Waste Management: Circular Economy to Linear Economy The COVID-19 outbreak has put a stop to secondary segregation and resource recovery

By Ashish Jain

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India was performing well in the circular economy space and in few other segments. India continued to be the leading nation with respect to collection and recycling of PET plastic waste as the country was collecting 60 per cent of its total PET consumption and these were recycled as well. But this scenario changed due to the impact of COVID-19.

On the one hand, environmental conditions are improving under lockdown as its impact on air and water can be observed. AQI of cities are getting better and there is a drop in PM 2.5, and carbondioxide, among other harmful gases, concentration in the air. Also river bodies are getting better. At present, rivers are cleaner than ever and aquatic lives are having their best time.

But on the other hand, the waste management sector might face the worst time in coming days due to various reasons. From the last 10-15 years, there was tremendous work being done on the circular economy and we achieved success in many areas. The government of India, recently introduced a policy to strengthen the collection, segregation, and recycling of plastic waste. Entrepreneurs took waste management as the best career opportunity and invested knowledge, time and money to make this sector more sustainable and profitable. Things were getting streamlined and suddenly, COVID-19 was declared as a pandemic and after that India announced a nationwide lockdown for 21 days, which was further extended by another 19 days.

Since 20 April, many waste management agencies, those that were working on ground and providing door-to-door waste collection services to societies, stopped their services. Now only municipalities are collecting waste that too on different frequencies. In some places waste is being collected on alternate days, in others once in a week. There is no secondary segregation and resource recovery. Waste that is collected by the municipalities are being disposed either in landfills or dumping yards or at a very few occasions to waste-to-energy plants.

There is no secondary segregation because workers are fearsome of getting infection by Covid-19 and there are no buyers of segregated waste as recycling plants are shut. On 20 April, few recycling plants started their operation after some relaxation on lockdown given by the central government but this could not help the circular economy as recyclers started their operation with limited capacity, i.e. 30 per cent only and getting the supply of waste material from the aggregator was a challenge.

In many places, workers had moved to their native places and in some areas, they are waiting to move out once the lockdown is over. There would absolutely be no or less people who will collect or segregate waste items and channelize to recyclers. There would be fear among waste workers to collect and segregate waste as they may be infected by the deadly virus. There would be less qualitative waste in the waste stream and therefore, waste workers may lose their interest in waste management and will opt for some other services. Recycling units may not get required supply of waste material from the aggregators and their operational cost may go high and will not be economically feasible to run.

Lastly, when the price of crude oil is less than water, then who would be interested in recycling waste? In such a scenario the virgin plastic will become much cheaper than the recycled plastic hence our circular economy will once again become a linear economy.

Wavy Line
Ashish Jain

Founder Director, Indian Pollution Control Association

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