There is growing evidence that recycling is not the only path, or the best path for promoting a circular economy for plastic packaging. However, recycling has a role, together with other strategies, for certain kinds of plastic waste and in certain situations.
Compared to waste management in developed countries, systematic waste management at scale, in India has been a somewhat more recent development. However, the collection of metal and paper from individual homes for recycling has been practiced for several decades and is prevalent all over the country.
The Plastic Recycling Handbook suggests that the recycling industry in India dates back to about the middle of the last century and was carried out in Western and Eastern India, in and around Mumbai and Kolkata. Here, products such as decorative sheets made of acrylic, bakelite and cellulose acetate were recycled into umbrella handles, buttons, pens, etc. Around the 1970s, recycled polyethylene, polypropylene began to get used for moulding cheap buckets and mugs.
However, a big change came about in the following two decades with the Indian economy opening up and the entry of foreign companies, an increase in consumer goods and packaging. The quantity of plastic packaging in municipal solid waste began increasing and so did the number of recycling units in the country. Today, there are four major recycling clusters located in the south, north, and western regions of India, with recycling units of different installed capacity depending on the resin (PET or polyolefins) processed (page 22 of report).
In India, PET began to be used widely around the 1980s; with its distinctive appearance, it was easy to separate manually from other kinds of rigid packaging (this is a significant factor in countries where informal workers segregate municipal waste), and a clear supply chain (collection-sorting-aggregation-processing) to a well-defined end market (polyester staple yarn) has been in place for decades. More recently, recycling units producing high quality PET granules have come up, but until regulations permitted the use of rPET in India for food contact (February 2022) these granules were exported.
However, all types of plastic packaging and non-packaging waste are not collected: the material must fetch a good price in the recycling market and waste workers should be able to collect a sufficient quantity to sell, relatively quickly. While mechanical recycling processes have been in action for decades, with the output pellets usually turned into products of a low quality.
For polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP) rigid formats, recycling is not of the closed-loop type, for the most part: products such as footwear, furniture, buckets, cable coatings, tubes and a number of households items such as jars, mugs, jugs, and toys are made of recycled material. Research suggests that cheaper recycled products serve the markets of the low-income classes of Indian society. These products can provide access to a better standard of living, support a vibrant market for recycled material, as well as livelihoods.
Flexible packaging (including the small formats and sachets) is almost always downcycled (if collection happens at scale) owing to the absence of technology for closed-loop recycling for the dominant multi-layer, multi-material packaging (makes up about 75% of the packaging formats): typical products made are tiles, boards, etc.
Data on India’s large recycling industry is not easily available but plastic recycling units are mostly micro, small and medium scale enterprises (MSME) of the economy and number about 4000.
To address the gap in information and assess the landscape of recycling, the India Plastics Pact Secretariat surveyed about 600 recycling units between December 2022 and February 2023, using questionnaires and interviews to gather information about installed capacity, operating challenges, the source of raw material, end markets and resins recycled (packaging, from municipal solid waste was the largest source of raw material in the surveyed units). Main findings from the report are that
- polyolefin recycling units make up two-thirds of recycling units (by number) in India,
- less than 5% of installed capacity is for closed-loop recycling,
- recycling units are unevenly distributed over the country; few recycling units are located in the eastern and central regions,
- a large proportion of recyclate is used for low-value applications, and
- installed capacity appears to be under-utilized at most locations.
The report also estimates recycling installed capacity and projected capacity, in the current EPR regime. It is clear that while recycling capacity exists, it is not of the high-quality, closed-loop type need to drive a circular economy for plastic packaging. To know more, access the report here.