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Vol. 9 No. 4 - October 2003

Plastics Recycling and The Need For Bio-Polymers

By: Almitra H. Patel

Indians have a remarkably small ecological footprint compared to citizens in advanced countries. Non-biodegradable waste in large Indian cities averages just 50 – 100 gm per capita per day, compared to 1-2 kg in the West. Sadly, this is often disparaged as “backwardness” or under-development, rather than recognizing and appreciating the natural conservation culture of Indians, who will repair and use appliances and cars for years, hand down clothing to relatives or servants, waste no food, and even save paper and string for re-use. However, the sheer abundance of thin-film plastics has broken this habit. The sheer availability of not just carry bags, but bread wrappers, packaging of fresh foods and provisions like rice, dal etc, shrink-wrap, micro-packs of cosmetics and pan parag etc is far beyond the need or capacity of families to re-use them. So they get thrown away, and this has overwhelmed the ability of cities to handle this waste. Only low gauge low-value plastic is a problem, as milk pouches etc are rarely thrown away; they still find their way directly to waste buyers.

Organic waste has been a valuable resource for centuries, returning nutrients and micronutrients to the soil in a sustainable cycle. For this reason, the composting of biodegradable municipal waste is now mandatory for every urban local body under the MSW Rules 2000. But thin-film plastic packaging is creating a major problem.

In 1993 it was estimated that 1.5-2% by weight of municipal waste reaching the dumpsites and compost plants is thin-film plastic. Some recent estimates are as high as 7-9%. What is worse is, that regardless of the weight content in waste, by volume thin plastics are equal to or even more than the volume of compost produced. The capital cost and operating cost of machinery to separate out plastics from processed waste currently makes the compost unaffordable high-priced for farmers.

Almost all plastics are in fact recyclable, but are not recycled in practice. Why not? We need to study this, and see whether, where and how biodegradable plastics can substitute the non-recycled items.

RECYCLING GIVEN LEGAL BACKING

Waste picking is a well-established urban-survival tactic in mega-cities that act as magnets for the poorest, and recycling is a flourishing business in the informal sector in India. It supports up to 0.5 % of the population in million-plus cities, and saves the city 10-15% of its total waste management costs through reduction in waste volumes handled. Yet small-scale cottage industry recycling is still a mostly unauthorized twilight activity as recyclers often operate behind closed windows and doors and avoid registration.

WHAT IS RECYCLED?

i) Thin-film plastic

Today, India’s landscapes are littered with so much thin plastic that many citizens desire a total ban on its use, with some initial success that fades with time. Since a few hundred carry-bags are required to make a kilo of saleable scrap, it is simply not economical for waste-pickers to collect such ultra-thin waste, even if it is 20 micron or more, so it remains in the garbage in increasing quantities.

This will change as soon as higher prices for waste-pickers are possible, say Rs 5 per kg to a rag picker. This may happen because the year 2002 has seen an exciting new use for such waste. The KK Process chops thin-film road-waste into tiny flakes, and its customized dosing machine can introduce this light fluff uniformly into viscous bitumen in hot-mix plants. Tests at Bangalore and the Indian Road Research Centre proved that resultant roads will have as much as three times better life and resistance to both heat, cold, rutting and cracking.

ii) PET bottles

Globalisation has flooded Indian cities with packaging that is theoretically recyclable but is not in practice recycled. PET bottles for soft drinks and mineral water are the biggest problem, as they end up in gutters and block surface and underground drains, causing flooding in low-lying areas and enormous economic loss annually, especially to the poorest that normally live in the worst-affected areas. The US and EU have stringent laws for take back of such wastes, so they dump their PET waste almost free in India for recycling mainly by IOC’s Futura Industries at Chennai. They recycle this and post producer waste from PET bottle factories, leaving our own post-consumer waste uncollected and unrecycled, because we have no laws at present to prevent such waste dumping into the country.

WHAT IS NOT RECYCLED?

i) Tetrapaks

These popular and convenient multi-film juice cartons, made of cardboard-plastic- film-metal-foil combinations are hard to recycle conventionally. Worldwide, Tetrapaks are converted into a hardboard product in very many countries.

Presently there is no recycling market for Tetrapaks. There are already machines which pulp and strip the paper portion of the LDPE films for recycling them, but the foil layer interferes with recycling of either the paper or the plastic layers. It is worth exploring whether metallised biopolymer films can substitute for the existing layers, to make the whole multi-film product more recyclable. This application should be technically easy, because the bio-polymer is sandwiched between other layers and is not exposed to liquids or light.

ii) Multi-film packaging, metallised BOPP

Metallised-film packaging for biscuits, chips and namkeens are a similar major problem waste. The problem is made worse by hundreds of products packaged in tiny 5-10-gram pouches, mostly metallised or heavily printed, that are physically impossible to collect at all. If trials prove that BOPP (like unrecyclable Coke-Pepsi labels) or metallised BOPP can also improve the tackiness and durability of asphalt roads, a better street price may make them worth collecting. Micro-packaging sachets are the most needed and most promising mass market for biopolymers. This is technically a difficult application that requires research, because these sachets are invariably hung up for display and exposed to light and perhaps rain. Their shelf life is also fairly long, posing a challenge to biopolymer designers.

iii) Styrofoam

EPS or Expanded Poly-Styrene is rarely recycled in India, mainly because so much of this ends up as dispersed bulky waste thrown out from homes or offices that buy equipment packaged in this. Worldwide, the foamed polystyrene packaging for TVs, computers, washing machines etc is being replaced by pulp shapes, or ingeniously folded cardboard shapes, or bubble-plastic, or, literally, packets of biodegradable popcorn. This is in response to a ban on the use of polystyrene packaging in 20 US States, with Europe following. If biopolymers can be foamed, this is a worthwhile niche worth exploring.

iv) Use-and-throw Catering Consumables

Tea-and-coffee cups, ice cream and yoghurt cups etc are made of HIPS (high impact poly-styrene), which is recyclable. The problem here is not the recyclability, but the sheer bulkiness of scattered cups, which again are not worth a rag picker’s effort to collect and sell. The problem is even worse for railway meals, where all such cups get thrown out of the windows all along the tracks. This is an application that badly needs biodegradable plastics. It is technically very easy, as the products are exposed to light and liquids for a very brief period. It is also important to promote or even require the use of biopolymer disposables at tourist spots, in sanctuaries etc.

v) e-Waste from the Electronics Industry

Recycling mobile phones, computer hardware and the control panels in equipment like washing machines is an extremely complex recycling issue, and technically very difficult, because of the tremendous range of equipment involved and the huge number of different materials that are made into the composites which go into a single piece of equipment, or even a single chip. Currently, most e-Waste is burnt in bulk to recover the trace quantities of gold, silver, platinum, copper etc present in different components. In the process, the PVC coating on very thin connecting wires gets burnt too, forming deadly dioxins. Non-chlorinated substitutes for PVC insulating coatings do exist, but are not used because they are somewhat costlier than PVC. In spite of this, their use should be made mandatory in order to improve the eco-friendly recyclables of the products, which use such micro-wires.

Biopolymers could be explored if any exist that have good insulating properties, are cost-effective, and can be disintegrated in acidic or alkaline media to recover the copper wires without burning.

WHERE NOT TO USE BIO-POLYMERS !

A moneymaking racket is going on in cities like Pune, where degradable bags are required to be used for biomedical waste management. Since this is destined for almost immediate incineration, it is totally meaningless to insist on or require the use of either degradable or biodegradable bags. The bags only need to be chlorine-free like the usual LDPE or HDPE bags. Such unethical commercial exploitation needs to be put a stop to, otherwise it will give biopolymers in general a bad name.

On the technical front, some research is currently going on to make PVCs degradable through the blending of biopolymer components. This is disastrous, and the question needs to be asked, Why PVC items need to be made degradable. PVCs and similar chlorine or halogen containing polymers, when in contact with organics in soil, generate dioxins in situ. This will get accelerated if the PVC is broken down over time into minute fragments. Presently there is hardly any PVC to be found in general municipal waste because (like milk pouches) it fetches a high price from waste-buyers (kabadiwalas) and is very extensively recycled.

ECO-LABELLING NEEDS REFORM

India launched ‘Ecomark’ as a voluntary eco-labelling scheme from 1992 onwards for up to 14 industry categories to encourage industry to adopt eco-friendly production methods and consumers to pursue sustainable consumption patterns. Unfortunately, not a single Indian or foreign industry has “volunteered” to sign up.

There is need for streamlining and reforming the whole Ecomark procedure. Once it catches on, biopolymers can find a place in the packaging of Ecomark products, because their packaging aspects also figure in the granting of the Ecomark.

NEW LEGISLATION

India urgently needs policy concepts and legal requirements like those in the EU countries and USA to prevent its cities from drowning in non-biodegradable waste. There is need for new legislation and market strategies in the Indian context to promote product stewardship, producer responsibility and waste minimization. Many lessons can be drawn and adapted from similar legislation around the world. It is only a matter of time before India is required to adopt waste minimization and eco-friendly packaging rules. So there is a need to study the US, EU and other world legislation on biopolymers and draft suitable legislation for consideration by our lawmakers from now.

Mrs. Almitra H Patel is a Member, Supreme Court Committee for Solid Waste Management, 50 Kothnur, Bagalur Rd, Bangalore 560077


This article has been reproduced from the archives of EnviroNews - Newsletter of ISEB India.


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