gupta. A beach-cleaning initiative in Mumbai is also part of the agenda. Not-for-profit organisation Project Mumbai joined hands with PepsiCo India to clean the beaches in an effort that has been christened as Jallosh – Clean Coasts.

All these coordinated efforts are backed by technology. “Segregation and technology go hand in hand when it comes to plastic waste. Software platforms need to be built to standardise the segregation process. Cost-effective MLP solutions need to be created for commercial use,” said Sandeep Patel, CEO, NEPRA. 

For its part, Recykal, a digital technology firm in the waste-management space, has an end-to-end, cloud-based, full-service digital solution. This facilitates transactions for all stakeholders across the plastic waste management and recycling value chain. “With digitisation, we have brought rag pickers and recyclers on to a cloud-based platform. This has helped brands gauge EPR targets, which is fulfilled through sales initiatives. The entire activity is stored on the cloud,” explained Abhay Deshpande, founder of Recykal.

As part of the strategy, it was decided that a portion of the money earned by the brands should go to rag pickers. “Our platform has 14,000 rag pickers from three states. They connect with us through the smartphone and Whatsapp messages,” added Deshpande.

It is a known fact that a commercial value needs to be attached for the collection, segregation and recycling process. Recykal has forged ties with United Nations Development Programme and Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Private Limited to develop sustainable plastic waste management practices. The outcome is Project Prithvi, a national initiative that will facilitate the collection of plastic waste from educational and corporate institutions, resident welfare associations, and bulk generators. This waste will be channelled to recyclers who will repurpose the waste into useful stuff.

Cement plants use various traditional raw materials. Plastic waste can be treated and converted into eco-friendly cement components. For instance, good-quality MLP can be integrated with other raw materials for constructing roads. Another aspect is that many parts of the cement value chain are not fully digitised. “We are collaborating with startups to auto capture data and source and validate the details. An in-house digital portal is being developed. Complete digitisation will help track the products,” reasoned Kamran Ahmed, head EPR, Geocycle India, which provides sustainable waste-management solutions for industries and municipalities.

In short, plastic waste has evoked quite a response from many parts of the country and this spirit requires encouragement to gain momentum. A multi-disciplinary collaborative approach is required; systems need to be in place for all stakeholders to benefit. There are initiatives in various parts of the country, yet the government needs to tap think tanks, R&D units, policy advisors and technical educational institutions like the Indian Institute of Technology and formalise the plastic waste system at a national level.

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