The Unwanted Waste | Creating sourcing mechanisms within the informal sector

One of the interesting things we’ve noticed over the last couple of months of fieldwork is that there exists a strong hierarchy in the kinds of materials scrap-dealers prefer to deal with. Often, these preferences can be broken down into super-specialized items. For instance, the informal sector views plastic as more than 10 specific sub-categories, each of which has a distinct price point. And while they’re more than willing to pay competitive prices for some of them (for instance, a PET bottle), they tend to steer clear from others, such as Tetrapak and shiny packaging material. In fact, even those scrap-dealers that buy plastic as a whole generally sift out the items of value and discard these materials. 

The reason for this is simple: price points are determined by demand, and there is virtually no demand for certain materials in the recycling industry. Unlike most of the items that are siphoned into the informal sector, much of this packaging comprises different materials that have been fused together. As a result, technologies to recycle them either don’t exist, or are relatively new and localized

Multi-layer packaging | a restricted recycling industry

Take, for example, the case of Tetrapak. Tetrapak’s packaging material is made of three components: paperboard (a renewable raw material made from wood), thin layers of polyethylene and a layer of aluminium foil. The polyethylene protects the contents of the package from moisture and the aluminium ensures that food items can be stored without refrigeration. In order to be recycled, the components of the packaging have to be first separated and then recycled individually. This can be done by soaking the packaging in water, or by grinding it and then separating the flakes. The paperwood can then be recycled into cardboard or other forms of paper, while the polyethylene and aluminium can be used as by-products in the cement industry or to generate energy. 

There are a few other options for recycling Tetrapak material;  in European countries, it is incinerated to produce energy. Another successful treatment is to crush and press Tetrapak to form a chipboard-like substance, which is reasonably strong and water-resistant. In Bangalore, the NGO SAAHAS has capitalized on these qualities to recycle Tetrapak into roofing material for their Dry Waste Collection Centres. 

However, these solutions haven’t succeeded in creating a demand for Tetrapak within the informal sector. Incineration, for instance, is extremely expensive and more suitable for a centralized waste management model, rather than a fragmented informal economy. Processes that involve separating Tetrapak components are more complicated than recycling a single material, and the end products aren’t always profitable. Manufacturing chipboard is a relatively new process and practiced locally only by a few organizations. 

Recycling shiny packaging material, such as packets that contain chips, biscuits and chocolate, is also a complicated affair. This material is called metallised film; it comprises of two materials: plastic and a thin metallic overcoat. It is produced through a process called physical vapour deposition wherein cold polymer film is unravelled above a source of vapourised metal (generally aluminium). This coating strengthens the polymer, and makes it a lot more resistant to water and oxygen. At the same time, it remains lighter and more flexible than pure aluminium foil, making it the preferred packaging option for manufacturers of perishable goods like potato chips, snack foods and candy. In fact, the Flexible Packaging Association estimates the annual sale of this packaging industry as $25.6 billion in the USA.

However, because of its complex structure and multiple layers, products made from metallised film are difficult to recycle. Various organizations have proposed different ways to tackle the issue; for instance, a German recycling technology supplier called Saperatec has developed and patented a process that crushing metallised film and then treating it in a micro-emulsion to separate the materials. These technologies, however, are new, experimental and highly localized. A few designers capitalize on the durability of metallised film by recycling it into products such as purses, but this is hardly a scaleable model. As a consequence, a huge portion of metallised film that is produced in India remain in landfills.

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) and the informal sector

The silver lining is that neither Tetrapak nor metallised film are impossible to process. The issue is that these solutions - which are expensive, time-consuming and localized - do not fit into the overall scheme of recycling in India, a sector that is largely fed and managed by informal parties. What they do require is support from a centralized approach and a steady supply of a large volume of input to ensure cost efficiency. An interesting concept that proves to be relevant here is Extended Producer Responsibility. EPR essentially holds a producer responsibly for the end-of-life treatment of its products (and all the costs associated with this). In a nutshell, this means that the manufacturer of goods that require complex packaging materials are deemed accountable for recycling them. Different countries have implemented different models of EPR legislation but by and large, it seems to be having a positive impact; in Germany, for example, the adoption of EPR lead to the decrease in per capita consumption of packaging from 94.7 kg to 83 kg between 1991 and 1998. In the Indian context, EPR has been applied to manufacturers of electronic products.

There is a strong case for extending the ambit of EPR to cover other forms of material as well, especially since the policy also incentivizes producers to manufacture products (and packaging) that are easier to recycle post use. Under this responsibility, manufacturers who use metallised film as packaging can be encouraged to set up centralized facilities to carry out processing techniques such as the one developed by Saperatec.

A key factor in the success of such a model, of course, would be volume. Unless processors can be assured of a steady, high-volume supply of waste input, most processing facilities wouldn’t be cost efficient. The informal waste sector could potentially play a key role in making this happen; scrap-dealer networks across urban India have plenty of experience in managing large amounts of waste and supplying it to processors across the country. At present, the lack of back-end demand for products like Tetrapak and metallised film prevent them from salvaging and aggregating these materials, but if a processing solution were to be implemented, it would be possible to leverage the potential of this sector to ensure a steady stream of input. 

There are several possible models for tapping into the informal waste network. In 2007, ITC adopted one approach for its War on Waste program, which essentially targeted households and tried to promote segregation. This began as a pilot project in Hyderabad and eventually was scaled to other parts of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. In areas where the program was launched, the organization has provided households with bags to separately store their dry waste, including paper, plastics, glass and metal. Once in a fortnight or so, this waste is collected; paper is shipped to one of ITC’s reprocessing plants, where it is recycled. This was economically beneficial to the company, since they saved Rs 1000 on every ton of paper manufactured from scrap. ITC also employed groups of rag-pickers to source and deliver the paper in the cities and towns where the project was executed - thereby not only minimizing informal opposition to their program, but also taking advantage of their collective experience in handling waste.

When it comes to the processing of Tetrapak and metallised film, there are different factors to keep in mind: since the informal sector currently turns a blind eye to these materials, it would require large-scale outreach programs to build a supply chain within the informal context. On the other hand, this industry already has all the infrastructure, staff and experience needed to aggregate, sort and deliver this material. Coupled with strong back-end processing infrastructure, it has the potential to handle one of the most problematic waste streams in the country. 

- Written by Kavya Balaraman


Picture Sources: (Used Tetrapak cartons can be recycled into roofing material) (A handbag fashioned from waste chips packets) (ITC’s War on Waste program encouraged residents to channel scrap paper back to the company)