The writer is former chairperson, UP Forest Corporation; former principal secretary, forest & environment; former chairman, UP Pollution Control Board, and former Honorary Secretary, Indian Institute of Public Administration (IIPA), UP Regional Branch
At present, only 12 percent of the 300 million tons of plastic produced annually is recycled, and the remaining 88 percent goes to landfills or to the environment. What can be done to improve the recycling of plastics? One reason of low recycling is that the present system of recycling itself is highly inadequate on a number of grounds and needs to be changed. The present mechanical system can recycle only certain types of plastic and not the more complex plastic products like the ones used for food packaging. Currently, only two types of commonly used plastics, PET and HDPE, are economically viable for recyclers. Further, the mechanical process of recycling also degrades the material recycled. This means that each time plastic is recycled, its quality is diluted and hence its life time is reduced. The next most used plastic Is Polypropylene which is used for packaging, vehicle parts, household appliances, outdoor furniture, computers and phones. This is not recyclable by traditional technology of recycling. The same is the situation for PVC, LDPE and Polystyrene (PS).
What is needed is an advanced recycling technology that uses mixed waste plastic as feed-stock and produces products, with no compromise in quality. We need new ways to recycle and reuse plastics endlessly in a closed loop system, so they never become waste. This will decrease the need to manufacture new plastics from fossil feed-stocks, and will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Already such new technologies have been introduced to the market. New technologies complement mechanical recycling by using plastic that cannot be recycled today and converting it to products with no compromise in performance. Such innovations, when applied on a large scale would convert the current linear economy into a circular economy, where recycling plastic endlessly is possible. New recycling technologies also maximize plastic’s value.
Such technologies break waste plastics down to their molecular building blocks and build them back up into new plastics. This cannot be done by mechanical recycling without degrading the final product quality. These new technologies recycle plastic that cannot be recycled today and convert it to products without any compromise in quality. Combined with mechanical recycling, these technologies can keep plastic materials in use for a longer time.
Polypropylene is one of the three largest plastics used in the world. It introduces flexibility and impact resistance. But only one percent of Polypropylene is currently recycled. Whatever little is recycled holds onto pungent smells and contaminants, and it can only be made into black or grey products like park benches or car bumpers. John Layman, head of material science at Proctor & Gamble, developed a revolutionary process to remove colour, odour, and contaminants from polypropylene plastic waste and transform it into a “virgin-like “resin, which is used for making plastic products.
John Layman is the founding inventor of PureCycle Technologies which presents a major development in recycling capabilities, and focuses on propylene. To recycle polypropylene into higher – value products, the plastic waste has to be purified first, and in an energy-efficient way. Scott Trenor, a scientist at Milliken and Company, has contributed a set of plastic additives to increase the viability of PureCycle materials. Now Milliken and PureCycle are working together with plans to start commercial-scale production at Pure Cycle’s first plant, in Ohio, in 2021.The first PureCycle plant is expected to purify and recycle 119 million pounds of polypropylene. This is an important beginning, though such projects needed to be installed at many locations to recycle a major part of Polypropylene produced in the world.
The challenge is to create a circular economy where plastic waste never leaks into the environment. This challenge doesn’t concern technology alone. We need a diverse group of people, companies, NGOs, and governments to work together to solve the problem of plastic waste. The seven major types of players involved in recycling are:
1.Plastic Producers with latest technologies.
5. Waste management Companies.
7. Community and NGOs.
For meeting the challenge successfully, consumers need to change their behaviour and send more and more material for recycling by putting the plastic waste in the right bin so that supply to recyclers is adequate and they can supply against their current orders. Only when consumers are sensitive and aware, plastic waste will reach the right recyclers and not end up in a landfill, or on a beach or in a forest. At the same time, recyclers need the ability, technology and financial incentive to process more plastic than only PET and HDPE.
Suitable policies are also needed to meet the plastics waste crisis. Banning the single-use plastics does not appear to be a good policy. Policy changes will be required so that new technologies are accelerated towards commercialization. Existing policies have been made with mechanical recycling in mind. It is sometimes not clear in official policies if materials produced from new technologies would be considered ‘recycled materials” or not. Brands have their goals for recycling or recycled content. They want the plastics produced from advanced recycling to count towards their goals. Existing regulations, therefore, have to be amended. The existing recycling infrastructure has to be improved so as to meet the market demand for recycled content. This in turn requires incentives for investment into research and capital.
Meanwhile, demand for recycled plastic is high and is increasing. Consumer goods manufacturers are committing to using minimum percentages of recycled content in their packaging as required by new laws. New legislation in California and Europe requires such percentages of recycled content of plastics in their packaging. In North America, there was a demand for one billion pounds of recycled polypropylene in 2012.And the demand has been growing every year. Even in places where new laws are not yet in place, many companies and organizations have committed to significantly increase their use of recycled plastic materials.
Already, there is high awareness and better coordination among the seven types of players at different locations of the world. It inspires a hope that very soon we shall be able to solve the problem of plastic waste. Our dream, our ideal is to convert the present linear economy (Produce, Use and Discard) into circular economy (Zero Waste: 100% Reusing, Recycling or Composting). In circular economy, we keep the plastic in the economy but out of environment. There are positive indications that the world is moving towards a circular economy.
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