India is plagued by plastic waste. But solutions are on the horizon.

The fight against garbage

On the bus from Mumbai to Pune. Gentle hills, fertile plains. Paradise actually. If not for the garbage and the discarded plastic everywhere – empty bottles strewn along the dusty roads and torn plastic bags, even in the trees.

The trip is eye opening: expansive India, with its 1.3 billion inhabitants, has an equally massive garbage problem. 15 million kilograms of plastic waste accrue there every day. And only slightly more than half of it is collected and recycled, according to a report from the American online newspaper “Huffpost.” The rest spreads uncontrollably, landing in alleyways, in front of homes, near freeways, in rivers, in the ocean and from there onto the seashores.

“What we do now is crucial to the future of our planet.”
Harsh Vardhan, India’s Minister of the Environment

Ban on single-use plastics

The government has at least recognized and addressed the problem. On World Environment Day in June of last year, Minister of the Environment Harsh Vardhan announced plans to ban all single-use plastics nationwide by 2022. At the same time, he wants to improve waste management and recycling systems. “This is a significant time in history for humankind; what our generation does now is crucial to the future of our planet,” says the minister. Mumbai has assumed a pioneering role here: immediately after the announcement, India’s business metropolis enacted a local ban on single-use plastics.

A common sight: garbage litters the roadside in India.

Too valuable to throw away

One thing is clear: plastics are too valuable to throw away – especially the durable, high-quality and specialty plastics. In contrast to single-use plastics, these are urgently needed. High-tech plastics are the material of choice for meeting the many challenges, besides its garbage problem, that India is faced with.

Urbanization, for example: the country has 46 cities with a million or more inhabitants, in some cases with overflowing slums, chaotic traffic and frequent smog. Well-insulated, inexpensive plastics provide sustainable, affordable housing. On the other hand, other properties of plastics can help develop relatively environmentally-friendly electromobility solutions and improve the food supply and the income situation of farmers. All of these are global challenges which are magnified on a much larger scale in India.

Help for the sacred river

The country is also a global hotspot in terms of waste. According to one study, the Ganges River, which is regarded as sacred by Hindus, is by far one of the top ten rivers of the world in terms of flushing the most plastic waste out to sea each year. But this is about to change. The Indian-born US citizen Priyanka Bakaya and her company Renewlogy plan to collect the plastic and recycle it – a chemical process converts the plastic into fuel in a relatively short time. The Ganges Project is the starting point of Bakaya’s “Renew Oceans” initiative, which hopes to gradually clean other large rivers.

Closing loops

The initiative is supported by the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, a global network of companies launched in early 2019. The 30 founding members from the chemicals, plastics, consumer goods and waste management industries, including Covestro, want to help reduce plastic waste – through better waste management and solutions for the sensible reuse of plastics.

Ultimately, it is about thinking and acting in loops on a large scale. Priyanka Bakaya sums it up: “Our goal is to create a real circular economy for the valuable molecules found in plastic, so that they are no longer released into the environment.”

Stefan Paul Mechnig

More stories

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Mobility

The Indian government is strongly committed to electric vehicles and smart cities. High-tech plastics are the key to this.

Urbanization

Metropolitan areas like Mumbai are in urgent need of sustainable living solutions.

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