plastic recycling - the indian perspective with ritvik rao

plastic recycling - the indian perspective with ritvik rao

ritvik rao, co-founder of sampurna Earth shares the basics of plastic recycling

India has started its journey of waste management - however, we have a long way to go. availability of data, encouraging the informal sector to adopt technology, generating high-quality recycled material, encouraging people like you and me to segregate our waste - these are just some of the issues the sector deals with on a daily basis.

We are back with another informative session with india-centric knowledge and data addressing these issues.

we meet ritvik rao (linkedin), co-founder of Sampurn(e)arth, a solid waste management company, and learn first hand about: 

  • the value chain of plastic recycling
  • economics of the process
  • challenges in the sector 
  • how is Sampurna engaging the whole ecosystem

  and most importantly, what can we do about these? 

please listen to us, share your thoughts and don't forget to follow us on spotifyapple or google podcast



Hello everyone, welcome to another episode of Green Shoots, the Sustainability podcast. We are demystifying sustainability one topic at a time. 2022 has set in and I hope you have made your New Year goals. And I hope that planet is somewhere in those goals; she really needs it. We spoke about plastic in our previous two episodes with Richa Malik. Today we are going to talk about recycling. Sweden, Germany, Austria, are hallmarks of recycling; they recycle almost 50% of their overall plastic. Where is India in this? We do not know exactly how much we end up recycling and that is very unfortunate. Most of our recycling units are informal, which means that the output is not of high quality, data is difficult to come by, and to top it all you all know that waste segregation is an issue in our country. My guest for the day has first-hand experience of this sector. An alumnus of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Ritvik Rao is the co-founder of Sampurn(e)arth Environment Solutions. It is a start-up in the space of solid waste management.

In an awenest Chat with Mr. Ritvik Rao, we learn about the struggles and achievements in India regarding plastic waste management, spreading awareness amongst people about the harmful effects of plastic on the environment and how we can all contribute to making earth a better place to live in.

Team awenest : Hi Ritvik, we are delighted to have you here. Thank you so much for taking time to talk about waste management and recycling with us.

Ritvik: Thank you, Kinshuk and thank you for having me. I am Ritvik Rao. I am one of the cofounders of Sampurn(e)arth Environment Solutions. We are a company which manages solid waste.

Team awenest : A personal question Ritvik, why are you doing this? What got you interested in this? 

Ritvik: why waste? because why not? Since our childhood we’ve been seeing waste, we have seen people complain. We ourselves have complained about it and it’s an eyesore. We are trying to take India from to a $6 - $8 trillion economy with dumps all around. I think that’s not going to work now, not sustainable, so we cannot follow, you know, the US model of growth anymore. The planet cannot afford it. So the growth has to be sustainable. India is doing good; a lot more needs to be done but we do have our sight in the right direction. The government is taking measures and there is an intent towards sustainable growth, so I think this is a good time to be in space and try to mould the future in the right direction. We did our Masters in social entrepreneurship. So the whole aim of the course is that you, for two years, find a social problem and you build a sustainable business around it. And the institute has been really instrumental in helping us shape the company well.

Team awenest : Understood. Who else is doing what you are doing? Are there other companies in the space? Whom do you look up to, do you look up to any Indian organisation and say that this is how we want to be in the next five years? Or you have a model from the West that you see, you know, that this is what you want to build eventually? What is the five year view of your organisation?

Ritvik: This problem can only be solved through collaboration; it cannot be solved by people working in silos. So we started with flexibles (flexible plastic), we would want to move to other kinds of plastics, non-recyclable kinds of plastic which are multilayered - we would next want to do something with those. Then there is tetra pack which is like a six-layer packaging, more difficult to recycle. I want to go towards that. Set up a recycling unit for that. Also at the same time, try to organise as much as possible, the informal sector. Make them join us, try to work with them, try to improve their working conditions. One of the things that we are trying to do around our recycling centre is trying to work around the Amul model, wherein we set up cooperatives of waste pickers, self-help groups, give them contracts for the collection, segregation and gradual production and then gradually help them sell. They are the owners of the whole thing; we only take a small admin fee from them so that incentivisation is automatically there. The more they do, the more they earn. Yeah, and we would just facilitate the process and I don’t know how far it will go but that is the thought right now. It can scale up much farther, rather than us doing and trying to employ people and trying to do everything ourselves. So largely recycling happens in India, as I already said, through informal channels and the waste that is picked up is largely picked up by waste pickers, which in turn are largely women. So if you look at things from their lens, they have to bend down to pick up each piece of plastic that they are collecting. So in a day’s collection, they would rather pick up something which is of much higher value. So a pet bottle can go anywhere at any price from Rs.25-Rs.35 per kg depending on the current market; hard plastics can go from Rs.40 Rs.50 depending upon the quality; whereas flexibles, low quality flexibles, would only fetch them Rs.5 to Rs.10. That’s why these types of plastics do not end up getting picked and hence the recycling percentage would be very, very low for these kinds.

Team awenest : Understood. So Sampoorna is impacting, or is trying to impact the entire ecosystem of waste management and you spoke about some of the things which our listeners may not be so familiar with. So taking a step back, how does plastic get recycled? If you can shed some light on both flexible and hard material? Is the process similar or are they different, what are the eventual outputs? Are there different things that recycling consists of? Tell us a little bit about that.

Ritvik: Largely, the process of recycling is similar. There are minute differences, technical differences here and there. So once the waste is brought in, first it needs to be, as I already said, if it is in extremely soiled conditions and you are trying to make a premium product, there has to be a washing line. So first it is washed, clean, dried. From there the first step is fed into an Agglo Machine. So an Agglo Machine heats the tub and converts it into chips, which are then finally fed into a hopper, which goes into the final extruder. From the extruder, the output is, well basically you see it is reheated and made into long wires which are in turn cut into granules. Very simply put, this is the process and then granules are sent to product manufacturers who might again heat it and remould it into various products like parts, stools, bags depending upon the requirements.

Team awenest : So the output is in the form of granules and then that goes to people who can then use it to create another set of packaging material.

Ritvik: Yeah. So the idea of recycling is to reuse the whole thing. The life of plastic needs to be circular; it cannot be a linear and an end-of-life cycle. That is one another thing that we are also trying to take. We would want to manufacture our own products so that we can ourselves ensure that the whole cycle is circular rather than depending on somebody else to do the last bit. There are rules that have been given by the government that mandates all the brands who are using plastic as packaging to start using recycled materials in their virgin packaging that is being made right now, so it is like starting from 25% to 50% to 85% in the next 3 to 4 years. So I think this is the right time to build capacities in the collection, in recycling, so that we are able to meet (the growing requirement). Also, the quality, because as I said if you’re talking about big multinationals using recycled products, in their packaging they would expect that certain amount of quality. You are asking about the amount of plastic that is getting recycled, a lot of recycling is happening but all of it is low quality and informal. So to take it from informal to formalisation is something which needs to be done now.

Team awenest : So what I gather from this is that of course the quality has to go up for all the brands to start using recycled material as a packaging input and the quality is similar no matter what kind of plastic are you recycling or the quality can be different. So it’s a process issue or it’s those RIC codes 1,2,3,4,5,6,7 issue? Which one adds to the quality?

Ritvik: First of all, waste quality, the input quality, the material that you are getting for recycling, are the ones that determine. See, if you have better technology, of course, your product will be better. So informal means that the machines are also of low-quality, low make, so hence the quality is also a little compromised. So better technology, better collection mechanisms, I think that should do the trick.

Team awenest : So there are two parts that you talk about; one is get into more and more and more complex plastic and second is bringing the whole value chain together and both points are extremely important, Ritvik, because we discussed that data is hard to come by but I was reading a report which said that around 40% of Indian packaging of plastic packaging is multilayered, falls in category seven and hence if it’s very difficult or almost impossible to recycle it today and if you’re taking a step in that direction that’s really encouraging. You know, this recycling logo, those three arrows going and hitting each other, they’re just recyclability symbols and don’t mean that they will get recycled. However they are misleading, it gives consumers a lot of confidence that you know what I am doing or what I’m consuming is not damaging the planet because it is going to get recycled. I think there is a big gap here because you use a product, it goes into waste, from there, there is the challenge of segregation, then from there it goes to the dump. So what is the value chain in all of this? What happens? Let’s say waste is getting picked up and I have segregated my waste, and let’s say the dumping cart comes and it takes away the waste. What happens to this waste? Does it go to rag pickers? Does it go to dumping fields? What is the flow here?

Ritvik: One thing I can add here is that, while buying eco-friendly products, just check.  Many many brands are doing this wherein only the packaging, only the label, (and mostly talking about the textile and clothes brands), only the label is recyclable and the rest of it is not. Just do your due diligence before you buy anything.

Team awenest : Wow, that’s very interesting!

Ritvik: So coming to your question about the value chain, there are multiple places where waste is generated. So if I talk about households, waste is collected by the municipal corporation from the building. Now some places, each type of waste is collected separately; very few places are collected separately, so I will not talk about those places. Largely, it is collected in one truck and taken to a dumping yard. There, there are waste pickers who are authorised to go in there and segregate the waste. So segregation happens there - whatever is of value is taken out, which is not a very large percentage of waste; hard plastics and metals - the rest, clothes, soft plastics, paper and the remainder, hence the sizes of dumps are increasing day by day. Already at overcapacity, but these dumping grounds are still running. So whatever is recovered, is sold to recyclers. But largely more than 50% is still lying there.

Team awenest : So it is safe to say that because everybody does not have a mechanism of segregating waste, most of the waste which can be recycled is actually lost.

Ritvik: It is.

Team awenest : Okay, we started with the fact that people are looking at the recycling logo and feeling happy about the fact that it is… So what can they do? Or if you had to wake people up and shock them or move them into action what is one thing that you would like to remember? Also, what is it that they should be doing? What is the one thing you want them to do?

Ritvik: So I missed one point, the other sources of waste, like offices, other corporates, factories, industrial waste of another kind, largely they directly go into the recycling chain, because they have to submit an ESG report and waste management as a part of the compliances that they have to follow. Still a lot, a lot more needs to happen. If I talk about shocking, I don’t know, if people just look around; Bombay if you move around there’s plenty of waste that can be seen everywhere. If they just want to take a step further, I would just urge them to go to a dumping yard and look at the communities living around those. These are not even away from the city, they’re bang in the middle of the city. I’ve heard people say that Mumbai is the only city where it has a national park. I always say, in the second sentence, that it also has three gigantic mountains of waste which are already running out of space. We are already late in tackling waste. This is a problem which can only be solved when each and every one of us on board understands the problem and I won’t say that people don’t understand the problem. We, as Indians, are pretty smart, we know what is what; it is just that attitude is a problem and as long as it is not in my backyard, we see people who clean their houses and throw off the waste from their balconies. Understand that it’s not the responsibility of the municipality, you are responsible for the waste that you have generated. If you can just spare two minutes to segregate, 90% of the problem will be solved. And awareness is one of the key components that we work on and I would say that it works. It is just a matter of being a little persistent and keeping on hitting the nail whenever required. It happens because people lose motivation after doing it for a couple of months. Then you have to reinforce the fact that this is a process. You can’t expect to do a one-time awareness and expect it to go on for years without any failures. It will have failures like any other problem, so it’s just a matter of being persistent and keeping at it till it happens.

Team awenest : That’s very brutally put and thanks for that. Before the conversation also, we were talking about the dumping yards and I can see the passion and why you are doing this when we discussed this. You know, there are various players in the whole chain like you said; there is the government, there are organisations, there are people. Who do you think has the biggest responsibility? You, of course, said that people must realise that waste generation is their problem. What kind of rules can the government bring into place to drive this beyond segregation? Do you think people should be doing something more? What role should companies play in driving this?

Ritvik: Rules are already in place. Segregation is the bare minimum. So in Mumbai, any society which is generating more than a hundred kgs has to compost their own waste, send their waste for recycling and there is a 5% property tax rebate associated with it. So it is not like the incentives are not there. As far as the companies are concerned, again, the rules are in place. There is a rule called extended producer responsibility which mandates all the companies which are using plastic as packaging and sending it to the market. So they need to recycle the same amount of plastic that they’re sending to the market and so we have one of the agencies work with multiple brands under this initiative. So, rules are there. Making rules is only as good as execution and execution lacks behind a bit in India. It takes time but it is happening. I won’t be totally pessimistic, I do see positive changes, I do see there is a cognizance. Unless it is enforced properly, it would be really difficult because even to have a behavioural change there has to be a lot of handholding and forcing for a substantial period of time till the time we reach a level that we can say that we are a good example of waste management probably. Talking about Sweden and other European countries, their initiative is 25 years old already so there has been a substantial amount of time they have been at it and hence we are looking at them as a good example. There are problems associated with their model also so we have to innovate as we go along, but yeah. It’s just the beginning and I’m pretty confident we will do a better job.

Team awenest : That’s a very good news that you know many people are changing their minds about plastic and dump in India. You spoke about EPR, Extended Producer Responsibility and you are assisting companies in that goal. How does that work? Is it a certification? Is it a methodology and how are you helping people achieve their EPR goals?

Ritvik: Largely a certification, basically a recycling credit. So you buy any product from the market, you use that and you dispose of the packaging. So the company has to look at their sales and the number of products that they have sold in the last year, calculate the total weight of packaging that has gone into the market and then they have to collect the same type of plastic, need not be the same bag. So although there are collect-back programmes run by many companies, which are not really successful up till now if its pet bottles, the need to collect pet bottles, could be of any brand.

Team awenest :Understood. So it doesn’t need to be of your brand but it has to be the same type of plastic that you generated in production.

Ritvik: And in the same region. So if you have X amount of sales in Maharashtra, you have to collect X amount from Maharashtra. You cannot do it from Karnataka. So it is state-wise, to collect and send that plastic for recycling through authorised recyclers. There might be a case where I am a recycler myself but I am not present everywhere so there are authorised recyclers in multiple parts of the country and so they issue a certificate that X amount has been recycled on behalf of X brand in the month of December.

Team awenest : So these authorised recyclers have to be these formal organised structures or they can be the informal recyclers that you spoke about earlier?

Ritvik: Cannot be informal, they have to have all the necessary permissions and licences by Pollution Control Board and then only they can be boarded.

Team awenest : And is there a number how many recyclers are there who are authorised as of now in the country? I was reading a report and the number was very less. I don’t know if that is correct. I saw there were only a hundred authorised recyclers.

Ritvik: Yeah yeah, it is around that, the authorised ones.

Team awenest : So that is a very low number for India right?

Ritvik: Yeah it is it is. So right now the initiative should be to bring those informal ones, help them formalise so there are a lot of initiatives that we have taken, we try to understand why those people are not able to get authorised; could be a capital problem, could be knowledge gap, could be they do not understand the legalities around it, not able to apply for paperwork and the processes that are required to maintain such a facility. So we tried to help them. Another thing that is required is, as I said, quality products so there is the requirement of setting up, state of the art, high-quality, recycling centres as well. There is a requirement of both and trying to address both at the same time, you know.

Team awenest : Understood. So I, because of my experience in retail, kind of see some similarities here. I’m not exactly putting these segments together but the unorganised retail and organised retail right and now there is some work happening on building platforms where all the unorganised retailers come together and you know they have technology to drive their data, to drive their performance, to know what is going on, what should I order, basically effectively manage the unorganised segment. I think that is something that you are also trying to do in the waste management space. How successful are people in this space? Do you see a reasonable willingness in the informal sector to convert to formal? Are there big drawbacks and what is their biggest fear in converting?

Ritvik: Biggest fear is that the regulatory agencies will come and shut their shop. So there’s a fear of regulation and then lack of education is something which is found everywhere. I’m sure there are people who just do not want to get formalised and are happy cutting corners but there would be a small percentage, as far as I have seen things, people do want to get formalised but they need a little bit of persuasion because that is set up that if they’ve been working for years and they’re tuned to work in a certain way. So to break the habit and take the fear out, takes a little time, takes a certain amount of rapport and trust for us to build and then they are ready to commit.

Team awenest :  And in your experience, if you speak to 10 how many are in a relative or you know speaking how many are ready to confirm and ready to be formalised?

Ritvik: On paper, sure. I think one or two. See it’s all about leading by example. Even if one of them does it and does it right, actions if they see it is much easier for them to emulate that. From our offices and from our college we used to go for service, they would not entertain. First, I said there is a fear of disclosing things. Traditionally the whole recycling thing has been a very closed environment and they do not let people visit and there is an unwillingness to share data so for them to open up takes a little time and once they see the things are happening, once one, two, three get on board then the rest are easier to get on board. It’s all about business for them; they will not think about sustainability like you and I would. They are coming from a very different background, they have a very different type of life and struggles associated with it so for us to expect them to understand the planet and sustainability is not fair. So you have to talk to them in their own language. So if we are giving them profitable business, they are ready to share data, they are ready to become transparent, that is the route that we have to follow.

Team awenest : Absolutely, that makes a lot of sense. The economics of it have to make sense to them. What is the need for them? is it that they will get a better remuneration for the output because it’s more organised and it will open channels for more suppliers to take their product? What are the things that you sell to them?

Ritvik: Yeah. So we sell first of all… they get waste, more business, either I sell to them or they sell to me. Then there are benefits associated with the formalisation, get a good night's sleep, which is something… the fear of regulation is gone. The primary pitch is business, then once they get formalised, then we try to expand their facilities, make them as examples of good practices, set an amount of media coverage associated with anyone we can get; people, funders because there are people who are interested in the social inclusion of the informal sector. So yeah, these are the things so that more and more people can get into the umbrella.

Team awenest : Understood. And Sampurn(e)arth as an organisation, which part of India have you had maximum success in? What kind of case studies have you seen that you know when we worked in this area then output was better work? Where are you more active?

Ritvik: Right now we are more active in the West; Maharashtra, Goa, Gujarat. This is still a pretty new initiative, like a year and a half old and most of it is gone through Covid. But yeah in Goa we’ve organised 150 people so this year we plan to set up 10 recycling units, largely in Maharashtra, Goa and Gujarat. A similar model of social inclusion will be a core activity in all the centres.

Team awenest : Wow, okay. That’s what has been keeping you very busy because you know when I realise that it has been difficult to catch you in the last one month. Is it all the work going on around organising and building up the facility? How much effort does setting up one facility in terms of money in terms of resources required?

Ritvik: As I said, we are very new. Manufacturing is something we haven’t done and there is a lot of learning that we ourselves are going through. Come in regards to operating, setting up and operating a manufacturing unit, then around plastic recycling and chemistry of polymers to, because as I said, the ultimate aim is to make high-quality products so working towards that. Initially, a lot of effort needs to be put in, but two of them are already running so we’re getting some idea of how the rest of them would work and we are trying to not make the same mistakes that we made in the first two.

Team awenest : Absolutely. And now there are many ways in which you can buy waste. That’s what you spoke about. When you approach the municipal corporation, what kind of conversations do you have and are they very eager to help? Where are they in the whole thing?

Ritvik: They are warming up to the idea and also they do have a problem, as I said, waste management right now is this collection and dumping and dumps have a finite life and burning is quickly becoming not an option to dispose of waste. They want people who would take away the waste and dispose of it scientifically. So, largely to pick up the waste we do not try to target cities like Mumbai and Pune. We go to tier three cities where the problem is still the same and players are less so that is not a bidding war going on for waste. They are warming up to the idea of giving the ways to private parties. Usually for free.

Team awenest : Usually for free? Okay. But the segregation bit will still be required to be paid for.

Ritvik: Yes of course, because if they are giving you segregated waste there is a price associated but if it is just a mixed dump, we take it.

Team awenest : But you spoke about how you are also going to use more and more complex plastic. Which plastics are the most difficult to recycle?

Ritvik: So the multilayered plastic is something which is not getting recycled right now and most of our packaging is multilayered, especially when it comes to food. We look at any chips packet, it’s a layer of plastic on the outside and aluminium inside so the separation of these two layers is really difficult and time-consuming and economically not really viable. These are still re-processed into sheets which can be used for multiple things like roofing or used as construction material and it can also be used in food making and pyrolysis. Pyrolysis is the process of converting plastics back into oil and the third way to dispose of them is incineration which is the least environment friendly but the most prevalent right now because there are people who are setting up plants but again these two processes require really good quality of multilevel packaging and quality is a question, finding a quality fit.

Team awenest : Okay. Now how can people quickly understand whether this is multilayered or not? Now you spoke about chips packets and that is evident and when you tear it you know that it’s kind of complex packaging but beyond that is there any way to understand that this packaging is multilayered? Is number 7 RIC code definitely multilayered?

Ritvik: Yes.

Team awenest : And is it multilayered in other 7 codes as well? Other 6 codes as well?

Ritvik: No no.

Team awenest :So, as long as you see number seven you know that this item is difficult to recycle as of now. The best that will happen to it will be it will go maybe in roads or it will eventually be burnt or pyrolysis.

Ritvik: Yeah. Very very small part.

Team awenest : Very very small part. So largely don’t even consider that it’s mostly going to…

Ritvik: Mostly going to the dams and a small part is getting incinerated.

Team awenest : Okay. And coming to other types of plastic, RIC7 is one but you spoke about the flexibles. Difficult to pick up but it’s easy to recycle, right?

Ritvik: Hmm, yes.

Team awenest : Ritvik in this podcast also tried to tell our listeners to give them a sense of proportion, right? You know, what is the total opportunity size? If you can tell us what are the economics in the chain, at what rate is the scrap being purchased and at what rate the final output gets sold then we can give that sense so can you tell us about that a bit?

Ritvik: So, scrap is a very umbrella term. If you talk about the lowest value mixed bad quality flexible plastic which is lying in some dump somewhere can get it for as low as two rupees sometimes for free. Then there is segregation cost, transportation cost associated so if you sell it directly two rupees so your final cost would come around 6 to 8 rupees something in that range and we can sell it for Rs.10-Rs.12, but if you recycle it the final product can go up to 30 Rs.35 because it's a plastic market like a stock market, only the prices go up and down not as frequently but they do go up and down. So the markup that you can get in case of recycling.

Team awenest : And you spoke about making high-quality plastic now. What rate does high-quality plastic go at?

Ritvik: Again depends on the type of plastic that we are using but it could go anywhere from 70 Rs.200.

Team awenest :2018 report says that India generated 18,500,000 tonnes of plastic waste and if I wait to convert all of that and recycle entire plastic and lets assume that is happening at 70 Rs. KG then we are talking about an opportunity size of 1,30,000 crores. That is a very big number.

Ritvik: I think it sounds right.

Team awenest : Is that why you are in this space? (laughter)

Ritvik: Not really. Sure I don’t mind money but the thought process was really different. The problem is so big that’s why the opportunity is also so big. And both the things go hand in hand. So to get to that figure a lot of work also needs to be put in.

Team awenest : And it is something that we must understand that today is going to waste. All of this is actually lost in dumping grounds lost because of no segregation.

Ritvik: It’s clogging our oceans. If you're able to recycle this it’s a very very big amount. As you said these are 2019 numbers right and numbers with only go up because we do not have an alternative to plastic. Packaging paper is not an alternative to plastic because we cannot cut trees, that’s for sure, as long as we do not have any alternative to plastic production in the coming years, and I personally believe plastic is not to be blamed; we are to be blamed and our systems and our processes of handling plastic need to be blamed so we need to do a better job at collections, recycling and overall attitude towards plastic waste management and I think you have to hit the nails head as often as possible. I would urge everyone if they want to get their plastic recycled, you can always reach out to Sampoorna. We will try our best to help!

Team awenest: Thank you so much. It has been a great session. We learnt a lot about plastic today and I personally learnt a lot of things that I had no idea about on the value chain of plastic on the economics of this material. What are the things that people should be doing, where are we feeling, how is the organised sector coming into the fold of recycling plastic and how is it benefiting them, how are you thinking about this? Iit has been a really interesting session and we hope to have you soon! May Sampurn(e)arth become really really big and we connect once again. And then you must be recycling a lot and travelling all over the country building your plants! All the best for that. I hope that you succeed in this mission!


Author - team awenest

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.