Sustainability – But much still required to be done – Part II

Making reprocessing more effective

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This next set of objectives can be addressed only after the two basic objectives have been initiated and reasonable progress has been made in successfully making them widely understood and assimilated by all system partners and getting them committed to making the whole thing work.

The secondary objectives described below will then need to be implemented; these should preferably be addressed and initiated in the following chronological order although some of them could run concurrently. It is important to remember that each of these objectives has to be an ongoing, comprehensive and continuous system that progressively evolves as it goes along. So, in a sense, these objectives will, over a period of time, become concurrent activities.

Consolidation of collected waste and delivery for reprocessing
Considerable investment and effort have to go in to ensure effective segregation that will make reprocessing more efficient and for consolidation of the collected segregated waste for delivery and distribution to reprocessors and recyclers. Even quality checks may have to be instituted at every stage. This cannot be done by individual corporate organizations or even an industry-wide association. This can efficiently be done only by an across-the-board collaborative body that undertakes this on a country-wide basis. A whole new supply chain or loop will have to be established and administered for each category of waste to ensure that the whole system works properly. Civic bodies, local state governments and residents’ associations will have to actively participate in this exercise (this is going to be a daunting prospect unless all concerned are fully committed to achieving these objectives).

Labeling and package communications
All brand owners will have to redesign package labeling and package communications to ensure that consumers are clearly told what their responsibilities are and what they need to do to ensure the recycling/reuse/regeneration of resources is a continuous circular system. Brand owners will have to prominently display the relevant recycling symbol(s) so that consumers know which bin the waste goes into (I can see that there will be at least six or seven color-coded bins in use in every household including one for storing food scraps or contaminated waste that cannot be hygienically or safely put into the normal streams – these will be either incinerated down the line or consigned to landfills).

I am also assuming that a universally accepted set of recycling symbols for different basic materials like different grades of plastics, paper/board, tinplate, aluminum, glass and mixed scrap will have been standardized and statutorily mandated across the entire supply chain. Some of these responsibilities will also have to be driven home at the point-of-purchase in retail outlets and at the point-of-use in households. As mentioned earlier, this has to go hand in hand with the Customer Education initiatives described in our last issue so that the issues are clearly explained and understood – it takes only a small amount of mixing up of waste or lack of commitment (remember, municipal bodies and semi-government agencies have a big part to play) to undo all the elaborate plans laid downstream.

(Fortunately for all of us, and, quite ironically, a large part of the packaging waste is expected to be made up of mixed and printed materials or waste organically contaminated with food scraps or products which will have to be willy-nilly consigned to waste-to-energy systems or landfills. This will continue to be the case, at least until new technologies are developed to successfully separate constituents of multi-layered structures and metalized substrates to economically recycle each of them into high-grade discrete material resources with good properties and sufficient purity for effective reuse in high-quality applications.)

While this will not entirely meet the needs of developing a totally circular economy, it will nevertheless go a long way towards realizing this holy grail. Here, again, the government will have to play its part and a raft of legislative mandates may have to be laid down, notified and rigorously implemented or enforced to ensure that everybody, including the average consumer, the civic agency network and the common man, falls in line.

Waste recycling and reprocessing facilities
Extensive systems will have to be set up to reprocess and recycle package waste into useful input material resources. Here, again, it does not make economic sense to have these owned and operated by individual companies on a limited scale for their own consumption. At best, they can be set up by corporate organizations on an industry-wide basis with commitments on buying back the regenerated output by individual participants.

Large-scale reprocessing facilities will have to be developed and located across the whole country (it does not make sense to ferry either scrap or regenerated resources over long distances) and the entire industry/civic bodies’ network will have to actively participate in making them profitable. If necessary, whole new end-use applications and self-sustaining markets will have to be developed to fully utilize their reprocessed output. All this would be well beyond the capabilities, infrastructural resources and financial means of individual companies to undertake all this by themselves.

Here, again, the government can pitch in by facilitating the whole process and offering support like allocation of cheap land and providing attractive incentives – both financial and infrastructural – to industry and research/academic institutions. This will go a long way towards successful implementation and development of waste recycling and reprocessing systems.

Reprocessing – need for technology and end-use development
There has to be a considerable investment and focus on developing new reprocessing technologies to regenerate useful input resources (like the joint initiatives announced by Indorama/Unilever for 100% recycling of PET bottles, developing bio-resins and PEF to replace PET, etc. – all of which have been written about in our previous issues). A large part of this thrust has to be targeted towards addressing multi-layered and metalized structures and printed materials which are effectively non-recyclable at the moment but, ironically, constitute an indispensable and significant part of the packaging for high-barrier requirements and longer shelf-life applications, especially in India.

Another significant objective has to be totally doing away with landfills. We are rapidly running out of land that can be allocated for landfills, making them extremely expensive options besides which they are the largest man-made sources for generation of methane, which is 23 times as potent as CO2 as a greenhouse gas in causing global warming. I am totally against land-fills as this means totally writing off the input resources; if there is no alternative use for the waste, it is much better to put it through waste-to-energy systems like incineration and heat recovery. Very few people realize that plastics have an extremely high calorific value that could be effectively tapped (only fuel gases and fuel oils have higher calorific values).

A significant advantage of collective and collaborative work on the development of new technologies is that considerable domain knowledge exists with individual organizations or companies, all of which can be successfully pooled and synergistically utilized with help from research/academic organizations for the common good. A case in point – when the first oil crisis hit us in 1974, every bit of natural gas was being flared; today, it is not only the techno-economically preferred feedstock both for heating/automotive applications and industrial use but also delivers better functional properties for petrochemical products. All this has been possible only through focused research and development of natural gas technologies. I have great faith in industry’s technological capabilities to replicate this success in other areas as well through collective and collaborative efforts.

As mentioned above, it will certainly be necessary to ensure that all the output generated by reprocessors is fully and effectively used for first-rate end-use applications that represent equivalent cycling or, preferably, upcycling; these should not have to go into cheap low-grade moulding processes that would constitute downcycling. The markets for this output will have to be large enough to be self-sustaining and circular. Only then can we ensure that reprocessing plants will be profitable and provide adequate returns on investments. (For example, PET resins recovered from used bottles used to produce fibre for garments which can be regenerated after use into inputs for fibre-fill applications which can then be regenerated after use into building products by compounding them with minerals or into geo-textiles and scouring pads.)

Conclusions
This is only a broad outline of some of the more important measures that need to be undertaken to immediately fulfill extended producers’ responsibilities. Actually, we need to look well beyond just meeting statutory requirements. We must all take a futuristic view of sustainability imperatives and work on collective efforts that will help develop circular economies and significantly extend our stocks of non-renewable resources apart from making the world a better place to live in both for ourselves, for all habitats and for future generations.

I sincerely hope all stakeholders – industry, government, civic bodies, citizens, academic institutions, etc. – will sit up, take notice and set suitable reforms in motion. I eagerly look forward to receiving feedback on my suggestions at techeditor@ippgroup.in.