plastic waste dump

View from India: Plastic waste collection, an incremental income

Image credit: DT

Plastic waste management involves processing and recycling waste into purposeful and sustainable products. The process is incomplete without the contribution of the informal sector; organisations are doing their bit to give them recognition.

The informal sector, comprising waste pickers, scrap dealers, aggregators and recyclers, are key people in the chain of the circular economy. “It is necessary to build bridges and give the informal workers their due recognition. This could facilitate seamless processing of waste management for end-to-end efficiency. It can also reduce gaps in the integrated value chain and make it sustainable,” said Prashant Singh, member of the CII Task Force on Waste to Worth, at the CII Webinar on Waste Management Through Social Inclusion.

Looking back, the Plastic Waste (Management and Handling) Rules 2011, notified in 2011, included plastic waste management. In 2016, the government notified the Plastic Waste Management Rules, which was amended in 2018 and later in 2021. “What is required is the recognition of the informal sector in building a circular economy. Waste pickers segregate the door-to-door waste collection into dry-wet waste at sorting spaces set up across cities,” said Kabir Arora, national coordinator of the Alliance of Indian Waste pickers.

Different forms of plastic and their residue have ironically provided fodder for social inclusion measures. A case in point is the ITC SWaCH model of handling Multi-Layered Plastic (MLP) and making it a Social Inclusion initiative. This could be an example of creating a consumer-based model, wherein plastic waste can be incentivised to drive home the fact that the larger pie of the waste enables incremental income.

MLP packaging is integral to the food industry as it helps preserve food. What seems lacking is its end-to-end recycling, due to which it may be dumped in landfill sites. Another aspect is that other forms of plastics could fetch at least some money through recyclers but not MLPs. Clearly this was a market waiting to be tapped. “ITC Ltd, a diversified conglomerate, in collaboration with waste-pickers cooperative SWaCH and Pune Municipal Corporation, has launched a first of its kind MLP Collection Programme in Pune. Under this initiative, market-based incentives have been created for recovery of MLP waste,” added Ankit Gupta, manager of Sustainability at ITC Limited. Waste pickers are incentivised for collecting and sorting out MLP waste; with a supply chain in place, waste is transferred from various collection points to an MLP collection hub. 

Plastic waste is a clarion call for people to collaborate to improve the environment. Like-minded individuals have put on their thinking caps and the outcome of their effort is the India Plastic Pact, a collaboration between the World Wide Fund for Nature-India (WWF India) and the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), anchored at the CII-ITC Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Development. The pact is supported by UK Research and Innovation and WRAP, a global NGO based in the UK. WRAP is providing operational and technical support to many other Plastics Pacts, as well as running the UK Plastics Pact. The Plastics Pact envisions "a world where plastic is valued and does not pollute the environment".

The India Plastic Pact aims to define a list of unnecessary or problematic plastic packaging and items and take measures to address them through redesign and innovation. “Targets have been set for 2030. The objective is to make 100 per cent of plastic packaging reusable or recyclable. It is intended to make 50 per cent of plastic packaging effectively recycled and use 25 per cent average recycled content across all plastic packaging,” explained Varun Aggarwal, associate director of Sustainable Business for WWF India. "The socio-economic conditions of the informal sector can improve only if we look at solid waste management at large." India is the first Asian country to have a Plastics Pact and several companies have pledged to chalk out measures for curbing the plastic crisis. It is also envisioned to bridge the gap analysis in the informal sector through mainstreaming, capacity building and financial-social inclusion. 

Social inclusion is critical to broaden opportunities for all and give dignity for the informal sector. “The framework of social inclusion is made of the supply chain, whose components include micro entrepreneurs, aggregators and development programmes. Probably projects can be piloted, evaluated and monitored. Infrastructure development may involve responsible waste management practices like ethical sorting measures,” highlighted Arun Murugesh, regional director at Sahaas Zero Waste. As a socio-environmental enterprise, Sahaas Zero Waste provides end-to-end waste management services based on the principles of a circular economy. It handles waste sustainably for multinationals, tech parks, residential communities and other bulk-generating organisations and institutions. All waste is converted to resources.

It’s not just organisations but even entrepreneurs can explore different aspects of waste management. They can work on some sort of purchase logistics, wherein they pick up value from the material and pass on the incentive to the waste pickers. Along with this, aggregator development programmes are also required. A buy-back mechanism needs to be in place, wherein dry waste is purchased and repurposed. Plastic material recovery facilities could be initiated, opening up entrepreneurial avenues; to think of it, an entrepreneurial spirit backed by government support can help execute self-sustainable business models in waste management.

Mobilisation and social inclusion of the informal sector with the formal waste management system of waste pickers is essential to ensure a regular income. The approach could be more ergonomic, whereby child labour is replaced by financial literacy inclusion and handholding for ensuring additional revenue streams. It would be nice if children of waste pickers got an opportunity to study and pursue other professions. In all fairness, they need to be given a chance. 

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