Working together with partners in India to tackle plastic pollution

16 September 2021

Nandini Kumar, Consultant at Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Development at Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and Varun Aggarwal, Associate Director-Sustainable Business, from World Wildlife Fund for Nature-India (WWF India), sat down with WRAP’s international plastics lead Peter Skelton to discuss the newly-launched India Plastics Pact – the challenges and opportunities ahead; its significance both for India, and the global fight against plastic pollution, and how it is drawing inspiration from The UK Plastics Pact.

Peter Skelton, WRAP, Nandini Kumar, CII and Varun Aggarwal, WWF India

 

Q: How did the India Plastics Pact come about?

Peter: India is a strategically important country for many reasons and right from the start of our international work on plastics we identified it as a place we wanted to work with partners to develop a Plastics Pact. We did a thorough search for suitable partners. And because CII and WWF-India were already working together on a separate plastics initiative, they were a natural fit. So almost 12 months ago, we had our first calls and introductions - completely cold. They didn't know us. We didn't know them. And then we spent weeks building a strong rapport and sharing knowledge of what it takes to run a Plastics Pact.

We were very thankful that we have found such strong and motivated partners.

Nandini: We never thought that we would be able to implement something like a Plastics Pact here. So, the call from WRAP was perfect timing. But very honestly, and this might appear funny in retrospect, I actually checked out online to see exactly who WRAP were and was convinced that their work was credible and had made an impact.

Varun: We also had some leverage with our international offices as WWF is already working with WRAP in South Africa and the US. So, our conversations with them provided a lot of comfort and confidence that WRAP was the most reliable partner in this space.

Background

The India Plastics Pact


The India Plastics Pact is the latest to join a growing network of global Plastics Pacts which are working in their own countries, and together, to tackle the scourge of plastic pollution and build a world where plastic never becomes waste to blight our countryside and oceans.

The Pacts, which are supported by WRAP, are all built around the same public-private partnership model – bringing the levers of government policy, supply chain transformation and citizen action to work harmoniously to ensure that plastic stays in the economy and out of the environment.

There is now a Plastics Pact on every populous continent on the planet – covering millions of miles of coastline, millions of tonnes of plastic, and billions of people. And the number of Pacts is growing, with more in development. 

The addition of a strategic partner of the significance of India, with its influential position in the region and on the global stage, is an important development. In India, the Pact is run by the Confederation of Indian Industry & WWF-India with operational and technical support from WRAP, and financial support from UKRI and Stewart Investors. 
 

India generates 9.46 million tonnes of plastic waste annually of which 40% goes uncollected, and approximately 43% of all plastics produced in the country is used for packaging, most of which is single use.

Q: Why is the India Plastics Pact so important for India? Is the public awareness about the impact of plastic waste the same as in other parts of the world?

Varun: The total amount of plastic waste in India generated in a year is huge. Almost half of it is packaging, which is very high, and much of it is being littered.

Landfills have been exhausted across major Indian cities, and so much of the plastic waste is ending up as marine plastic pollution, choking our oceans and our rivers. One of our most important rivers, which I'd call the lifeline of India, the River Ganga (Ganges), which is historically and culturally significant, and is  a part of our national identity, has been affected by plastic pollution. This has led to greater public awareness about this issue.

Nandini: I would add that there is a similarity is with countries who are in the same stage of economic development as we are. Where somebody in a lower socio-economic stratum is able to afford a certain standard of living, it is because he's able to buy things made of or wrapped in plastic. So, it's such a huge equalizer over there. How can you deny people that access? And yet, how can you deny the ugly littering?

So, you know there are all these things to reconcile. I don't think this part of the debate is different from that in other parts of the world.

Peter: A country like India, which is of such strategic importance in the region and on the world stage, means developing a Plastics Pact here is hugely significant; a potential game-changer. The technology innovations that are happening in India present so much opportunity. As do the potential market synergies and collaborations between India and the UK and other markets. Having a successful Plastics Pact in India can act as a beacon for other countries globally. I think those people who have a new technology or interesting business model will want to partner with India, and they want to understand how they can support the India Plastics Pact.

We’ve also seen that having a community of Pacts and a proven model really helps unlock funding from international funders and trusts and foundations. So, it is not only significant for solving the plastic pollution in India, but globally.

Q: Why did a Plastics Pact seem like the right model for India?

Varun: In terms of having a clear and very scientific, well-thought through process for the targets. It's a cradle to grave approach so everything is thoughtfully crafted right from the beginning of the design, to how it has to be recycled. This has led to a very good cohort of receptive stakeholders who are ready to work on these targets, who are ready to experiment, who are ready to put their weight behind us. So that is something which is very, very encouraging.

Also, there was also the proven impact from the UK and elsewhere. That spoke volumes that this model actually works, and in less than just two years into the launch of The UK Plastics Pact we could already really see some impact. So, I think that was a real comforting factor for us. We are very, very optimistic that this model is going to work very well here, with the guidance, with all the knowledge and all the expertise that WRAP brings to the table. And of course, we can lend the local expertise, and the context which we have for the Indian market.

Nandini: Here, larger companies tend to be better organized and managed, so they have a sort of a structure in place for things like sustainability. But the smaller ones have less incentive, less pressure and fewer means. So, I think something like the Pact offers a good way for them to make those changes, to move forward without making them feel that they either have to spend too much or that they're not getting anything out of it.

The demonstrable impact from other Pacts was also very important for us as it gives so much credibility. You immediately feel you're on to something. It's not just hot air. Also, that this is nationwide. There are a lot of initiatives operating here. But they are fragmented, so it's very hard to see this kind of cohesive, well-thought out, scientifically backed-up and properly structured initiative taking shape.

“…There was the proven impact from the UK and elsewhere. That spoke volumes that this model actually works… We are very, very optimistic that this model is going to work very well here, with the guidance, with all the knowledge and all the expertise that WRAP brings to the table.”

Varun Aggarwal, WWF-India
Q: So, what have the last 12 months been like to get to a point where the India Plastics Pact is launched, with 27 stakeholders (and more all the time), committed to a set of ambitious targets?

Nandini: It starts with kindergarten, and then you're made to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in six months! And Peter is very insistent. He's very patient. He's very polite but firm. And there's no getting away from his deadlines and gentle nudging! One thing that really helped me was the fact that there were already so many resources already in place, so we never had to start working on something from new; it was already there when companies were asking, and this creates a very good impression with businesses.

Peter: Twelve months can seem a long time to some people. You know we had to go from zero and as Nandini says to graduation. We had to do all the things behind the scenes – the contracting, paperwork, recruitment, setting targets. Not only in a short space of time, but virtually, with the added complication of time differences and so on. We would normally meet and build that rapport and get to know each other’s capabilities much more closely.

And of course, with the shadow of COVID on us, impacting teams, sometimes quite tragically in their own families. So, we have been amazed and astounded by how much we achieved against this backdrop. I think it's worked very well, and we've been very pleasantly surprised how the partnership has flourished without being able to meet, which we hopefully will.

 

Q: We know the obvious environmental benefits from the India Plastics Pact, but there are also other benefits for the country, social and economic. Can you expand?

Varun:  Of course, there are huge environmental benefits. But in terms of livelihood opportunities, there is great potential to formalise the current informal waste sector, empowering those who work in it with better opportunities. Of course, this adds value and improves their socioeconomic conditions, which is really important.

Nandini: The plight of people working in the informal waste sector is a huge issue in India. Informal waste pickers are, not to say this in a discriminatory way, at the lower end of the social scale sadly and it's quite disturbing to know that this is how they earn their living. You see people living on landfills, pulling stuff out of drains. So, this picture is sordid and ugly. But it also represents the potential of the Pact. This forms very much the social justification for what we can accomplish through it.

For us to do something about it means it is not about economics and business, but it also has a social impact. It's very, very real. It's almost like a duty. This is a responsibility if you take social equality seriously.

Peter: Just to say, in the UK we have a formal waste sector and yet we have the same overall challenges of quality and therefore value of materials. How good is the quality that I can collect? How contaminated is it? Is it designed correctly so it actually has a value to whoever I sell it to? And then they need a customer. This is why the same targets for the Pacts around the world are so important because they are designed to address those very real issues. And so, we are working in Chile and South Africa and other countries emerging in Latin America and Africa as well. We are helping to create the markets for the waste sector to sell to. This will unlock investment, more and better jobs. This will be the same in India as elsewhere where Plastic Pacts are operating.

Map of Plastics Pacts around the world

 

Q: So how do you harness this potential and maintain the great buzz from the launch?

Nandini: I think that maintaining the momentum is the immediate challenge. Fortunately, we've already begun on this. We've already started picking up on some of the trickiest challenges that businesses might face, and we began working on those. And I think all of this is what lends credibility to the work that we are doing. It's not just in our heads and an ideal, but we have a plan to work to.

And if we can pull this off in India, I think we would have really done something really great, because there is a serious problem with trust and belief over here, or whether it's in any kind of institution. So, I have great faith in the ability of the Pact to build that trust in partners. And show them that science works and if you if you rely on the science, you will get somewhere.

Varun: I think balancing the interests of all these stakeholders is going to be critical and we will have to practise and perfect. At times we need to maintain that kind of neutrality, so that's also going to be a balancing act. I think that getting down to action will be very important.

Canada Plastics Pact welcome India 

“A country like India, which is of such strategic importance in the region and on the world stage, means developing a Plastics Pact here is hugely significant; a potential game-changer.”

Peter Skelton, WRAP
Q: And WRAP can bring lots of learning from The UK Plastics Pact?

Varun: They bring the operational expertise as this is a new domain for us, with a learning curve. So, WRAP and The UK Plastics Pact will have a very crucial role to play to guide us on this journey.

Nandini: You have a lot of experience in first the nuts and bolts of running the Pact and then creating this bridge between the science and business.

And sometimes we get torn by our own biases, and it is helpful to have someone to put those questions to.

Peter: Obviously the Pact has a high profile in the UK. In the UK there is long experience of working collaboratively already on our other voluntary agreements, so they already know the ‘rules of engagement’. Hopefully we can help support the India Plastics Pact to establish that same rapport?

I think once the spirit of collaboration and healthy competition gets going then we will see the Plastics Pact coming into its own as elsewhere. You really want businesses to see it as a space where they can promote and showcase what they're doing in a positive way and that sort of raises the bar and get other businesses to say, well, we don't want to be in the second tier of achievement, we want to try harder, so that's something I hopefully we can bring to the India Plastics Pact - that same healthy competition because that drives change.

There is now a Plastics Pact on every populous continent on the planet – covering millions of miles of coastline, millions of tonnes of plastic, and billions of people. And the number of Pacts is growing, with more in development. 

Discover more about WRAP's international plastics work
Q: And there is lots to learn from India?

Peter: Absolutely. As Nandini and Varun said, whereas we can share on the operational side the history of running our Plastics Pacts, that in some ways is the easier bit. We also need to learn. We have to not assume that what happens in the UK or in in Europe is how it happens in India, and we don't always get that right. That’s why we absolutely need partners in India who can lead these initiatives from the front.

Nandini: There is a particular mindset which has been written about for many hundreds of years that is peculiar to the Asians. Something to do with frugality, with thrift, with not wasting things. I think if we are able to tap into that and use it to help us get over problems with materials such as plastic, then I think there will be valuable learning for the whole of Asia.

Varun: We already have a very well-established value chain for materials which have value. Aluminium, newspapers, PET bottles. You will not find one PET bottle littered on the street or anywhere, even in the garbage dumps. They all are collected, because there's value in them. Recycling and circularity have been ingrained in us since our childhood. So, we used to sell old books or newspapers because it would fetch money.

I think that is something that will really appeal to people. If we can really achieve our vision to create a world where plastic is valued; if we are able to add that value to all the plastic packaging and not just PET, then I think we have the most phenomenal success story to deliver to the world. And the world can learn from it because Indians are very good at making money out of anything, including waste. Call it being frugal or pennywise, but we understand the value of money, so that's the potential to tap into.

Q: Sum up your feelings now as you embark on this journey 

“Yes, there's a huge responsibility; I feel the weight of that. But there is a huge accompanying optimism. Also, at last I feel after I don't know how many years, 25 years of watching and feeling and being frustrated? At last, I feel here's a chance to do something.”

Nandini Kumar, CII

Peter: This is the end of the beginning. We're only just starting the journey. So, it's definitely a ‘business is open’ feel - our doors are open for more to join us. It’s exciting.

Varun: Nervous and optimistic at the same time. I think the launch grabbed a lot of eyeballs, so a lot of people are looking up to us and they have lots of expectations. So, there’s a lot to deliver. But we absolutely have the confidence we will succeed. I feel very optimistic with the backing and the support of WRAP, and because our partners have the right attitude.

Nandini: Yes, there's a huge responsibility; I feel the weight of that. But there is a huge accompanying optimism. Also, at last I feel after I don't know how many years, 25 years of watching and feeling and being frustrated? At last, I feel here's a chance to do something.

And I want to be part of that, so it's something that personally means a lot to me also, and I hope I can transmit this out to others. And, you know, make them feel that there it is possible to do something and that we can do it.

Find out more about the India Plastics Pact Find out more about WRAP’s international plastics work
In addition to supporting the development of the India Plastics Pact, WRAP is working with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to support other Plastics Pacts internationally to capitalise on opportunities for collaboration and knowledge sharing.