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By Amy Edwards 24 March 2021 6 min read

Plastic cans are used to take holy water from the Ganges River. These are sold in the market around the river. Plastics and other pollution regularly mix with offerings of flowers in the sacred river in India.

It started as a conversation between two Prime Ministers in countries separated by distance and culture.

But the ambitious partnership between Australia and India to reduce plastic waste is now likely to bring solutions for the world.

Science, industry and technical experts from both countries are identifying new ground-breaking technologies to drive innovation in the plastic supply chain and to create a circular model for plastic.

Each year, 90 billion tonnes of primary materials are extracted and used globally for plastics. Only nine per cent is recycled. Plastic waste leaks into the environment and creates large problems for terrestrial and marine ecosystems and species.

Both Australia and India need to take urgent action to reduce plastic waste.

How did the relationship develop?

In June 2020, the first bilateral India-Australia virtual leaders’ summit was held between Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. They agreed one of the topics they wanted to collaborate on was reducing plastic waste because of the environmental and economic costs for both countries.

The Australian government sought to leverage CSIRO's research and networks to identify opportunities for Indian authorities and Australian and Indian firms to build recycling capabilities and inform the circular economy of plastics.

CSIRO currently leads an international team for the plastic waste reduction project that includes the University of New South Wales and the University of Technology in Sydney in Australia as well as the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), and Development Alternatives of India.

Funded by the Australian government, the $4.5 million three-year project is in its first year, and at this stage, is mostly focused on reducing plastic waste in India.

However, as the initiative is evaluated and monitored over the years, there are likely to be more bilateral waste reduction activities between Australia and India.

A clean up drive in Prayagraj in Uttar Pradesh where volunteers from civil society organisations, municipality etc, are engaged in a process to segregate waste to analyse the type and quantity of plastic waste being littered near banks of river Ganges.

An ambitious project

“The plastic waste project was immensely ambitious in terms of the cross-cultural relationships we needed to create with scientists in India and Australia,” CSIRO project leader Dr Heinz Schandl says.

“However, we had some existing relationships from past collaborative global projects. So that was a great starting point.”

“It is an amazing experience to work with partners with complementary skills in a truly collaborative manner,” Vice President of Development Alternatives in New Delhi Zeenat Niazi adds.

“This really is the way transparent science for society and for the planet should be conducted, developing knowledge for the common good.”

The current work taking place has three major goals.

  1. To understand the size of the problem in India environmentally and economically.
  2. Map the Indian supply chain
  3. To connect science and industry and introduce several small-scale demonstration projects but with large industry backing. For example, small scale ventures in local communities such as the University of NSW’s project of turning textile and glass waste product into wall and floor tiles.

“At the end of the first year we are going to have a comprehensive understanding of plastic and polymer supply chains in India from cradle to grave,” Heinz says.

“We will know where the points are needing intervention for an effective circular economy. We are also already working on technology options like reuse and recycling.”

On the ground in New Delhi, Zeenat and her Development Alternatives team are becoming increasingly aware of the mechanisms needed to transition to a circular economy of plastics.

“With our partners, we are developing a comprehensive understanding of the policy and market ecosystems and the information, awareness and knowledge systems that nudge stakeholder behaviours towards responsible and sustainable management of plastics,” she said.

“We are providing inputs to the development of metrics for measuring the ‘volume, value and impact’ of plastics in the value chain and the ‘technology solutions’ at the different points in the circle.

Pilgrims carry water from the Ganges River in plastic cans back to their homes. When they come to refill, they often throw the old cans in the river and buy new ones to take further water from the river. Pictured at Kumbh in Haridwar.

Why plastics?

“By plastics we mean any material that is polymer based. Plastic is everywhere. It makes up our computers, it’s our sunglasses and in our kitchens,” Heinz says.

“Plastic is the most versatile material we have but very problematic at its end of life stage if we don’t treat it properly.”

India generates nearly 26,000 tonnes of plastic waste every day, making it the 15th biggest plastic polluter globally.

“Discarded plastic waste litter the country’s roads, rivers and forms huge mounds in garbage dumps across the country. The public and private sector is grappling with the challenge of addressing the burgeoning problem,” says Souvik Bhattacharjya, Senior Fellow and Associate Director from the Policy Analysis Division of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in India.

“The detailed value chain analysis as part of this project will provide a unique opportunity for data itemisation along select life cycle stages which is currently missing in India. This will help in informed and pragmatic decision making in the future.

“This project has given a unique opportunity not only to understand the challenges critically but more importantly, the opportunities that exist in managing the problem. The outputs from the project will have significant technology, process and policy implications for the country. “

India - the perfect place to find plastic solutions

Zeenat believes India is at an interesting crossroad with respect to its plastics economy.

“We are among the largest producers of polymers and among the largest generators of un-managed plastic waste leaching into terrestrial and marine ecosystems.  Yet, we are an economy and culture, still deeply embedded with the thinking that ‘no resource is waste’; and repairs, re-use and recycling are part of our daily lives.  All of this is threatened by the mindless adoption of global consumerist ‘take-make-use-throw’ cultures,” she says.

In the years to come, the Australia-India project team will establish demonstration projects and convert their learning into recommendations for policy, industry, municipal and consumer stakeholders as a ‘road map for a circular economy of plastics in India’.

The demonstration projects will foster innovation capacity for plastic recycling and industrial redesign using local and Australian industry partnerships. This will, in turn, identify growth opportunities, foster new industries and create more jobs.

“We are endowed with an amazing variety of bio-resources to replace non-biodegradable and non-compostable single use plastics.  Coupled with technological capability, plus a growing start-up business culture that looks to provide out-of-box solutions, India is poised to provide highly sustainable and scalable lessons to the world at large,” Zeenat says.

“So clearly, not only is this project important for India, solutions emerging from the Indian context are important for the world. “

This project is part of CSIRO’s Ending Plastic Waste Mission in development, a collaboration to transform the way we use, manufacture and recycle plastics.

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