Recycling as a solution to better plastic waste management at Kolkata, India

Plastic is a life-transforming resource, but the same qualities that make it useful—alongside poor waste management—have created a global waste challenge.

To promote Plastic Waste Management at Kolkata, India, Earth5R, an Environmental Organization based in India, launched a project to raise awareness of plastic waste. Earth5R has developed a project named “KNOW YOUR PLASTICS.” This project creates awareness among citizens and increases the recycling rate by working with local communities, municipalities, and brands.

Cleanup and Segregation of Plastic Waste

In this project, a volunteer, playing the role of citizen scientist, visits ten different locations in their locality and collects as much plastic waste as possible while keeping a time limit of 5 minutes. Following this, a few minutes are then allotted to the segregation of the waste assembled into six distinct categories: MLP(multi-layer packaging), PET( Polyethylene terephthalate) plastics, LDPE(Low-Density Polyethylene), HDPE(High-Density Polyethylene), Synthetic fibers, and Tetra packs. Other waste found on site, such as medical waste, is included in the “Other” category.

Once the waste is segregated, the data is evaluated and studied to understand what plastics create the maximum pollution and which companies generate the leading plastic.

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Categories of plastic used for segregation

The Plastic Waste Crisis

While plastic is durable, it additionally means plastic waste can be trapped in our environment for centuries if not managed well. Plastics deteriorate into fragments quickly through wear and tear, their polymer chains break down into other more minor elements at high temperatures, such as during chemical recycling processes. However, today only 15% of plastic waste is recycled.

“Plastic pollution is getting worse and fast. Solving this growing problem requires creating a plastics economy that is smart, sustainable, and circular.”

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Global productIon, collection and leakage rates by plastic category, Business-as-Usual, 2016

Plastics can be grouped in two broad categories: hard-to-recycle and easily recycled. Easily recyclable plastics—for example, PET bottles or HDPE containers and pipes—are washed, ground to a powder, melted down, and then extruded into pellets ready for reheating and remolding. This process is called mechanical recycling.

For hard-to-recycle plastics—for example, polyethylene film, LDPE, or contaminated plastics—they can at times be recycled by using chemical recycling where the polymer structure of the plastic is changed and converted into a feedstock which can replace virgin materials used in the production of plastics.

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Source: UN Environment Programme report (2018)

Researchers assess that more than 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been created since the early 1950s. About 60% of this plastic has ended up in either a landfill or the natural environment.

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Source: The Pew Charitable Trusts

Ever since the 1950s, the rate of plastic production has increased faster than that of any other material. A shift from producing durable plastic to single-use plastics (plastics meant to be thrown away after a single use) is also seen.

More than 99% of plastics are generated from chemicals obtained from natural gas, coal, and oil — all of which are non-renewable resources. If current trends continue, the plastic industry could account for 20% of the world’s total oil consumption by about 2050.

Barely 9% of all plastic waste ever produced has been recycled. Nearly 12% has been incinerated, while the rest — 79% — has accumulated in landfills, dumps, or the natural environment.

In a recent global survey, cigarette butts — whose filters contain tiny plastic fibers —are the most common plastic waste found in the environment. The most common items were grocery bags, drink bottles, bottle caps, food wrappers, drink lids, straws, and stirrers. These products are used every day without even thinking about where they might end up. An astounding 8 million tonnes of plastic end up in the world’s oceans every year.

Plastic Waste Management Initiative at Kolkata

Pranjali Kumbhare, an Earth5R volunteer from Kolkata, India, took the initiative to tackle the Global Plastic Waste crisis from her area. She conducted a series of 10 cleanups and collected detailed data on various types of plastics.

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Kolkata (Source: Wikipedia)

When asked for the reason, she decided to join this project; she stated, “There’s always waste outside my apartment gate, as there are multiple tea and food stalls, and I think that it is very crucial that we consider these little things and with a little effort we can help create an effective waste management system, which is why I joined this movement. I wish to convey my findings and ideas to our local communities to implement the necessary steps. with the help of Earth5R,”

With a little effort we can help create an effective waste management system, which is why I joined this movement. I wish to convey my findings and ideas to our local communities to implement the necessary steps. with the help of Earth5R

Pranjali Kumbhare, Earth5R Volunteer @Kolkata, India

Plastic Waste Data from Kolkata

Cleanup combined with sampling of data was conducted in ten different locations by Pranjali in her locality in Kolkata. Though this data does not represent the whole of the city, it produces some insightful results.

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Plastic sampling done by Earth5R volunteer, Pranjali Kumbhare at 10 locations across Kolkata

The data she collected was then analyzed, and these are the results:

  • A total of 195 plastic waste items were collected
  • MLP constituted the highest amount of waste at 44%
  • Followed by polythene bags(LDPE) at 28%
  • 8% were HDPE
  • Synthetic fibers contributed to 2%
  • PET bottles and tetra packs were at 1% each
  • The remaining 16% was for other types
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Types of Plastic Waste found in South Kolkata

With no proper waste management, the waste would be found littered in places harmful to the environment. To elaborate, Pranjali stated that, “The waste I found during my sampling activity was mostly dumped on the sides of roads, near food stalls and the lake. Despite dustbins being on the road, I found litter almost on every road, which was very upsetting.”

Despite dustbins being on the road, I found litter almost on every road, which was very upsetting

– Pranjali Kumbhare, Earth5R Volunteer @Kolkata, India

System change and the future of plastic products

Five product types/applications contribute to 85% of all plastic leaking into the ocean today. Taking action across the global plastics system would lead to many of these plastic product types/applications being removed, substituted, or recycled by 2040.

  • 58% of mono-material films can be avoided through reduction measures and substitution to paper and compostable alternatives. 
  • 45% of bags can be avoided through bans, incentives, and reuse models.
  • The recycling rate of household goods is nearly quadrupled compared with today.
  • In 2016, 48% of these plastic products were mismanaged. Under the System Change Scenario, the mismanaged rate for these products could drop to 12%. 
  • The recycling rate of rigid mono-material plastic would double compared with today.
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Source: The Pew Charitable Trusts

Our planet is drowning in plastic pollution—it’s time for a change!

The single-use plastic products are everywhere. For many, they’ve become integral to our daily lives. Changing the plastic system would secure a world where many of the single-use plastic products we know and use today would be eliminated or replaced by reusable items and new delivery models. Nonrecyclable and hard-to-recycle plastics could be substituted for paper or compostable materials, with the remaining plastic waste. They recycled at much higher rates, resulting in much less plastic polluting the environment.

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Source: “Banning single-use plastic: lessons and experiences from countries” UN Environment Programme report (2018)

Slowing the flow of plastic at its source is needed, but it’s required to enhance plastic waste management. Because a lot of it ends up in the environment, plastic waste can stay in the environment for decades. The properties that make plastics so useful, i.e., their resistance and durability to degradation, make them more or less impossible for nature to break down completely.

Most plastic items never wholly disappear; they just get smaller and smaller. Most of these tiny plastic particles are swallowed by farm animals or fish who mistake them for food and thus can find their way onto our dinner plates. They’ve also been found in a majority of the world’s tap water. By jamming sewers and providing breeding grounds for mosquitoes and pests, plastic waste — especially plastic bags — can increase vector-borne diseases like malaria.

What do we do now?

The world is starting to accept that it is high time to tackle this plastic waste problem which also requires addressing the lack of proper waste management systems. Presently, more than 30% of the world does not have access to the appropriate collection and waste disposal.

There is no one simple solution. It is not about swapping from one single-use lifestyle to another, but instead about changing our behavior to balance sustainability and convenience and asking industry and governments to work together to drive the best environmental solutions. Businesses ranging from fashion to hospitality industries promise to be more circular, use recycled materials, or redesign packaging. At the same time, researchers advance and improve ways to sort, make, and recycle plastics. Governments are re-evaluating their systems of waste management, making recycling more reachable for their citizens.

All these efforts help deflect plastic waste from the environment and towards a sustainable circular economy. It is an ambitious task, although, with collective action, it can certainly be achieved.

Reported by Pranjali Kumbhare; Edited by Krishangi Jasani

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