Pakistan’s gradual transition into a circular economy of plastics

July 19, 2019

Plastic, being impervious to water, low-cost and highly durable, is used by Pakistanis in their everyday lives in many forms, as it also is throughout the world. Due to its unrivalled functionality,...

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Plastic, being impervious to water, low-cost and highly durable, is used by Pakistanis in their everyday lives in many forms, as it also is throughout the world. Due to its unrivalled functionality, its production and use is increasing more than any other known material. From transporting products to contributing to improved health outcomes and reducing food wastage by prolonging its life, plastic is providing inexpensive solutions with high performance for everything.

Owing to rapid urbanisation, a booming population and increasing consumerism, Pakistan’s plastic industry is flourishing at an annual growth rate of 15% with production capacity reaching a whopping 624,200 metric tonnes per annum. However, the burgeoning use of plastic is unbalancing the scale due to its carbon footprint and negative effect on ecosystems. Based on current data, Pakistan produces 50,438 tonnes of Municipal Solid Waste per day out of which 67% is organic, 5% is paper and about 18% is plastic, amounting to 6.41 million tonnes of plastic waste annually; a clear indicator of an impending problem of massive proportions.

Out of all the types of plastic wastes, single-use plastic bags with an average life span of 12 minutes, are non-recyclable and a massive problem both for land and oceans, as they are generally made from non-degradable low-density polyethylene (LDP/LDPE) and can remain in the environment for 400 years or more. (Source: Geyer et. Al (2017), Our World in Data)

Scientists are trying to find other possibilities to end this epidemic by adding pro-oxidants to recycle plastic bags into oxo-biodegradable plastics. However, the adaptability has been undeniably sluggish due to cost differential between biodegradable and ordinary bags with unending debates about the production of increased greenhouse gas emissions in the process. Additionally, in case of reusable plastic bags, there is a constant health risk due to development of bacteria; rejecting its use.

On the contrary, studies show that PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) waste can be efficiently recycled back into the value-chain in a sustainable and profitable way. As per a World Bank report, beverages and packaging industries are the main producers of PET wastes and in 2016 alone, the world generated 242 million tonnes of plastic PET waste. This situation can be turned around through recycling of PET with a few changes in strategic planning, adapted from developed circular economies i.e. through an approach aimed at minimising waste and making the most of resources.

Collecting and recycling PET is a big challenge, but certainly not an insurmountable one, and even though we see a lot of recycled plastics in the form of disposable packaging or other short-lived items, the conventional approach is not sustainable. Use of plastic wastes in concrete building blocks is a promising recycling approach due to lower quality requirements of plastic waste and higher fire resistance, durability, functional and insulation properties of concrete blocks. Developed nations like Japan, Scotland and others use recycled PET/R-PET in construction of roads, tunnels, bridge piers and underground storage silos. Other innovative uses include fibres in textile industry, clear sheets and strapping tapes used for packaging, cosmetics and toiletries containers, vehicle parts, bags, shoes, tees, mobile phone covers, gardening supplies including shovels and water cans, recycling bins, pencil cases and other items.

Although transitioning into a circular economy will be a challenging task, the long-term benefits of taking this route are substantial for our society and natural environment, which will require efforts from all the stakeholders and not just the government to achieve zero plastic waste. In this regard, it is heartening to learn that one major user of PET bottles for its beverages, Coca-Cola, has taken the lead in the industry by announcing in January 2018, a bold and ambitious goal to globally recycle each and every bottle it produces by the year 2030. According to a recent news story in the daily papers, Coca-Cola in Pakistan has already started action for achieving this global goal locally, by commissioning WWF-Pakistan to carry out a comprehensive and empirical study of the life cycle of post-consumer use PET bottles, and analysing the findings to propose solutions for establishing the circular economy. The WWF Report is expected to be finalized in the coming weeks, and one feels confident that its findings and recommendations will show a clear way forward for policy-makers.

With the introduction of regional bans on single-use plastic bags, Pakistan is pacing towards active implementation of UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. Pakistan now needs to invest in infrastructure to expand its PET waste collection and recycling capacity, and develop a methodology for evaluating different options based on environmental, economic and social impacts. By facilitating the gathering and sharing of reliable information and data, Pakistan can foster open innovation and knowledge exchange between innovators, industry and the public to ensure nationwide activities such as circular design training and circular public procurement of plastics. Go Green Pakistan!

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