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Plastic recycling in India: a country is cleaning up

Sorter at a plastic market, where the garbage is processed and resold Photo: Natalie Mayroth

Since India banned the import of plastic waste, recycling companies have been taking care of the local mountains of rubbish - with success.

Arun Godha * clicks on a picture on his computer, then a second. Then he opens a video that shows tied, transparent bales in a shipping container that look like shiny cotton wool - plastic film. “These are the goods that we imported,” says Godha in his office in the Indian metropolis of Mumbai. His business model, which collapsed, was based on these bundles. They came to India by ship from Germany, France or North America. For 35 years the Godhas recycled plastic waste, almost exclusively from abroad.

In 2018, 160,000 tons of plastic waste from the EU reached India with the aim of being reborn as recycled pieces of plastic. But because the recycling capacities are not large enough for the waste plastic produced in India alone, the government decided to ban imports from September 2019. This also applies to post-industrial waste, which, like Godha, was melted into granulate. India should take care of its own garbage in the future.

But it doesn't work out that easily, says Godha. He welcomes India's fight against plastic, as a good 26,000 tons of plastic waste are generated every day, 60 percent of which would be collected, according to the Ministry of the Environment. That is a lot, even if per capita consumption in India is much lower compared to western economies.

But “plastic is not just plastic,” explains Godha. His company cannot recycle films and bags from household waste. Production in the west coast port of Kandla, 800 kilometers away, is therefore idle. Godha had to lay off 12,000 workers. Every month almost a thousand containers from abroad reached the Kandla special economic zones in the west and Falta in the east of India.

Half of the rubbish had to be returned

The government stipulated that at least half of the goods had to be processed and returned abroad. On his brochure with the “Made in India” logo, Godha therefore advertises in English and Mandarin for granules that await a new life as a water tank, cable or film in agriculture.

Granulate from plastic waste is the basis for further processing Photo: Natalie Mayroth

The doorbell rings at the reception. Godha's former German trader with his wife has announced their arrival. A couple in their mid-thirties from Northern Germany. One wants to advise how things could go on. Jan Renke * would continue to export to India if there was a legal basis. “We shipped clean materials like polyethylene pallet packaging to India,” he says. Since the Indian market collapsed, Renke has found other buyers. However, he would like to maintain contact in India. Business was going well.

The businessman from Germany asserts that his company only sells according to regulations and with a license. The containers then went from Germany to India for 50 to 74 euros per ton. The man in the suit cannot understand the import ban. “The companies here have invested in expensive recycling systems that are now vacant,” he says. However, he cannot rule out that smaller German companies have exploited loopholes in the system and exported unauthorized material to India. Germany sent almost 70,000 tons of plastic waste to India in 2018. The ban has reduced exports to 41,000 tons.

Plastic waste on the move

"When packaging waste is exported from Germany, it is usually considered recycled and can be integrated into the recycling quotas," explains Michael Jedelhauser, consultant for recycling management at the Federal Association of the Nature Conservation Union in Berlin. Not only the quantities of used plastic from Germany had increased sharply in India after China, the world's largest buyer, stopped its import at the beginning of 2018.

Then you bet on countries like Indonesia or Malaysia. A year and a half later, India is now also rejecting the import of foreign plastic waste. Nevertheless, plastic got there even after the import ban, in a transitional phase in the form of flakes.

On March 6, 2019, the Indian Ministry of the Environment announced the import ban on plastic, initially a six-month transition phase and finally the total ban from September 2019. And on October 3, it was announced that the regulation should also include plastic flakes.

Object of dispute plastic flakes

But the Association of Manufacturers of Plastic Containers (PCMA) lodged a complaint against it. The Ministry of the Environment gave in. "After the first ban, the importers switched to other types of plastic," says President Biswajit Ghosh. As a result, more polyethylene terephthalate, or PET for short, came to India; the shredded beverage bottles are more expensive and of higher quality. And so the amount of flakes rose from 48,000 in 2017 to 100,000 tons in the following year.

Tamanna Sharma, sustainability advisor

"India uses less plastic than countries that are constantly producing new plastics"

Importer Godha is sticking to its position. He is against the ban. "We couldn't have hidden 18,000 tons of polluted waste every month," he says. "Over twenty years ago, India did what countries like China and Thailand had to catch up with import restrictions in recent years." In 1996, India reorganized the import of old plastic. "The licenses issued by the government were an incentive to set up factories in free trade zones." That was also what the Godhas did at the time.

Sorter with shredded pieces of plastic in the Mumbai slum Dharavi Photo: Natalie Mayroth

Soiled material needs a washing process for which none of the importers have the necessary permission, says Godha. “The import permit was only issued for clean plastic waste. Which is why people have always paid well for the goods on the Indian recycling market, ”he says. His deliveries were checked. “It is good when the importing countries are checked,” says the German dealer Renke. In Germany this happens too seldom. He is addressing the fact that the measures had to be tightened in Malaysia and Indonesia because the pollution from foreign plastic waste increased. According to Renke, the controls in India were much stricter.

Alleys full of plastic bottles

But not all plastic that is processed in India is clean. A few kilometers from Godha's brightly tiled downtown office is Asia's largest slum, Dharavi, where lots of plastic is being prepared for recycling. Whole collections of plastic open up in the side streets - black cutlery, transparent loose lids or blue household cleaning bottles.

Rahul V. Podaar, entrepreneur

"For three years we have been concentrating more on plastic from household waste"

They are sorted by hand, partly outside on the street, but also in a dim annex full of sacks and boxes, where empty packaging and plastic toys are piled up. It's tight and it smells. Both are normal in Dharavi.

Five women sit in a row next to each other. In the middle there are bins into which you throw the sorted parts. In the adjoining room, a loudly shaking machine whirls particles into the air. It actually shreds the collected plastic, but that has side effects. There is a lot of dust. When filled in sacks, the small, sometimes glassy-looking shreds are easier to transport. The sorters receive just under 4 euros a day.

Entrepreneur Rahul V. Podaar Photo: Natalie Mayroth

Most of this work takes place further outside the metropolises. Where electricity costs are lower and authorities have less control. Most workers in Dharavi, but also elsewhere, work in the so-called informal sector, that is, without any security or large protective measures. 90 percent of all jobs in India are informal.

“In Dharavi, however, you can see how much recyclable plastic is in the cycle and that it is constantly being downcycled,” says sustainability consultant Tamanna Sharma, who traveled to Mumbai from the capital Delhi to take a closer look at the Dharavi system. "Downcyceling" means that a part is not recycled just once, but several times. However, the quality of the end product continues to decline. Sustainability consultant Sharma praises the Indian recycling system. "The recycling industry has potential, India uses fewer new materials than countries that are constantly producing new plastics and simply exporting the waste to us."

In Germany there is the yellow bin for plastic waste, from pharmaceutical packaging to toothpaste tubes. Various approaches are being tried in India to separate rubbish, but this is still not very organized. One of the problems: what is once fished out of the bin, the landfill or the sea is dirty. And so the Athak citizens' initiative in the north of Mumbai collects plastic waste separately at home and in schools. Founder Asmita Gokhale started doing it in 2016 and has been collecting enthusiastically ever since. The plastic waste she collects is converted into crude oil in a factory. But the sheer mass of plastic waste continues to grow.

Premier modes as a clean man

Much that is not collected can be found in the bushes, on the street or tattered on the coast. This fact may have called the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the scene. Modi had already initiated the “Clean India” campaign in 2014 and in 2018 was awarded the “Champion of the Earth” environmental prize by the United Nations. The premier also announced a ban on single-use plastics for 2022.

When the government announced something big in August 2019 for the 150th birthday of the Indian founding father Mahatma Gandhi on October 2, many assumed that the ban on single-use plastic would be brought forward. But that did not happen. The environment ministry had backed out as the industry warned of job losses and higher prices for plastic. India's economy is weakening. Even before the corona pandemic, Asia's third largest economy was growing more slowly than it has been since the global financial crisis. In a developing country like India, it feels like a recession.

In India, where around 14 million tons of plastic are used annually, the ban could have reduced consumption by an estimated 5 to 10 percent. The first plastic bans still exist. For example, wooden cutlery was introduced at the state airline. In addition, several states and cities have their own regulations.

Corona stops the reusable quota

For example, single-use plastic was banned in the state of Maharashtra in 2018. The southern Indian state of Kerala followed suit at the beginning of the year. It would be a year and a half before the ban across the country. But with the coronavirus, single-use plastic is back too. And this time it will be more difficult to convince people of reusable alternatives.

There is skepticism in the recycling industry as to whether a nationwide ban is still to come. Uncertainty spreads. The demand for regranulate, i.e. granulate made from recycled material, has been falling since mid-October 2019. At the same time, the Association of Plastic Manufacturers in India (AIPMA) reported the closure of 10,000 plants, which had recently been running well, before the pandemic. The reason: manufacturers of plastic products bought less raw material.

Not all Indian recyclers were hit as hard as Arun Godha. Shakti Plastic Industries has switched to local material. Its quality is worse than that of previous imports, says Rahul V. Podaar, who runs the family business. He sensed that the government's “Clean India” initiative would also have an impact on the recycling sector. "For over three years we have been concentrating more and more on plastic made from household waste," says Podaar.

"The import was a good thing"

At the end of March during the lockdown, Shakti Plastic had to close. But the company not far from Mumbai was reopened early with reduced staff. It was considered necessary. Around 2,000 tons of plastic are processed here every month. Before the import ban, this also included material from Germany. "Its quality was so good that we mixed the imported plastics with domestic consumer plastic waste to improve their quality," explains Podaar. "The import was a good thing for customers and producers."

The material that is considered waste elsewhere could be used economically here. Today he uses more additives. In his plant, he also processes packaging that did not make it onto the market: for example, defective or incorrectly printed milk cartons, Indian industrial waste, as well as plastic bottles and other collected plastic waste. Podaar gets it from informal waste collectors. There are said to be up to 4 million of these “rag pickers” in India.

At Shakti Plastic Industries, bags of crisps or biscuits are then shredded and washed by cogwheels in a system several meters long. It quickly becomes clear what the difference between clean material and consumer plastic is. The smell stings in the nose, a centrifugal dryer blows the foils out again with a hum. Veiled-faced workers stuff the shiny scraps into sacks while the fans rattle on the ceiling. A few meters away is a machine, an agglomerator, which is then fed with it.

The foils are compacted into gray-brown flakes in a thermal process. The end product is used in road construction, for plastic chairs or boxes. Because of their poor recyclability, this film packaging is otherwise often incinerated or disposed of in landfills, which counteracts efforts to achieve a circular economy and independence from petroleum. The 2 to 3 percent of the no longer recyclable remainder is also sent as fuel in cement kilns at Shakti Plastic.

A tough, warm mass

Composite foils are processed in a hall. In a second plastic granulate is produced. In the extruder, plastic mixes with additives and is heated so much that a viscous, warm mass is created, which is pressed into straw-thick strands by a kind of meat grinder, which then cool in a basin until they are cut into small pieces. The result is small, coarse-grained granules that tumble into sacks.

This processing is profitable for Rahul V. Podaar. He gets his raw material from companies and the collectors. Since 2016, the “Extended Producer Responsibility” requirement has included companies based in India in the disposal of their product waste. These include big names such as the beverage manufacturer Pepsico and the conglomerate Tata. Nevertheless, Podaar states: “There are thousands of recyclers, but only a few are registered. That is the biggest challenge and that is because the government never encouraged these activities. "

Podaar has learned to overcome hurdles. In cooperation with NGOs such as the Acorn Foundation, they train “garbage collectors” in the Dharavi slum. To facilitate the work on both sides, they take part in local awareness campaigns. "In other countries there are guidelines to use a certain percentage of recycled material in production," says Podaar, "we could also benefit from this."

* The names were changed on request.

The research was carried out by the International Media Scholarship / Indo-German Media Networke.V.supported.