How the science of biodegradability can help take a big step towards a cleaner India
Managing waste is a critical challenge for India’s cities.
This article was first published Scroll.in.
Waste generated by modern society is one of the greatest problems of the 21st century. A 2014 Planning Commission report estimates that urban India generates around 60 million tons of waste. Most of this remains untreated and as India grows rapidly, the challenge of managing waste will only become more daunting.
Waste can be broadly classified into three varieties—synthetic, inorganic and organic. Synthetic waste, like plastics, and inorganic waste like minerals, iron or other metals are typically not biodegradable. This means that these types of waste will stay on in the environment for decades. If untreated, these can seriously harm the ecology and contaminate ground water. Organic waste like food is biodegradable, but poses a different problem. With lack of proper segregation and treatment, organic waste can turn into a breeding ground for diseases and pose a public health risk. With India’s landfills perpetually over-flowing and waste incineration requiring large amounts of energy, waste management needs an innovative and holistic intervention, and urgently so, if we want to achieve our cleanliness goals as a country.
Waste management is a complex problem. To simplify it, we can think of it as two basic challenges. The first is a scientific one—what materials constitute waste and how waste can be treated efficiently. The second challenge is infrastructural—how to create efficient systems required for collection, treatment and safe disposal of garbage.
Synthetic plastic is one of the materials that generates a significant amount of waste. In general, synthetic plastic is a very versatile product with valuable properties such as durability and leak-prevention. Hence, eliminating its use often isn’t an option. In such circumstances, a big breakthrough is to create biodegradable and even better compostable plastic that can replace the synthetic kind. These innovative new plastics have the physical properties that make plastic so useful but are made from natural and easily biodegradable materials like from any sugar generating plant (e.g. tapioca, corn or potato).
India alone generates 5.6 million metric tons of plastic waste every year, according to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). 80% of this waste is ‘potentially’ recyclable but 40% of it isn’t even collected. With increasing awareness of the waste management challenge, there is now a growing interest in the adoption of compostable plastic in the country as an alternative to the synthetic variety. Disposal of food waste is one important area where the use of compostable plastic can make a significant impact. Synthetic plastic bags retard biodegradation of food waste and do not break down in composting facilities. On the other hand, compostable plastics can help deal with food waste in a safe and sustainable manner as a pilot initiative in Pune shows.
In 2012, Pune piloted an initiative in two residential complexes where citizens were taught to segregate organic and inorganic waste and encouraged to use compostable bags made from BASF’s ecovio®. This is an innovative polymer that is certified compostable according to all global standards and is therefore biodegradable and partly bio-based. These bags when used to collect and source separate food waste for example, can be completely consumed by microorganisms together with the contents of the bag. This is a natural process of biodegradation enabled by the microorganisms. At the end of the composting process, the biodegradable ecovio® breaks down into just carbon dioxide, water and biomass. In the Pune example, after only 90 days, the bags along with the organic waste got converted into valuable compost. The city is now working on making these bags available at a price lower than synthetic plastic carry bags, to drive wider adoption.
The second big challenge of infrastructure is steep but Sweden offers an inspiring example of a country that has been able to control waste through policy and infrastructure. The country now recycles nearly 99% of its garbage. This “recycling revolution” was achieved through a) incentives that minimised the production of waste and b) creation of infrastructure like advanced recycling stations built within 300 meters of any residential area. As a result, from 1975, when only 38% of the household waste was recycled, Sweden is now at a point where just about 1% enters its landfills.
India too is seeing a groundswell of infrastructure and governance initiatives. In 2012, New Delhi proposed a ban on the manufacture, sale, storage, usage, import and transport of all kinds of plastic carry bags. In March 2016, Central Pollution Control board issued the new Plastic Waste management rules (PWM 2016). These rules clearly define compostable plastics based on their biological degradation process. It has not only exempted compostable plastics from the thickness criteria but has also set a deadline to phase out non-recyclable multi-layered plastics in 2 years.
BASF is working with local government bodies to popularise the use of certified compostable plastics for public consumption. As more cutting-edge scientific solutions to minimise and eliminate waste are implemented on a large scale, the dream of a cleaner future with less waste plaguing the environment seems more possible than ever.
For more information about ecovio®, see here.