Welcome to the second in my two-part series on waste management in India. If you missed the first part on challenges, I suggest you read it quickly here before reading this week’s story. This article originally appeared in our Circularity Weekly newsletter. Subscribe to the newsletter here.
I struggled to describe my recent trip to South India in simple terms. Our inability to live within the limits of what our planet can provide and absorb was on full display the first two days of the trip. What we saw was an indictment against the human race. During the first 24 hours, one member of our group was even wise enough to encourage us to keep our conversations between us positive so as not to descend into depression.
Frankly, I didn’t have the imagination after those first two days to see how the situation could be improved. Fortunately for me, and for all of us, there are people who have the imagination to make a difference.
The organizer of the trip to India and the facilitator of all the work we have seen is reuse global. This young company, founded by three graduates of the Wharton School, is on a mission to solve the problem of plastic pollution. The amazing thing about rePurpose is how quickly it has grown. Founded in 2016, the company already has more than 50 employees and carries out projects in five countries. These projects range from removing ocean-bound plastic from the environment to improved sorting and new revenue streams for material recovery facilities through plastic credits. The projects eliminate more than 19 million pounds of waste annually that would otherwise go to the environment, according to the company.
It might be a good time for me to introduce the concept of plastic credits. A plastic credit can be considered a renewable electricity credit or a carbon offset. When a company buys a plastic credit, it pays for someone to collect 1 kg of plastic that would otherwise go to the environment to compensate for 1 kg of plastic it has released into the world. If this method works as intended, companies that sell products in hard-to-recycle packaging (think breakfast/granola bars, pet food, snack bags, etc.) can lessen their environmental impact. while looking for better packaging solutions.
I am skeptical of this process. First, I worry that too many companies are using credits as an excuse to slow innovation in plastic packaging because they can absolve themselves of responsibility for the pollution they create. I admit this is a cynical position, but given the current plastic pollution crisis we are facing around the world, my cynicism may be justified.
According to rePurpose and others, $30 billion is needed every year to address the plastic waste crisis.
Another concern I have is that diverting plastic waste from the environment through plastic credits does not necessarily lead to circularity. Multi-layer plastic films (MLPs), for example, are still not being recycled into valuable new materials through these credit programs. In many cases, MLP is burned in cement manufacturing facilities (cogeneration) to replace coal. This represents a more beneficial second use than environmental leaks, but it is certainly not circular.
This trip, however, has somewhat tempered my skepticism. Why?
Significant funding is needed to tackle plastic waste and there aren’t enough organizations lining up to provide this funding if they don’t get the credit. According to rePurpose and others, $30 billion is needed every year to tackle the plastic waste crisis. To put this into perspective, Ecosystem Marketplace put the total value of voluntary carbon offsets, actively traded for more than two decades, at just $1 billion per year in 2021. Ideally, we would like to see absolute, direct reductions in plastic waste (and carbon emissions), but these funding programs for offsets and credits can serve as a bridge to that future vision.
When rePurpose Global looks at the problem of plastic waste, it separates the solutions into a three-step process:
- Activate field organizations that are already part of the waste management system
- Provide additional funding to support growth and increase scale
- Verify that the project not only diverts more plastic, but also meets global environmental and labor standards
What I know now is that rePurpose and other organizations that share its goal of reducing plastic waste simply couldn’t fund their work without a credit system.
So what kind of projects does rePurpose fund?
Waste Ventures India
The first solution we were able to visit in Chennai was the Neela Sapana project, managed by Waste Ventures India (WVI). The project focuses on sorting mixed waste, selling materials with recycling value and baling MLP to send to cogeneration. In this case, the MLP is an additional material that otherwise would not have been responsibly processed due to its $0 value in recycling markets. So far, WVI has recovered over 200,000 kg of additional waste through its partnership with rePurpose.
What stood out to me the most about installing WVI, however, were the working conditions. The facility had well-marked safety processes, excellent lighting, a good flow of materials set up through the facility, and a separate area for meals and breaks. When we spoke to the women who work at the facility, they all expressed how thrilled they were to feel appreciated and to feel like they were doing an important job. We also heard about how they can use the extra income to help pay for their children’s education and provide a better life for their family.
When we traveled from the southern part of India to Kerala, we visited the Hara Bhoomi Project, an effort by rePurpose and green worms to capture ocean-bound MLP. The partnership with rePurpose enabled Green Worms to expand its footprint, offer new services and ultimately divert an additional 1.5 million kg of plastic waste from its former core operations. In the case of this project, one third of the diverted plastic ended up going to recycling channels (PET, polypropylene, etc.) while two thirds were sent to nearby cogeneration facilities.
In terms of personnel, Green Worms was able to hire over 100 material sorters to work in its expanded facilities. For most women, many of whom had never formally worked outside the home, they are bringing home a new source of income for their families while working in an environment with regular breaks from monotonous sorting on the job. treadmill, a strong sense of community, and (perhaps most importantly) consistent hours around which they can plan their lives. Speaking with the women who work at the settlement, I was struck by the pride they take in their work which has long been looked down upon in Indian society. They know, and their families and friends know, how important this work is to improving the quality of life in Kerala and beyond.
Key points to remember
Are plastic credit systems the way to finally get us out of the plastic waste conundrum we find ourselves in? 100 percent no. Can they play an important role in the transition to innovations that do not lead to plastic pollution? I believe him.
I’m going to share some plastic credit resources that I’ve read below, but let you make up your own mind about their usefulness. Like almost everything in this space of circularity, it is nuanced with shades of gray.