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In conversation with Toxics Links’ Priti Mahesh: ‘You can’t recycle your way out of plastic waste’ 

A recent study, by Toxics Link, found that 86% of toys & 67% of FCM made from recycled plastics contain at least one chemical.

By Rajeev Tyagi
New Update
Priti Mahesh Toxics link

A recent study conducted by Toxics Link, an environmental NGO based in Delhi, found that 86% of toys and 67% of food contact materials made from recycled plastics contain at least one chemical. And, exposure to these toxins has severe health problems like cancers, birth defects, endocrine system disruption to name a few. Another international study mentions that plastic in itself contains a lot of harmful chemicals. There are 13,000-160,000 known chemicals in plastic production, and only 6% of these are global regulations, but more than a quarter are toxic.

The study was conducted in the recycling units in Delhi, both informal and formal. Primarily, it is hard to distinguish for a normal consumer between normal plastic and recycled plastic. These recycled products are affordable and accessible to low-income groups. Furthermore, which type of plastic has been recycled into what material exactly is difficult to pinpoint as well.  For example, the plastic used for your electronic items can’t/shouldn’t be used to make food contact materials, but would we know?

We interviewed one of the authors of the report, Priti Mahesh– Chief Programme Coordinator - Toxics Link. There are a lot of talks about recycling, or waste-to-energy systems, but very little or no research about the presence of chemicals in the recycling process of plastics, or the eventual product, she points out. She adds, that multi-national companies make efforts to remove chemicals during their recycling process. However, the same can’t be stated about informal recycling units. Hence, she also believes there is an unequivocal impact on the low-income groups because of the negligence.

There are a lot of chemical-related issues, and we wanted to challenge or assess whether plastic recycling was resolving all issues | Photo: GRID-Arendal
So my primary question is, can you talk briefly and broadly about your research on the presence of chemicals in recycled plastic? 

We have been working on plastic issues for many years now. And you know, whenever we worked on an issue, we look at it from a holistic perspective and not just really one aspect. So, when we looked at plastic also, we weren't looking at only the end-of-life plastic, but holistically at what are the concerns overall in the entire lifecycle of the plastic. There is emerging research globally about the presence of chemicals in plastic and how it can contaminate the entire plastic or have a lot of health impact which the industry would like to make us believe that it is a benign material. So, plastic has its impact because of the biodegradability which the industry admits because of the littering and the pollution aspect. But, the chemical aspect is something that they are not talking about, and that's why we decided to pitch in. 

I've been part of the global treaty negotiations which have been happening. Unfortunately, there has been a lot of focus, especially by developing countries like India on the aspects of recycling. So, for them the solution is recycling. They want to recycle the way out of this problem, which we disagree with because we don't see plastic as only a waste issue or a litter issue. There are a lot of chemical-related issues, and we wanted to challenge or assess whether plastic recycling was resolving all issues. So, that was the idea behind the study. 

We decided to test plastic recycled products because the industry wants to recycle everything or the government wants to promote recycling for plastic. We wanted to show the world or, people who are the key stakeholders that plastic recycling is not the safest solution. 

The research is focused on informal recycling units in an urban area i.e. Delhi. Can you talk briefly about the entire bigger ambit of plastic recycling? How much do these informal sector processes contribute to recycling plastic? 

I wouldn't say that we targeted informal recycling areas only. We surveyed the informal recycling units to assess whether there were any processes to remove chemicals from the plastic or categorize plastic with certain kinds of chemicals in a certain way so that they are used for products only which require those chemicals. So, we did look at those aspects but the products were picked up from the market except two products which were picked up from the recycling unit. 

Yes, we picked up non-branded products. We didn't pick up branded products. That's the reason is one: the accessibility to this non-branded product is much larger. Secondly, you know, the most marginalized or more economically weaker society access these products. They're already, I would say nutrition or immune systems compromised in a way. So, it's a double whammy for them if they are exposed to more chemicals. 

That's where our attempt was and we knew for sure that you know, a lot of products available in the local markets are made of recycled plastic. The idea was to check whether there was any sort of legacy chemical being passed on to new products, unintentionally. So that was our purpose of the study. And that's where we picked up products that were locally made and unbranded.

Can you also talk a bit about the informal sector in the entire recycling process?

Look at plastic as an industry, plastic recycling is an industry. India claims to recycle a huge amount of plastics, I think 60 to 70%. However, it does not clarify how much is actually in the informal sector and how much is in the formal. A lot of these units are grey units, they kind of even if you say that they're formal units, they function mostly as informal because plastic is not a red-category industry. The industry is not hazardous. The plastic recycling industry is pretty much considered a benign industry or clean industry. It's certainly not in the red category industry i.e. it doesn't have that many stringent norms or stringent monitoring, which means anybody anywhere can start opening plastic recycling. So, most of these units are small-scale scale which don’t require too much investment, which means they spring up everywhere. You see 1000s of plastic recycling units spread across the country. They are the ones recycling the maximum amount of plastic. How many formal large or state-of-the-art plastic recycling industries do we have in India? So, most of it is in the informal sector. 

There's no circular system in India that the same product will go back to the same industry. It is open the market i.e. product goes and gets made into a toy or some other product. So, the BFR intended for a laptop or a phone is now in a toy was not needed, toys are not supposed to catch fire. But, then the informal sector has no way of segregating this plastic into a different category and using it only for that purpose. Every plastic has a sort of chemical. For example, something which is supposed to be furniture tomorrow, you make glass out of it or a food container out of it. So, the chemical migration is of major concern. 

To add to that again, It's not that we know that the formal sector is doing it. Though they claim they're doing it, it may not be there as well.

Mountains of Bottles in Delhi | Photo: The Advocacy Project
That's why I would like to clarify one piece of data on page number 21. You mentioned how 50 to 80% of this waste is projected to be recycled. So this is what the government claims they would do?

The government is speaking of the fact that 60 to 70% of plastic is recycled in India. And out of that, around 70% or so is done in the informal sector. So, these are things which are coming out of either government reports or consultants who carry out assessments.

I think it's on the higher side, I'm not too sure. 60 to 70% of a particular variety of plastic because a lot of it is loaded towards PET recycling. PET bottle recycling is pretty advanced and a lot of it is collected and recycled. But if you look at different regions-wise, I'm not sure the quantum are so high. I am not sure 70% of plastic gets recycled. There is so much informal user usage and disposal, which doesn't get accounted for. Maybe, around 40 to 50% get recycled not more than that. I think so. I mean, I have no you know, kind of solid evidence to show that but my perception is that it cannot be more than 50%. 

What are your thoughts on the NGOs which recycle waste materials, even plastic? Are they using a different technology which is much safer?

Even when we say India's recycling is 60 to 70%, it's not recycling it's downsizing. For example, PET is now being used again to make PET bottles. But, if you see your kind of a computer or, you know, all of this plastic cannot be recycled again to make the same product. So, I think one problem is that plastic is downsizing.

The NGOs wouldn't claim to recycle it and include only, you know, claim to repurpose. For example, make shoes or bags or whatever they are. Unfortunately, I have seen usage where people are filling in plastic bottles to make house construction. I have a problem with all of that. If the plastic is coming out of a computer, and you're making a bag out of it, do I want to touch every day that bag which will give me exposure to those.. ? I'm not too sure. 

So, I think and that's why I said this whole lack of knowledge on the chemical part of it is very, very worrying. You don't know which plastic is meant for what usage and what chemical comes with it. So just indiscriminately use plastic waste to make products without understanding its chemistry, I think it is a little dangerous.

With a broken solid waste management system, do you think we can ever make this recycling process any better?

As I said, Rajeev, I don't think there is any way that we can recycle out of this problem. It has to start with the reduction of plastic. We have to be talking about eliminating plastic where it's not needed or where we have alternatives. So, just kind of pushing for plastic economics is not sustainable. 

If we look globally as well, plastic recycling in other countries, which are much more developed and have been in this area for a very, very long time, in terms of plastic technologies. The percentage of recycling is 9% of the plastic ever, cumulative. And maximum plastic usage was in these developed countries earlier. It's now only that countries like China and India are catching up. With all the technology that they have, they've not been able to recycle and get out of this mess. 

What is the kind of microplastic leak which happens every time you recycle plastic? So, I think these challenges will never make recycling a foolproof solution. Yes, we have to recycle when we are using

products. We have to find safer ways of recycling plastic waste. But I think at the front we have to reduce use and eliminate it wherever possible. We will have the capacity to recycle the amount of plastic waste that we are going towards.

Plastic wire baling press machine at the sanitation park, Ambikapur | Photo: India Water Portal
India has banned single-use plastics, and somehow it still comes back into the market. Can you talk about why hasn’t the ban worked?

If you see, there is a partial success. Look at the larger brands and larger corporations you do see a phase-out of single-use plastics which were restricted. If you today go to a Nestle or an Amul or a Pepsico, you won’t find plastic straws in it because it is banned. If you go to a Haldiram or big food chain, you won’t find a plastic spoon. If you go to a decent restaurant you won’t find plastic straws or spoons. So, there is some bit of success, I won’t say it is completely gone. I don’t know the percentage of change which might have happened, but there is a change. The small and medium consumers, in terms of not individuals- bulk ones, there is no enforcement, or for the lack of it, your Nariyal Paniwala (coconut water seller) continues to give you a plastic straw. But, then that's also because there is no cost, there are no monetary incentives for him, or her to shift. 

There has to be an economic case as well. If my plastic straw is five paise and the other thing is twenty paise, I'm always going to be five paise. Unless there is huge enforcement if my penal clauses make me lose that fifteen paisa advantage. Or if the plastic tax on the plastic makes it ten paise and reduces the other thing to ten paise, maybe I will opt for the other option.

Those enablers have not been triggered when the ban was there. Just banning materials does not help. They help to some extent, but not completely.

With the mafia being there lobbying like for it (plastics) to stay in the market, how do you see the change happening? Amidst this, how will toxins get out of plastic recycling?

Single-use is a different matter and the chemicals are a different matter, though we are talking about plastics. But, chemicals have not been even brought right now to the forefront. Whereas single-use plastic, at least we've taken a few baby steps. It may not be perfect steps and we need to do a lot more there. But, at least we've started doing some and there is something that you see on the ground. There are some changes that you see. You see a lot more awareness among people. They know that certain item is banned. If it is resulting in a behaviour change, that's a different matter altogether. But at least a lot of people are aware.

When we talk about chemicals, there's no awareness at all. How many people know plastic has chemicals? How many people know that those chemicals are reasons for a lot of health impacts? People are having hormone disruptions, people having reproduction issues and development issues. There are a lot of those associated with phthalates BPAs and paraffins. 

The amount of cancer, if you see the growth in cancer… it's huge in India. I think the other day I was talking with somebody, a doctor from Sardarjung Hospital and she was saying that that cancer percentage has gone up substantially. So, the reasons we do not associate it with a lot of these chemicals exposure, which we are every day exposed to. 

Can we still assume that data is very city-centric, urban data? Is it safe to say that we still don't know what is happening in the second-tier cities?

I think the cancer cases have gone up even in rural areas now. I think those divides are thinning out or, kind of blurring now. I do agree that there is a lack of data on associating some of this exposure to the kind of health impacts that we are having. 

We say we found microplastic inside our body, everywhere; whether it's the placenta or it's blood or it's brain. But, those microplastic causing microplastic inside my heart is doing. There's no information or there's no concrete research on that.

Is there any way to identify if some product is made of recycled plastic? 

Formally, they are meant to write. But, for the products that we collected, non-branded products, there was no labelling. Even in normal space, if you see plastic is supposed to label also as to what kind of a resin it is. So you'll see those markings of one, two, three, four, five, six, seven. But none of the products that we picked up had those labels. So obviously, they were, violating that norm as well.

Usually, if you see most products in the branded or larger corporation we use, it would say that made of recycled this or that. Generally, they could mention. But, the informal market, nothing. There's no labelling. 

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