Graphic: UNDP India

The world is choking on plastic — in the last 10 years, we have produced more plastic than in the whole of previous century. We throw away enough plastic straws, bottles, bags, etc every year to encircle the planet four times over.

But plastics are also crucial building blocks of a green economy – for example in wind turbines, solar panels, even at the most basic level, as food containers to reduce food waste. Plastics are not the problem, it’s what we do, or rather don’t do with them. We recycle only about 5 percent of all plastic. The rest disappears under the land and into the sea, where it sits for hundreds of years, killing marine life and leaching into the soil, ultimately impacting human health.

In India, where plastic use is rising, most cities and towns do not have an integrated solid waste management system. This means that very little plastic waste is properly collected or disposed of. Not only does this cause harm to public health, the accumulation of plastic litter clogs the sewage system, polluting streams and groundwater resources.

But through the single powerful objective of reduce, reuse, recycle, we can prevent plastic debris from entering the environment in the first place. UNDP India, through the Global Environment Facility and the Small Grants Programme, has supported a local NGO and municipal governments to develop a new system  of plastic waste recycling.

In the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, two cities have embraced this model. Waste-pickers collect and then hand over the plastic waste to collection centres run by the municipal corporation. The plastic waste is scanned, segregated and, most single-use plastics — which comprise half of all the plastic we use — are shredded and baled. These bales are than taken for co-processing at cement kilns, and used to build roads. It’s a win-win; not only do the waste-collectors, one of the more vulnerable sections of Indian society, get paid twice as much, something useful is done with the plastic litter threatening to overrun our environment.

Through a mix of motivation, creativity, technology and knowledge, we can find concrete solutions to some of our most pressing environmental challenges.

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