Recycling plastic: india does away with waste imports

Indian recycling companies now only recycle domestic waste. The quality of this waste is inferior to that of previous imports.

Indian waste management must be modernized Photo: Nick Kaiser/dpa

For a long time, plastic from Germany and Europe was a valuable raw material for the family-owned company Shakti Plastic Industries in Maharashtra, with which it did good business. "But now hardly anything arrives," says Rahul V. Poddar, who runs the family business. Last September, India and its special economic zones banned the import of used plastic. This was followed in October by a tightening that also includes chopped plastic.

In 2018, Germany alone exported one million tons of plastic waste, mainly to poorer countries, where they are to be recycled. According to the Basel Convention, which regulates the global handling of hazardous waste, this means recycling. But what really happens to old films and bags in the countries concerned is often only checked by local authorities. This was also the case with German exports to India.

As recently as 2018, German imports of used plastic to India had risen to a good 68,000 tons, putting the country among the top five buyers. A total of 160,000 tons came from the EU. But in the future, India wants to recycle mainly its own waste. The Mumbai-based think tank PDUSM, which maintains close contacts with the ruling BJP party, was instrumental in this decision. It launched its campaign in November 2018, criticizing the increase in global waste shipments to India.

Yet India itself generates 26,000 tons of plastic waste every day, according to media reports. This is not much compared to Germany, for example, but it is still a lot for the developing country. So far, the trade in used plastics has been good business. However, no one likes to take plastic that has been laboriously collected in landfills, especially not the registered recyclers. They rely on plastic waste from Indian industry or from abroad. But they are now cut off from imports.

Plastic from Germany was of good quality

For Indian recycler Shakti, it’s a change, but doable. His machines are rattling: "India has enough of its own plastic waste," says Poddar. Even though he liked to get the raw material from Germany because it was of good quality. "In India, systematic separation has only been in place for a few years," he says. Much of his supply now consists of packaging from faulty goods that didn’t make it to the Indian market. Since the import ban, however, he has had to mix in more additives and elastomers for his production, some of which are made from oil.

"Plastics recycling in Germany and Europe is changing a lot at the moment," confirms Jorg Lacher from the German Association for Secondary Raw Materials and Waste Disposal (BVSE). The trigger for this is once again China. The country was the main consumer of global plastic waste until it severely restricted the import of used plastic at the beginning of 2018. Other Asian countries such as India, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia initially followed in its footsteps as waste importers until they too imposed import restrictions.

However, as investigations by the environmental organization Greenpeace showed, this does not mean that no more garbage is coming into these countries. In Malaysia, for example, the illegal trade in plastic waste is flourishing – also from Germany.

Rahul Jain of the think tank PDUSM is therefore calling for a temporary halt to international trade in packaging waste. He welcomes the decision of the Basel Agreement of May this year, but considers the implementation to be "very difficult". That is why it is important to modernize India’s waste management and strengthen the recycling sector in industrialized countries, he said. Otherwise, illegal export of plastic waste to Third World countries will continue, Jain said.

This research was supported by a grant from the Indo-German Media Network/Bosch Foundation.

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