Stores now carry a lot of products labeled as “fair trade,” a signal for consumers that the coffees and handicrafts are made with more concern for fair working conditions and environmental practices. Usually that means charging consumers a little more.
There's a push underway to apply some of those market-based fair trade concepts to plastics recycling in India, which is often done in tough working conditions and in small factories that today struggle to cope with low raw material prices.
NGOs such as Plastics for Change argue that “fair trade” ideas could improve conditions for the small plastics recycling factories and for people trying to make a living collecting waste plastic on the streets and in garbage dumps.
It believes building awareness among consumers and brands for “ethically-sourced” recycled plastic could boost the overall industry, sending a signal that the market is willing to pay more for better quality recycled plastic, helping everyone in the supply chain.
Plastics for Change is still building its operations, but I recently profiled two Indian plastics entrepreneurs, Mani Vajipey and Raj Madangopal, who are taking similar steps and are further along in their plans.
Both had strong personal concerns about plastic waste and pollution in their country, and so they gave up jobs as engineers and managers in the tech sector in the U.S. to return home and start a business recycling plastics.
They want their company, Banyan Nation, to produce global quality materials and meet all pollution control requirements, something that's not done in many companies operating in India's lightly-regulated “informal” business sector.
However, they told me they don't like the term “fair trade” for recycling.
To them, fair trade implies that they as a company have total control over the supply chain, which they don't.
They make a good point: Banyan collects data on the street-level vendors it buys recycled plastic from, but it doesn't have complete control over how the plastic was collected. Some of it may come from child labor, for example.
So they see themselves more as a responsible company, bringing good practices and trying to build a successful business making high-quality recycled materials within a larger system that has problems.
Banyan's Director of Partnerships Rashi Agrawal told me, for example, that the company employs many women in its factory, paying them the same as men (which she said is not the case in all factories), paying into workers' social insurance funds and providing restrooms, which again is not something always available in recycling factories operating in the informal sector.
She said Banyan specifically wants to create a more hospitable work environment.
Banyan's approach reminded me of something I heard from another NGO in Mumbai, Acorn International, which advocates for workers in the waste collection industry.
Acorn Executive Director Vinod Shetty said pressure on companies that buy recycled plastic could bring positive change, similar to the pressure faced by Apple, Samsung and other major electronics companies over their global supply chains.
Shetty also said the government needs to do a much better job of enforcing its own rules. He said it's a long-term project to improve conditions in India's industry.
Plastic waste gets a lot of attention. The problem is more acute in places like India, where the use of plastics is growing much faster than the systems to collect the waste. Industry there sees plastic waste as a potential threat to its growth.
Given those problems, it's worth paying attention to the efforts of companies and groups like Banyan Nation, Plastics for Change and Acorn, which are trying to improve conditions for the industry and its workers, and address larger problems of plastic waste.