Single-Use Plastics: Transitioning towards a Circular Plastics Economy

Single-Use Plastics: Transitioning towards a Circular Plastics Economy

  • 6th June 2021
  • Mumbai
  • Waste

Written by: Jenisha Kiri

Plastics, undoubtedly being the revolutionary material of the late 20th Century and the early portion of the 21st Century, have continued to rise inexorably owing to their importance in our lives and their breadth of applications. With close to 150 years since plastics were invented, they have grown from being a chemical curiosity at the end of the 19th Century, through a period of rapid growth and development as a largely cheap alternative to several other materials in the mid-20th century, to its present-day applications in our daily lives as essential materials as their prerogative. Another reason why technicians prefer using plastics is that they offer advantages such as lightness, resilience, resistance to corrosion, colour fastness, transparency, ease of processing, and other such qualities.

What are Single-Use Plastics?
Single-Use plastic items are products made wholly or partially from plastic, and which are primarily conceived to be used only once (or a few times) before they are thrown away or recycled. These include, among other items, grocery bags, food packaging, bottles, straws, containers, cups, and cutlery. Since the 1950s, the exponential growth of plastic production and consumption patterns has largely outpaced the use of any other material. With the change in consumption patterns across the past few decades, there is a global shift from the production of durable plastics to single-use plastics (including packaging). Single-Use Plastics are a glaring example of the drawbacks of the throwaway culture. Left alone, plastics don’t break down; they break up. Over time, the UV rays from the sun and heat gradually turn plastics into smaller particles until they, in due course, become microplastics. These microscopic plastic fragments, no more than 5 millimeters long, are hard to detect – and are just about everywhere. Some microplastics are even small by design, like microbeads used in facial scrubs or microfibres in polyester clothing. They end up entering the food chain and water bodies including rivers, seas, and oceans. Microplastics, if ingested, prove to be fatal for most organisms as they easily accumulate inside the body and cause health issues such as punctured organs or intestinal blockages (Lindwall, 2020).

Single-Use Plastics Consumption
Single-Use Plastic items, most of them, were introduced for specific purposes. Disposable plastic utensils, for example, became popular among American citizens in the 1960s. They used these disposable products at homes and in restaurants to cut down on labour costs and energy required to clean traditional silverware. This benefitted in the reduction of the spread of diseases as well. In the late 1970s and 1980s, plastic bags were introduced to address concerns about the use of paper bags and the number of trees being cut down to cater to the demand for these paper bags. Today, most plastic items are designed to be used only once, delivering benefits beyond convenience, cost savings, and supporting public health. For example, SUPs products that prevent the spread of infection are crucial in the medical industry. Instruments such as syringes, applicators, drug tests, bandages, and wraps are often made to be disposable. Furthermore, SUPs products have been enlisted in the fight against food waste, keeping food fresher for longer durations thereby reducing the potential for contamination (This is Plastics, 2020).

Plastics Economy in India
The Indian plastics industry was primarily established in 1957, starting with the manufacturing of polystyrene. The industry grew steadily with a promising beginning, adding to the pool of polymers they were manufacturing. The consistent growth of the industry’s plastics processing machinery subsector, coupled with the growth in the petrochemical industry, facilitated the growth of plastics processors in the country. This growth helped promote the use of plastics in different sectors of the economy and the daily lives of the people (Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, 2018).
The Plastics industry is an important component of the Indian economy, employing around four million people and plastics consumption in India is expected to increase significantly in the future with the plastics packaging industry growing at an annual rate of 20 percent. High population growth, economic development, rapid urbanisation, and increasing workforce in India will continue to drive an increase in the consumption of plastic goods and disposal of associated plastic wastes. With these growth trends, and as a country that highly depends on the informal waste sector, India faces the mammoth challenge to tackle domestic plastic waste pollution (Lewis, Retamal, & Atherton, 2018).
The Government of India notified Plastic Waste Management (PWM) Rules, 2016 on March 18, 2016, superseding the Plastic Waste (Management and Handling) Rule, 2011. These rules were further amended and named as ‘Plastic Waste Management (Amendment) Rules, 2018. These rules apply to every Waste Generator, Local Body, Gram Panchayat, Manufacturer, Importer, Producer, and Brand Owner. The PWM Rules mandated the thickness of carrying bags made from virgin or recycled plastic to be more than 50 microns, barring those carry bags made of Compostable plastic, complying with IS/ISO: 17088.

Plastics and Circular Economy
Plastics contribute to economic growth, but their current production and use pattern, on a linear model of ‘take, make, use and dispose of’, is a primary driver of natural resource depletion, waste, environmental degradation, climate change, and has adverse human health effects. The circular economy is an alternative to the current linear, ‘make, use, dispose of’, economy model, which aims to keep resources in use for as long as possible, to extract maximum value from the, whilst in use, and to recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of their service life. It promotes a sustainable production and consumption model implying that it is restorative and regenerative by design. It embraces systems thinking and innovation, to ensure the continuous flow of materials through a ‘value circle’ with manufacturers, consumers, businesses, and government, each playing a significant role.
The World Economic Forum (WEF), reported that material (technical and biological) cost savings of up to USD one trillion annually could be achieved by 2025 by implementing the applications of the circular economy worldwide. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation summarised the goals for a circular economy in the plastics sector as follows: improve the economic viability of recycling and reuse of plastics; halt the leakage of plastics into the environment, especially waterways and oceans; and decouple plastics production from fossil-fuel feedstocks while embracing renewable feedstocks.
Shifting away from a linear to a circular economic model is an enormous task that would require political will and an innovative entrepreneurial spirit at the local levels. The McKinsey Center for Business and Environment published a report titled ‘The circular economy: Moving from theory to practice’ which presents a strong case for the need to move towards and embrace a circular economy especially with regards to the plastics industry. The report also enlists a framework of six actions that would assist this transition from a linear to a circular economic model, calling it the ReSOLVE framework.

Regenerate: It involves a broad set of actions that would help maintain and enhance the health of the earth's ecosystems. These actions could pertain to reclaiming, retraining, and restoring resources that we have extracted from the biosphere. With regards to the plastics economy, all such initiatives which are curbing the conversion of crude oil into plastics and returning the plastics already in the environment back to the ecosystem in the form of useful resources are illustrations of regeneration.

Share: This action entails maximum utilization of products to get the most optimal use, further eliminating waste and duplication possibilities. It includes prolonging the life span of goods through maintenance and repair, peer-to-peer sharing of privately owned products or public sharing of pools of products, and reuse of products throughout their technical life spans. In the plastic economy efforts, which upcycle or redesign waste/discarded plastics into usable consumer goods will align with this action.

Optimize: This action is about improving the efficiency and performance of products by removing waste energy and materials from their supply chains. This could be achieved by automation or leverage big data etc. It should be noted that these actions don't require changing products or services entirely. In the case of the plastic economy in India, this is particularly useful, especially with regards to the recycling and reprocessing industry where the scope for improving efficiency in the supply chain by employing localised technological solutions is evident.

Loop: Under this category fall those actions that ensure finite resources are processed, looped around, and put back into the economy, rather than dumped into the landfill. For renewable materials, it involves anaerobic digestion and the extraction of biochemicals from organic waste. Remanufacturing products or components and as a last resort recycling material are all actions that fall in this category. If we consider Loop for plastics, all such initiatives that ensure that waste and single-use plastics are reused by remodelling it into another product or are recycled properly are a part of this action.

Virtualize: This action involves the use of digital or virtual means to deliver utility. With the ongoing fourth industrial revolution, the role of technology and innovation is alarmingly high. In this day and age, basic utilities like books or music, online shopping, and even virtual offices are being delivered using digital means. This has led to the virtualisation of all economies, from local to global. In the world of plastic, virtualizing has enormous potential at different stages of the supply chain, especially at the recycling stage where most of the work is undertaken informally by a largely unorganised workforce.

Exchange: This final category describes such processes which involve replacing old materials with advanced renewable ones, upgrading or replacing older ways of doing things. Regarding the plastics economy, developing alternative materials and products for single-use and disposable plastic goods are the major actions under this category.

Multiple frameworks have been developed by international organisations, academicians, etc. to cater to the analysis of on-ground cases by the private sector/individuals to inspire action against SUPs. Apart from the UN’s list of actions, other frameworks also exist that explain how plastics enter and exit the economic and social spheres, which could act as guiding structures to document localised solutions to the plastics problem. A holistic approach to the plastics waste issue is the optimal solution to help curb the adverse effects it has on the environment, biodiversity, health, and the plastics economy in general.

Sources: News Agencies
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