How one company is helping India progress towards a circular economy

Recycling could generate benefits worth more than $620bn a 2016 study found, equivalent to 30% of the country's GDP at the time

A worker sorts plastic containers for recycling in the Dharavi slum area of Mumbai, India, on Monday, Aug. 11, 2014. Almost a year after Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan rescued the rupee from a collapse, his war on inflation remains key to safeguarding the currency. Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg
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Global recycling company Gemini Corporation has its sights set on turning India's mounting plastic waste problem into huge profits.

The country's plastic recycling industry is highly unorganised, with people scavenging rubbish dumps to gather material with no protective clothing, while health and safety standards are often non-existent at scrap dealers' facilities where workers sort through mountains of trash. Plastic recycling in India is largely a 'grey market', and for Belgium-based Gemini, it sees a lucrative opportunity to turn the sector into a formal economy.

“We are trying to connect all the stakeholders and come up with a programme where we benefit everyone through a very good business model,” says Hanumant Saraf, the business head of Gemini's India operations, Gemcorp Recycling & Technologies. “It's a blend of commercial, it's a blend of social aspect, and a blend of environment.”

The company is looking to capitalise on an opportunity to generate revenues as plastic use in the country increases – as does the amount of waste generated.

India's Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas forecasts the annual per capita consumption of plastic in the country – which has a population of more than 1.3 billion people – will almost double to 20kg by 2022 compared with 11kg in 2015.

This is attributed to increasing urbanisation and an expansion of consumer spending in line with economic growth. The country generates an estimated 26,000 tonnes of plastic waste every day, and a report by The Energy and Resources Institute (Teri) says only 60 per cent of the country's plastic waste is recycled.

“As India progresses towards a circular economy, there is a need to transition towards improved waste management,” Teri says. “The plastic industry, owing to its use in a wide variety of sectors, such as the automotive, construction, electronics, healthcare, and textiles, is among the fastest growing markets.”

Gemini started its India subsidiary in October 2019, and its growth has been rapid. It is already collecting some 3,500 tonnes of plastic waste each month and has a presence across India in 15 states including Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Delhi, Rajasthan, West Bengal and Maharashtra. The company has 25 waste collection centres and has established its first recycling plant in the country in Navi Mumbai, a satellite city of Mumbai. Its expansion strategy includes setting up 15 such recycling plants in India. It declined to disclose how much it plans to invest, but Mr Saraf describes it as a “good amount of money over the next two to three years”.

Established in 1989, Gemini Corporation is present in 26 countries and describes itself as “one of the world’s largest circular economy market makers”. The company says it has recycled some 1.7 million tonnes of material worldwide, including plastics, paper, metal and rubber.

In India, it is taking a ground-up approach. Gemini has partnered with the small, highly unorganised scrap dealers across India that dominate the waste collection industry and is helping them to streamline their collection methods and develop safe practices for workers, providing them with protective gear and training as well as creating systems that are more environmentally-friendly.

“We help them to grow as a formal industry,” Mr Saraf says. Often, small scrap dealers in India do not even have bank accounts and rely on cash, but Gemini insists that its partners move into the formal financial system to work with it.

“We give them financial assistance, social security and insurance, we give them drinking water, we give them fire-fighting equipment, we give them the know-how on maintaining the books and the records,” Mr Saraf says. "The work environment is very bad” for many recyclers, with women having to travel one kilometre to access toilets as there are no proper sanitation facilities on site. Another major problem is child labour, which the company wants to stamp out.

He says that Gemini benefits from helping its scrap dealer partners to improve their operations because “if they grow, we will grow”.

Factors that are driving the potential of the sector include concerns around climate change, with India committing to reduce its carbon emissions as part of the Paris climate change agreement.

“Recycling is one of the areas that can reduce the carbon footprint substantially,” Mr Saraf says.

The limited availability of raw materials is another driver.

“Natural resources are scarce. Day-by-day the population is increasing and the supply demand gap is going to increase,” he says. “Recycled products can be a game changer because it helps to conserve natural resources.”

The potential economic benefits for India of focusing on a circular economy are enormous, research suggests. A study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in 2016 found that India could generate benefits worth more than $620 billion a year through developing a circular economy, equivalent to 30 per cent of the country's GDP at the time.

“Given that India aspires to become a global manufacturing hub, we would witness higher levels of consumption of raw materials, than what’s required to meet India’s domestic needs,” Prasanna Karthik, a New Delhi based strategy consultant and public policy expert, wrote in a report published by think tank Observer Research Foundation in May. “Therefore, India’s traditional take-make-waste linear economic approach will cause severe ecological damage with untoward economic and social ramifications.”

Analysts also highlight that recycling can also create cheaper products for the Indian market, and that there are significant untapped business opportunities in the sector.

Although Gemini has only been operating its plastic waste management company in India for just over year, it managed to break even in its third month of operations, Mr Saraf says.

“We are growing very fast and we expect to grow by five-to-ten times over the next few years. That is our vision. It is a commercial venture.”

Given that the industry is at a “nascent stage” with few large recycling companies operating across the whole country, this means that the growth potential is particularly high, he adds.

Scrap dealers are also able to boost their profits, he argues.

“We support them with the infrastructure to scale up their existing business,” Mr Saraf says. The company provides machinery to scrap dealers, for example, free of cost. In turn, the dealers have to provide Gemini with 1,000 tonnes of waste over three years at the market rate, and then the ownership of the equipment is transferred to the dealer.

The process of expanding in India is fraught with difficulties, however, and it is not an easy process to try to formalise these small businesses.

“Another challenge is the quality of the material,” says Mr Saraf. “So as a recycler we face a lot of challenges.”

As it continues to scale up its operations in India, the company also has to generate new avenues to sell recycled materials and is in discussions with “a few corporations” to promote these products globally, he says.

For the plastic recycling industry to realise its full potential in India, Mr Saraf says there needs to be greater efforts from the authorities to support the sector, which could include a long term policy to attract investment and the introduction of subsidies and tax benefits to encourage recycling.

Most importantly, there needs to a change in consumer behaviour, he argues.

“Plastic's a wonderful material and we've benefitted a lot from it, but as citizens we also need to be responsible,” he says.