Transforming waste into wealth: India's thriving recycling revolution

World Wednesday 27/September/2023 10:50 AM
By: Agencies
Transforming waste into wealth: India's thriving recycling revolution
New Delhi: Waste recycling in India has burgeoned into a multi-billion dollar industry, where distinct waste industries have carved out their niches in various regions. Moradabad, for instance, specializes in extracting metals from printed circuit boards (PCBs), while Panipat has become a hub for transforming polyethylene terephthalate (PET) into yarn. Innovative methods have even repurposed plastics into roads and construction materials, while unlikely substances like coconut husks, hair, and discarded tires find creative reuse.

Waste Generation and Paradox
 In 2021, India grappled with the daunting task of managing a staggering 960 million tonnes of waste annually. This paradoxical situation is evident, with illegal dumpsites and open street incineration coexisting alongside advanced, hi-tech waste management solutions awaiting widespread adoption.
The recycling rate for solid waste remains distressingly low. According to the Central Pollution Control Board, approximately 70% of this waste finds its way into landfills, many of which operate outside the bounds of legality and regulation that pose a significant threat to drinking water sources. India generates 62 million tonnes of municipal solid waste annually. Forecasts indicate this number could nearly triple to 165 million tonnes by 2030 and skyrocket to an alarming 450 million tonnes by 2045.
Municipalities struggle
Recycling efforts are primarily concentrated in larger cities, but even these regions struggle with inconsistent waste collection and recycling procedures. Insufficient funding often hinders municipalities from effectively processing the collected waste. Notably, as reported by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, two-thirds of the expenditure is already allocated to waste collection itself.
For good reason, entrepreneurs see great potential in the municipal solid waste sector. Recycling and utilising solid waste, especially the dry fraction, offer various business opportunities, reducing the strain on landfills. India is planning to build around 100 waste incineration plants, which could generate approximately 3 GW of energy from waste by 2050.
Informal Sector's Crucial Role
The current utilisation rates, whether through thermal methods or recycling, fall significantly short of their potential. Paper recycling stands at slightly below 30%, plastics at around 60%, and metal recycling hovers between 20% and 25%.
These figures, like most data related to waste management in India, are estimates, making their reliability hard to ascertain. According to Aditi Ramola, Technical Director at ISWA, this uncertainty stems from a substantial portion of waste being collected and recycled within the informal sector. Effectively integrating waste collectors in India's waste management system remains a significant challenge for the country today. These individuals play a crucial role, as many cities would struggle with waste disposal and recycling without them.
In the heart of Mumbai's Dharavi district, renowned as Asia's second-largest slum, a vibrant recycling hub has blossomed. This thriving ecosystem witnesses the tireless efforts of around 15,000 micro-entrepreneurs who dedicate themselves to recycling waste valued at roughly USD 1 million each year.
Their collective endeavours not only contribute to environmental sustainability but also provide gainful employment opportunities for approximately 250,000 individuals engaged in waste collection, trade, and daily labour activities.
While India is in the process of developing industrial collection and recycling systems, companies like Ramky Enviro Engineers Limited are already capable of processing substantial waste quantities. Ramky alone discusses handling up to six million tonnes annually, and similar companies have also expanded their operations successfully.
Economic Potential of Dry Waste
In the year 2021, a Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs report unveiled a potential annual revenue of Rs 11,836 crore through the recycling of dry waste. Additionally, the conversion of wet waste into compost and bio-CNG could yield an annual income of Rs 2,000 crore. Similarly, construction and demolition waste could contribute Rs 416 crore, treated sludge Rs 6,570 crore, and wastewater Rs 3,285 crore annually, contingent upon the essential processes of waste segregation and processing.

Plastic Pollution
Legislative measures are also in progress to boost waste utilisation that aim to achieve a mandatory 100% recycling and recovery rate for PET by 2025. India faces significant challenges in managing PET and other plastics, despite having lower per capita plastic consumption than developed Western countries. Due to its vast size, India ranks among the top five countries globally in plastic waste generation.
Approximately 30,000 plastic recyclers operate nationwide, primarily as small or micro-scale businesses. Nevertheless, roughly 40% of plastic waste still finds its way to landfills.
In India, the production and processing of plastics occur on a massive scale; however, a substantial quantity of plastic finds its way into landfills, posing an environmental challenge. One promising solution involves the incorporation of plastic waste into the construction of roads and other building materials.
This innovative approach gained recognition in 2021 when a remarkable 700 kilometres of the National Highway were constructed using plastic-derived materials. The inception of this concept can be traced back to its introduction in Chennai in 2002, marking the beginning of a transformative journey in road construction.
Notably, the Pradhan Mantri Gramin Sadak Yojana has spearheaded the integration of over 13,000 kilometres of plastic-enhanced roads, demonstrating the feasibility and potential benefits of this approach.
As environmental concerns intensify, ongoing investigations are assessing the impact of plastic roads on potential toxic spills and environmental damage. Encouragingly, initial findings are fostering optimism regarding the feasibility and sustainability of this innovative practice.
The Indian Roads Congress underscores that roads incorporating plastic components exhibit greater resistance to rapid deterioration, a notable advantage in the context of infrastructure longevity.
Furthermore, the Central Pollution Control Board has reported a reduced incidence of potholes on roads that incorporate plastic, further highlighting the potential benefits of this approach.
Garments crafted from discarded plastic bottles, specifically Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET), offer tangible benefits to both consumers and the environment. These plastic bottles, plucked from refuse heaps, undergo a meticulous cleansing process before being transformed into versatile polyester fibres.
These fibres find utility as filling material for cushions and pillows, as well as in the creation of textiles. The advent of recycled PET has even extended its reach to the attire of prestigious sports teams, including the esteemed Indian cricket squad. One noteworthy advantage of this eco-conscious approach lies in its reduced resource consumption and diminished carbon footprint.
PET Recycling Industry
However, it is worth noting that there have arisen certain safety concerns associated with the PET recycling process and the quality of resulting yarn. Nevertheless, the sector exhibits rapid growth and development. The town of Panipat has solidified its position as a prominent hub for these endeavours, with the movement gaining momentum in Ludhiana, Punjab, and various cities across Gujarat.
Annually, the nation generates a substantial 10 lakh tonnes of PET waste, with an impressive 90 percent of this volume undergoing processing. As a testament to its potential, the PET recycling industry in India is projected to soar to a remarkable $1.7 billion by the year 2028.
However, the utility of plastics extends beyond road construction, encompassing a wide range of applications in building construction and structural engineering. India, with an annual plastic production of 90 lakh tonnes, manages to process approximately 60 percent of this waste, underscoring the significance of effective plastic waste management strategies.
Projections also suggest that the plastic waste recycling market is poised to reach a substantial value of $10.2 billion by the year 2030, emphasizing the economic potential and environmental importance of sustainable plastic utilisation and recycling practices.
Prime Minister Modi's Clarion Call to Action
Recognising the severity of the plastic issue, Prime Minister Modi has urged citizens to reduce plastic consumption and opt for recyclable materials like wood, especially in the production of traditional Indian toys.
The Looming Deadline for Paper and Glass
Beside the impending plastic ban, there looms another critical deadline: a prohibition on sending paper and glass to landfills by 2025. The paper dilemma, however, unfolds a dual challenge.
On one front, substantial volumes of paper are still being disposed of improperly. Simultaneously, Indian paper producers grapple with a severe shortage of waste paper as a consequence of reduced consumption amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the Indian Corrugated Case Manufacturers’ Association (ICCMA), waste paper prices in India have doubled, rising from approximately $150 per tonne before COVID-19 to about $300 currently. However, this price increase is not solely due to domestic collection issues and the pandemic but China's actions also contribute to this trend.
The Electronic Waste Challenge
India is also grappling with the challenge of managing the growing volume of waste, particularly electronic waste, which has surged in recent years. Although regulations dating back to 2018 require manufacturers to establish systems for recycling discarded electronic devices, these efforts have made limited progress. In 2020, only 312 businesses across India were authorized to recycle electronic waste.
These businesses can handle at most a quarter of the nation's electronic waste output with their current capacities. Some relief has come from the informal sector that recycle up to 90% of generated electronic waste.
However, electronic waste poses a more significant risk compared to glass or paper waste because informal recyclers may not employ state-of-the-art methods, potentially endangering themselves and the environment.
However, the winds of change have begun to blow. A shift in mind-set and several proactive measures have elevated waste recycling into a burgeoning industry. The perception of waste has undergone a profound transformation.
It is now regarded as a valuable resource with the potential to generate substantial revenues. This paradigm shift extends beyond mere reduction of landfill waste and now it encompasses a reduction in reliance on fossil fuels as well.

The Economic and Environmental Imperative
Proper waste treatment or sustainable waste management is crucial for both hygiene and economic and environmental reasons. This includes its potential to contribute to energy generation in countries like India. According to India's Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change, India generates around 62 million tons of waste annually, with a 4% average growth rate.
Currently, India produces 70 million metric tons of municipal solid waste, with only 20% being recycled. The majority of the waste ends up in landfills and oceans, harming both humans and marine life and damaging the environment. Therefore, there is a pressing need for an effective solid waste management system in India.
Waste management in India holds the potential to be a $15 billion industry. A quarter of India's waste consists of recyclable dry components that often end up in landfills due to inadequate infrastructure.
When segregated and processed efficiently, this recyclable waste becomes a lucrative source of income. E-waste and plastics represent significant portions of waste generation in India. These waste components possess the potential for substantial revenue generation.
The Gold Mine of E-Waste
The PCB serves as the core of many electronic devices. Even when these devices become damaged, they retain valuable metal components.
Approximately 200 kilometres away from Delhi, Moradabad's economy thrives on discarded electronic gadgets. In this area, gold and various other metals are extracted. A recent report suggests that the country can extract gold worth 1.5 billion dollars from discarded PCBs. Only about 20 percent of the country's electronic waste is processed through formal channels, while the rest is handled by the informal sector.
The Environmental and Health Risks
Extracting metals informally can harm health and the environment. Hazardous methods like acid extraction and cable burning release toxins. India imports 8 of the 14 metals used in devices.
Extracting these metals this way can meet India's domestic demand. Formal e-waste collection and recycling will benefit many workers. Delhi alone has over 3,400 e-waste units with 1.5 lakh workers. Moradabad handles 50% of the country's waste PCBs. India generates 1.6 lakh tonnes of e-waste, but only 33% is managed. The e-waste and battery recycling sector could be worth $9.5 billion by 2030.
As an illustrative example, India, renowned for its coconut production, both as a producer and consumer, faces a conspicuous absence of large-scale recycling infrastructure for coconut husk fibre.
This valuable resource could find applications in construction, gardening, and as a sustainable fuel source. However, the government's report identifies the significant challenges of waste segregation, transportation, and logistics, particularly in smaller and remote municipalities.
Furthermore, the management of hair waste in India remains an issue of limited scientific oversight. Currently, the collection system is primarily cantered around larger temples, excluding salons and beauty parlours from participation.
A parallel scenario unfolds with rubber tires, as an astonishing 2.75 lakh tires are discarded annually in India, yet there exists no comprehensive system for monitoring their disposal.
India's waste recycling revolution is not just an environmental imperative but a pathway to economic prosperity.
Despite the challenges of waste generation and low recycling rates, the nation is making significant strides. The informal sector plays a crucial role, while visionary entrepreneurs and industrial giants are driving innovation.
The potential for wealth creation through recycling is immense, especially in e-waste and plastics. As India shifts its mind-set towards viewing waste as a resource that transforms trash into treasure and contributes to a sustainable future, the possibilities are boundless.