An Exclusive Interview with Mr. Justin Wood Alliance to End Plastic Waste
1.Your alliance has worked across the globe in improving plastic waste management. With a focus on India, what have been the key challenges and how successful have your projects been in India?
Given India’s vast size and regional disparities, waste management systems vary considerably across its 28 States and 8 Union Territories. While some regions exhibit robust waste management practices, others need help with rudimentary or non-existent systems for handling plastic waste. Studies indicate that India loses approximately $10 billion annually in plastic material value, primarily due to inadequate collection methods and environmental leakage. Moreover, the country’s per capita plastic consumption, at 14 kg per year, is considerably lower than the global average of 30 kg per person per year. As India’s economy grows and its middle-class population expands, the plastic waste issue becomes increasingly urgent.
While challenges persist, our projects in India have made significant strides towards improving plastic waste management and fostering circularity.
In India, we have nine projects in various stages. Our strategy in India has three parts. The first is to work on developing integrated waste management systems using a public-private partnership model (PPP Model). We collaborate with urban local bodies, inter-governmental organisations, academia, non-government organisations, civil society, and the private sector for collective action against plastic waste.
For instance, our project in Haridwar demonstrates the importance of responsible source segregation and effective public-private collaboration. The project centres on encouraging waste separation at the household level, as well as building a Material Recovery Facility (MRF) to process waste into different fractions, which is such a critical – and often missing – step to enable recycling. Through the project, we are enhancing the effectiveness and efficiency of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) working in collection and recycling, improving the livelihoods and working conditions of informal workers, and also addressing the issue of plastic waste management. This project has succeeded in boosting source segregation of household waste, with participation levels rising from virtually zero to approximately 85% in specific wards.
Secondly, we are working with SMEs in the waste management and recycling sectors by providing funds to de-risk and scale new operating models for recycling, including digital solutions. Our goal is also to empower local SMEs involved in waste management by providing training, resources, and technology to improve their operations. Our work involves testing and implementing various waste management models, such as source segregation, to optimise collection and recycling processes. For instance, the Alliance’s project “ParikraM” in association with our partner Recity, aims to significantly improve the efficiency of waste management by building not only physical infrastructure but also a digital platform to optimise operations and enable the tracing of materials across the supply chain. The first pilot MRF was launched in November 2022 in Mathura-Vrindavan in association with the Mathura-Vrindavan Municipality.
Thirdly, we endeavour to support a just transition for the informal sector and promote community education and engagement. For example, the Alliance is supporting the “Let’s Transform” project of SAAHAS Zero Waste which aims to support the informal waste sector, including waste aggregators and scrap dealers. The goal is to enable an ethical supply chain for maximum resource recovery of low-value plastic from the environment while providing transparent data regarding the plastic waste collected on a digital traceability tool – this enables the waste pickers to improve the level and reliability of their incomes. In its first phase, the project has benefited 40+ waste workers in 4 cities and has diverted more than 3,700 tonnes of plastic waste from landfills.
Similarly, our Changemakers project has made important strides in empowering and educating school students in India, particularly in Kolkata and the Sundarbans. Through the project, school children were taught about responsible plastic waste management and environmental sustainability. Just as important as education, the project encouraged students to actively participate in clean-up drives, awareness rallies, dialogues, workshops, and educational campaigns in urban and rural areas.
Our projects in India have shown success in addressing the key challenges, forging partnerships, implementing innovative solutions, and positively impacting waste reduction and circularity.
2.AEPW aims at engaging policy makers and regulators. What stage has India reached and how has the progress been?
India’s rapid urbanisation is projected to boost the urban population to around 600 million by 2030, leading to a three-fold increase in waste generation, soaring from 62 million tonnes to 165 million tonnes. The demand for plastic is driven by its affordability and durability – however, mismanagement of plastic waste poses tough environmental challenges. Immediate and decisive action is crucial, with a strong emphasis on sustainable waste management, intensified recycling initiatives, and new approaches to single-use plastics.
In India, high-value plastics like PET are relatively well-collected, but low-value plastics, such as multi-layer packaging, still need to be addressed. Approximately 40% of plastic waste in India still goes uncollected, primarily due to the unfavourable economics of collecting low-value plastics. Introducing extended producer responsibility (EPR) regulations in India is expected to significantly enhance the economics of waste collection and contribute to a higher collection rate.
Developing solutions to tackle this intricate challenge necessitates comprehensive collaboration and joint efforts from government, businesses, civil society, financial institutions, and academia on a global, national, and local scale. Our initiatives prioritise social inclusion and capacity building by engaging local communities, waste pickers, and recyclers. We aim to empower individuals and contribute to sustainable waste management practices by providing training, support, and livelihood opportunities.
Fortunately, India’s policy landscape aligns with our mission and is supportive of driving significant improvements. The EPR policy and the work in Phase II of the Swachh Bharat mission prove that plastic waste management is a high priority for Indian policymakers.
3.How do you foresee developments in the near future in a country like India where recycling is an evolving yet fast growing concept?
First, it is essential to acknowledge that there is no singular solution to the plastic waste challenge. It will require many ideas and multiple improvements all working together. Our focus is therefore multi-faceted, working on collection, sorting, recycling, product design, awareness and behaviour change and much else.
We believe that efforts should be directed towards building a circular economy, regardless of the material involved, be it plastic, aluminium, paper, glass, or any other valuable material. Retaining the value within the system through recycling is vital. The Alliance emphasises on the importance of waste management as it is an area that often needs more political attention and more resources. Closing the gap in waste management is a crucial aspect of achieving circularity, as the availability of more recycled materials reduces the need for new resources. The Alliance’s projects in India currently concentrate on creating high-value, ethically-sourced and digitally-traceable recyclates.
In India, we are seeing positive developments ranging from the revision of the Plastic Waste Management Rules 2022, to the improvement of sustainable manufacturing and the Extended Producer Responsibility law, which mandates using recycled content in packaging. The government also increasingly focuses on startups and ventures promoting circular economy principles. We foresee significant developments in India’s recycling landscape, driven by increased waste management efforts, designing for circularity, resource efficiency, and the adoption of refill models.
These developments will help foster a greater collaboration between public and private players, civil society, policymakers and waste workers to bring about a positive change in the country.
4.The world is moving towards lesser use of plastics through a ban on single use plastics, and thereby fewer generation of scrap, but encourage recycling. How workable as a solution to plastic waste is the use of biodegradable and compostable material?
There is no silver bullet to the plastic waste issue – especially, if we see it in the broader context of protecting the environment and sustainability. While bans may help address parts of the plastic waste problem, there may be unintended consequences. As such, any possible trade-offs and all consequences of such policies must be well-analysed and understood. It depends on a wide array of criteria and the local context if alternative materials are, in fact, more sustainable. For example, does the alternative have a lower or higher carbon impact? Could it disrupt food supply chains? Can existing waste management systems handle new materials? Issues such as these must be fully understood before new solutions are implemented.
We believe that addressing the issue will require a wider range of solutions, such as
- Reducing the unnecessary use of plastic materials;
- Substituting materials only if the substitutions are not more harmful to the environment;
- Improving design for reuse and recyclability;
- Enabling collection, sorting and recycling.
Since plastic waste management is a complex issue, the Alliance engages with various stakeholders, whether they are state governments, municipalities, local NGOs and industry experts, to develop solutions, discuss strategies and develop a cohesive approach to address the plastic waste pollution issue. We believe in working towards effective solutions that address unique challenges and advance greater circularity. We are working to create these models that will have a long-term positive impact and bring about a meaningful difference for different communities across the globe.
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