Emerging Transformations in Material Use and Waste Practices in the Global South: Plastic-Free and Zero Waste in India
2.1. Zero Waste
- Phase 1: waste prevention via redesign and greater efficiency in production processes.
- Phase 2: waste avoidance via sustainable consumption and responsible purchasing behaviors.
- Phase 3: waste reduction via diversion and minimization.
- Phase 4: regulations and policies based on evaluations of waste processes.
2.2. Waste Challenges in the Indian Context
“recycled plastics are more harmful to the environment than virgin plastics due to mixing of color, additives, stabilizers, flame retardants, etc. Further the recycling of a virgin plastic material can only be done 2–3 times only, because after every recycling, the strength of plastic material is reduced due to thermal degradation” (p.2).
“The Government of India has taken resolute steps for mitigation of pollution caused by littered Single Use Plastics. The list of banned items includes -ear buds with plastic sticks, plastic sticks for balloons, plastic flags, candy sticks, ice-cream sticks, polystyrene (Thermocol) for decoration, plastic plates, cups, glasses, cutlery such as forks, spoons, knives, straw, trays, wrapping or packing films around sweet boxes, invitation cards, cigarette packets, plastic or PVC banners less than 100 micron, stirrers”.
- Six zero waste businesses/stores;
- Two zero waste stores and consultants;
- Five companies making alternatives to plastic;
- Two alternative service models within zero waste businesses;
- Three environmental organizations that are focused on reducing plastics;
- One zero waste consultant; and
- One environmental organization that is both focused on waste reduction as well as an upcycling social enterprise.
4.2. Concerns for Plastic Waste
4.2.1. Government Management
- Differences in facilities between cities and rural areas (i.e., people dumping or burning at night because of the lack of collection) (S11); difference in facilities between regions (i.e., the difficult to reach Himalayan region that is not accessible enough for recovery options) (S2, S13).
- Policy vs. implementation. “Even cities like Bangalore that are designated as ‘Smart Cities’ have these waste blight spots where kids play on or adjacent to waste and waste piles attract animals” (S5). This also includes ineffective bans and implementations (S9, S13, S15, S20).
- “Decision makers with limited vision and capacity” (S16) Zero waste stakeholders realize the need for more than an incremental shift, “saying no to plastics is a course correct, not a band-aid” (S5).
- “India has so many issues, that zero waste gets sidelined” (S2)
- High levels of PET are being recycled, but other types of plastics are not (S1); multilayer plastic has no value, not even for roads (S9); recycling is not a solution as it only happens for 1–2 lifecycles and then ends up as waste (S11).
- “Culture of burning flowing from government ‘cleanliness,’ we need to hear more things from the top, not just ‘look clean’” (S12). This refers to that cleanliness that involves not just sweeping all the waste away, or burning it, but taking a more critical look at waste generated.
- The downstream management of plastic waste is not working [insight from visiting plastic centers], “turning off the tap is what we need to do” (S9).
- Relaxed product regulation, a lack of awareness, and rampant greenwashing and misinformation. In general, ambiguity around the eco-friendliness of products, such as, for instance, falsely claimed biodegradable products (which also hurt the market for those selling truly biodegradable and compostable products) (S7, S14). Non-woven (polypropylene) bags are passed off as cloth bags (S14). Paper straws often have a petroleum wax coating, and they are also single-use and dependent on felling trees (S19). Products should not be able to be labeled ‘organic’ if not ‘plastic-free’ (S6).
- Lack of incentives to start a zero-waste business (S1, S14, S19).
- Most industries are still dependent on plastic packaging. Previous bans were ineffective (A large grey area and no legal action) (S8).
- A steep learning curve for how to start a zero-waste business with no support or training (i.e., for how to ship zero waste items without conventional bubble-wrap; how to store foods without damage; how to source products and work with supply chains, etc.) (S6, S11, S12, S18).
- Large supermarkets in India currently do not feel any pressure to offer zero-waste alternatives. First, they need customer demand, such as customers shopping with reusable containers (S11).
4.2.3. Environmental Policy Implementation and Enforcement
- “Most people do not realize the long-term effects of waste” (S17).
- “Waste is part of the background of India” (S20).
- “If you want to plant a tree, and start to dig, you realize how much plastic is there and can’t just forget about it anymore” (S11).
- Shock at the sheer amount of plastic generated every day in India (S1, S13, S16).
- Concern for clogged drains, waterways, polluted soil, and polluted rivers (S17).
- Impact of waste fires and air quality (S17, S20).
- “We’re eating 5 g of microplastics a week…we have to change. It’s for our next generation. If she [my daughter] can’t live here, what is the point of making money for my kids?” (S11).
4.3. Challenges in Plastic Reduction
4.3.1. Governance Level
4.3.2. Business Level
4.3.3. Social Level
4.4. What Would Help Shift India into a More Circular Economy?
4.5. Alternative Materials
4.6. Zero Waste and Circularity as a Process
5.1. Commitment to Zero Waste Values
5.2. Systems Thinking
The actual solution to the PET bottle crisis lay not in dealing with the bottles, but in cleaning up the groundwater. If the local water were clean, there would be no need for bottled water. To deal with the crisis of plastic wastes, Zero Waste principles would require resources to be invested in revamping the sewage system, and not in recycling PET bottles.
5.3. Circularity and Alternatives to Plastics
5.4. Materials Awareness and Leveraging Regional Waste Streams
5.5. Accessibility to Zero Waste Products
6. Implications: Recommendations to Support the Circular and Zero Waste Economy
Data Availability Statement
Conflicts of Interest
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|Method||Process||Externalized Social and Environmental Harms|
|Landfilling||Engineered and haphazard methods of disposing mixed wastes on a plot of land. The oldest method for dealing with wastes. Modern considerations include chemical and hazardous leachate, fires, and running out of capacity .||The degradation of land; leaching of waste toxins into groundwater, such as cadmium and endocrine disrupting chemicals; the release of methane (potent greenhouse gas); harmful for neighboring communities; the attraction of wildlife (ingestion, sickness); disease vector (mosquitoes, bacteria); responsibility of municipality collection and citizen taxes and cooperation (not producers) .|
|Mechanical Recycling||Collection and segregation; cleaning and drying; sizing; pelletizing; and fabrication. This process often results in the downcycling of plastics, meaning conversion into a lesser quality of plastic product (which could end up in the landfill after its second life) ||Multilayer packaging clogs machines and is not recyclable; plastic is predominantly downcycled, and virgin plastic is combined to make the recycled product; depending on location of infrastructure, waste plastic can be transported long distances (CO2 emissions); responsibility of municipality collection and citizen taxes and cooperation (not producers). |
|Chemical recycling (depolymerization):|
|Pyrolysis (i.e., making fuel)||This technology is used for extracting fuel (syngas) from non-recyclable plastics (heating waste to temperatures as high as 2800F within a limited oxygen environment) [61,62]||Expensive; releases dioxins, mercury, and other heavy metals; harmful ash residue; difficult to maintain stable temperatures for operation (safety compromised); difficult to maintain stable temperatures for operation (increases emissions and burns recoverable waste streams such as organics);|
Responsibility of municipality collection and citizen taxes and cooperation (not producers).
|Gasification/Waste-to-Energy||Gasification is a recycling method where plastics are processed into gases, such as carbon monoxide (CO), Hydrogen (H2), and Hydrogen chloride (heating waste to temperatures as high as 2800F within a limited oxygen environment) .||Expensive; energy intensive (CO2 Emissions); releases dioxins, mercury, and other heavy metals; harmful ash residue; difficult to maintain stable temperatures for operation (increases emissions and burns recoverable waste streams such as organics); responsibility of municipality collection and citizen taxes and cooperation (not producers).|
|Incineration||Combustion and reduction to an inert residue (at least 850 degrees Celsius). “Incineration is not usually favored as a method of disposal because of very high capital, maintenance and operating costs, unreliability and adverse environmental impact.” ||Expensive; energy intensive (CO2 Emissions); releases other harmful health emissions such as dioxins; toxic ash residual; difficult to maintain stable temperatures for operation (increases emissions and burns recoverable waste streams such as organics); harmful to neighboring community; responsibility of municipality collection and citizen taxes and cooperation (not producers).|
|Paving with Plastics (for road building)||Paving with plastics concerns the addition of shredded plastic to the hot granite mixture (170C), which melts and mixes with the road paving mixture .||Transfer of chemicals from plastic into land or air; harmful for road workers; not a long-term solution to increasing plastic production ; responsibility of municipality collection and citizen taxes and cooperation (not producers).|
|Coprocessing||Plastics are sent to cement kilns where they are used as an alternative fuel (kilns operate at 1500 °C or more) .||Energy intensive (CO2 Emissions); depending on location of infrastructure, waste plastic can be transported long distances (CO2 emissions); responsibility of municipality collection and citizen taxes and cooperation (not producers).|
|Biomining||Biomining concerns recovering material dumped in existing landfills. For instance, Delhi’s Bhalswa landfill was mined for plastics that were then sent to a waste-to-energy plant .||Expensive; subsequent use creates CO2 emissions, contributing to climate change; hazardous to waste workers mining the landfill; responsibility of municipality collection and citizen taxes and cooperation (not producers).|
|EPR||A system where the producer of plastic is responsible to take back their product for recycling .||At the producer’s discretion how the material is recycled; producers often work off of quotas from which they collect a certain amount of material, which does not necessarily comprise all their material and prioritizes geographically accessible locations to collect and omits remote areas/those most needing waste collection, i.e., collection from Mumbai but not from the Himalayas. Social and environmental harms of the above processes still apply.|
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Conlon, K. Emerging Transformations in Material Use and Waste Practices in the Global South: Plastic-Free and Zero Waste in India. Urban Sci. 2023, 7, 47. https://doi.org/10.3390/urbansci7020047
Conlon K. Emerging Transformations in Material Use and Waste Practices in the Global South: Plastic-Free and Zero Waste in India. Urban Science. 2023; 7(2):47. https://doi.org/10.3390/urbansci7020047Chicago/Turabian Style
Conlon, Katie. 2023. "Emerging Transformations in Material Use and Waste Practices in the Global South: Plastic-Free and Zero Waste in India" Urban Science 7, no. 2: 47. https://doi.org/10.3390/urbansci7020047