OPINION: What it takes to get rid of plastic

KATHMANDU (The Kathmandu Post/ANN) - The ultimate determiner will be the budget allocation for waste management and industrial support for alternatives.

Plastic was once touted as a wonder substance for its versatility. But slowly, as its environmental impacts have come to the fore, people are having second thoughts. Although plastic owes its invention and early adoption in the developed world, the hazards of plastic pollution cannot be viewed as a problem of the richer world alone. With decreasing poverty and the resultant disposable income, developing countries are also experiencing a consumption-fuelled increase in plastic waste. What makes the situation dire in most developing countries is the lack of waste management infrastructure.

Once known to be the largest importer of American plastic waste, even advanced developing nations like China are struggling. China took the bulk of scrap plastic from around the world for the longest time. But in 2018, it put a ban on accepting the world’s used plastic. The gravity of the situation is also depicted by the Indian government’s recent decision to backtrack on a blanket ban on single-use plastic citing the crippling effect it could have on the supply chain and industry in an already slowing economy. India has now changed strategy to a gradual phase-out.

Least Developed Countries (LDC’s) like Nepal are even more vulnerable as most plastic waste here is either burnt in the open or ends up in landfill sites. With an unconcerned population presented with no other choice but to accept plastic packaging, plastic pollution is now a menacing problem. In Nepal, it is estimated that the share of plastic waste amongst total waste produced is about 16 percent. According to a 2018 study by the German development agency GIZ, Nepal produces an estimated 15,000 tonnes of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) waste per year. There is also a dearth of laws and regulations pertaining to waste management and recycling, compounded by the lack of an adequate budget for the same.

Domestically, waste management infrastructure is composed of loosely organised teams of waste collectors assigned to localities. These companies are known to utilise public land or river banks to sort and salvage plastic and other useful solid waste. With limited local recycling and upcycling infrastructure, a huge pile of what can be salvaged is sold to local waste collectors and the waste eventually finds its way to recycling facilities in India. The rest is transported to landfill sites. However, India’s ban on such imports effective from 2016 has meant that local collectors face more hassle as they now have to rely on informal routes.

A conversational interview with a contractor, employing people that work under precarious conditions on the banks of Dhobi Khola, confirmed that the prices of scrap materials including plastic have reduced due to oversupply. Like in the West, the rhetoric regarding plastic pollution in developing countries has focused on consumers rather than producers. This is partly due to the stellar work of industry lobbyists. It is indeed easier to blame the habits of collective individuals rather than to be singled out for blame. Also, industries have formed a habit of funding research for plastic alternatives as a way of getting around the negative press. Some major players are also known to claim outright that they have helped create jobs by supporting a recycling industry. Hence, recycling has received more attention than curtailing production at the source. Also, industries in developing nations are known to exploit weak regulations and casually introduce packaging strategies that involve plastic materials.

Given this, it is important to first devise a clear waste strategy and to decide whether Nepal should focus solely on recycling or also on reducing the use of plastic materials in the supply chain. The amount of plastic Nepal produces is not considered significant enough for large scale investment in recycling. Also, it will be some time before plastic alternatives are feasible. Hence, one idea is to derive sustainable revenue opportunities from recycled waste.

Innovative ideas to encash waste do exist. For example, ‘waste to energy’ plants process solid waste including plastic to produce non-intermittent electricity. The waste collected through this method is stored in bunkers to get rid of moisture and burnt at about 1,000 degrees Celsius to produce heat, which in turn rotates steam turbines to produce electricity. The process also captures pollutant gases and turns them into inert material without causing major pollution. The burnt residue can be converted into bricks and bitumen. This technology seems well suited in that it makes productive use of waste that would have otherwise headed to landfill sites and is also a viable substitute for heavily polluting diesel and coal-burning thermal plants.

However, recycling infrastructure in itself is a logistical nightmare and requires an expensive and complex waste management infrastructure. It also demands commitment from the public, as sorting waste often begins from the household level. Instead, it would be suitable to work with a two-pronged approach.

It is necessary to change consumer attitude by discouraging single-use plastic. Eateries are gradually replacing plastic straws and stirrers with alternatives made of paper and metal. Cities around the world are installing water fountains to discourage single-use water bottles. Moreover, the current focus in Nepal seems to be on plastic bags. Customers also need to be made aware of plastics that appear different such as the polyester, nylon and acrylic commonly used in clothes and shoes.

What’s more, a less expensive and simultaneous solution would be to target packaging strategies and supply chains. This should be done gradually; industries should be supported with ample time to transition. However, the onus lies on industries to gradually embrace plastic alternatives and biodegradables to assist in the rapid reduction of waste at its source.

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