In India, a circular economy creates value from plastic waste

UN Development Programme
5 min readAug 20, 2021
Safai Saathis (waste pickers) sort materials at Swachhta Kendra facility in Patna, India. Photo: UNDP India

Little do the locals and tourists visiting the parks of Indore — the largest metropolitan city in central India — know that the chairs and benches that they are sitting on are made out of plastic boards generated from plastic waste, collected door to door, sorted and then shredded.

While riding a vehicle in Delhi and around the National Capital Region, you probably wouldn’t realize that several metric tonnes of shredded plastics contributed to the construction of the roads. The housing units and vendor kiosks in Sircilla, Telangana have a similar hidden back story.

Park visitors sit on benches made out of recycled plastic under UNDP’s Plastic Waste Management Programme (left). Kiosks made out of recycled plastic and bamboo houses are popular in the marketplace of Sircilla, Telangana (right). Photos: UNDP India

The market kiosks, parks benches and Delhi roads are all part of a push to build a robust circular plastic economy in India. A circular economy offers a pathway to more sustainable resource management. It means keeping the value of plastics in the economy, so the materials stay out of the natural environment. In a circular economy, plastics cycle through a perpetual ‘closed loop’, rather than being used once and discarded.

As of June 2021, the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Plastic Waste Management Programme in India has helped to process 83,900 metric tonnes of plastic waste. The ambition is to process or recycle 85,000 metric tonnes of plastic waste and reach 50 plus cities by the year 2024.

In addition, the Programme organizes fairs and other mass awareness campaigns, partnering with retail chains like Big Baazar supermarkets. To encourage people to bring plastic waste, stores offer them a mask or a shopping bag in return. Mobile vehicles and folk songs help spread the message in communities. School children learn about proper disposal, and plastic gulaks (bins for plastic waste collection) are installed on school premises for easy access.

Mass awareness campaigns encourage people to bring plastic waste and receive reusable shopping bags or face masks in return. Photos: UNDP India

The initiative contributes to the Government of India’s flagship Swachh Bharat (Clean India) mission, geared towards recycling and managing waste, including single-use plastic.

“The systematically planned and technology powered waste material recovery model set up by UNDP can manage plastic waste efficiently from collection to segregation and recycling,” says K. Rajeswara Rao, Indian Administrative Service, Special Secretary in the Government of India’s NITI Aayog policy body.

“The programme is rooted in the principle of circular economy and addresses crucial gaps in the waste management system,” he adds.

The Central Pollution Control Board estimates that India has a high recycling rate of about 60 percent for post-consumer plastic waste; however, this is done mostly by the informal sector, which includes Safai Saathis (waste pickers), aggregators and informal recycling units with some help from urban local authorities.

A key objective is to help move the sector from informal to formal. So UNDP has been helping Safai Saathis, who contribute immensely to resource management and yet occupy the lowest rung of the ladder of the circular economy.

“Recognizing and incorporating informal workers into circular economies is critically important to generate jobs and provide employment opportunities. It is a win-win for all. However, we also need to look at industries like construction and infrastructure to raise awareness about circular economy,” says Shoko Noda, UNDP Resident Representative in India.

Safai Saathis contribute immensely to the circular economy. Photo: UNDP India

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the circular economy development path in India could create an annual value of ₹14 lakh crore (US$218 billion) in 2030 and ₹40 lakh crore (US$624 billion) in 2050 in comparison to the current development scenario. It could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 44% along with significant reduction in air pollution, thus contributing to health and economic benefits for society.

The Foundation notes that current efforts to tackle the climate crisis have focused on a transition to renewable energy, coupled with improving energy efficiency. “Though crucial and wholly consistent with circular economy, these measures can only address 55 percent of emissions. The remaining 45 percent comes from producing cars, clothes, food, and other products that we use every day. These cannot be overlooked.”

Swachhta Kendra material recovery facility in Patna, India plays a key role in keeping plastics out of landfills. Photo: UNDP India

Awareness, concern and action over how we dispose of plastics in the ocean and elsewhere have grown tremendously in recent years. Yet the current linear economic model of ‘take, make, use and dispose’ has significant impacts on natural resource depletion, environmental degradation, air pollution and climate emergency

Reimagining plastic wastes as construction materials creates value that keeps the plastics out of the trash heaps on the outskirts of Delhi and out of the garbage islands scattered across the ocean. It also delivers roads that are less costly yet stronger and longer lasting than traditional roads.

This kind of step-change is needed throughout economies to put the world on track to achieve zero emissions by 2050 and keep global warming below 1.5˚C. A circular economy is the ultimate solution to completing the picture of emissions reduction — by transforming the way we make, use and reuse products. It is indispensable to tackle climate emergency.

Since 2018, the Plastic Waste Management Programme has been operating in 35 cities of India, covering 19 states. The partners in this venture are Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Private Limited, Hindustan Unilever Limited, HDFC Bank, Coca-Cola India Foundation and Nayara Energy.