Beat plastic: Yes, but how?

Despite rules and bans in place, attempts to beat plastic use and pollution in our cities have been hardly effective. Experts weigh in on what could be done to change that.

A group of ecologists, on what appears to be a boat, are holding an olive ridley turtle. The turtle is seen gasping for air and is trying to breathe through its mouth. A closer look reveals that the turtle’s left nostril is blocked. An ecologist tries to pull out the blockage with a pair of pliers. The turtle, writhing in pain, soon starts bleeding. The next seven minutes are harrowing, but finally ecologists succeed. While the turtle is free, ecologists, much to their dismay, learn that the stuff blocking the turtle’s nose was a plastic straw!

This eight-minute-long YouTube video has scored over 25 million hits so far. While this turtle was saved and became the poster child of an anti-plastic straw movement, other wild lives are not always as lucky.

Of course, plastic waste should not be mistaken for plastic straws alone. Neither are turtles the only species at risk. Discarded plastic – comprised of straws, disposable cups & cutlery, carry bags, bottles – is not only choking our marine life, but is also clogging our rivers, making its way to the gut of ‘sea food’ that we devour.

Let’s not forget the poisonous fume it emits when incinerated. Burning plastic at high heat releases several harmful gases including dioxins and furans in case of chlorinated and brominated plastic waste.

According to a report by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), India generates 25,940 tonnes of plastic waste a day and most of it goes unprocessed. It is taken to disposal sites and dumped, following the method of crude dumping, where the waste is neither spread, nor covered. In such a scenario, beating plastic pollution becomes a matter of utmost importance.

India’s unsuccessful struggle against plastic

An earlier article on Citizen Matters carried a detailed description of the quantum of plastic waste (PW) generated in some large cities and how this is dealt with. However, it is amply clear that whatever the rules on paper may state, the battle against plastic has seen negligible success in urban India as a whole. As much as 95% of the trash collected during a clean-up drive organized by not-for-profit organizations Integrated Mountain Initiative (IMI) and Zero Waste Himalaya across 12 mountain states of Himalaya on May 26th turned out to be PW. 

According to Ashish Jain, COO, Indian Pollution Control Association (IPCA), the national capital itself is staring at bleak prospects when it comes to PW management. Despite ban on single use plastic for over a decade and the National Green Tribunal’s (NGT) strict penalty in place, plastic carry bags and disposables are available with most vendors and shopkeepers.

“Along with CPCB and East Delhi Municipal Corporation (EDMC), we decided to do a reality check early this year and raided a market in Vishwas Nagar Institutional area. Each vendor in the market had the ‘banned’ plastic. Within ten minutes of our arrival, all shops in the market were shut. Out of the five raids we could conduct, all five possessed plastic carry bags,” says Ashish.

The situation is equally grim in Himachal Pradesh, a state that has been trying to impose a blanket ban on plastic for over a decade now. “While plastic carry bags are being used less, the ‘blanket ban’ has been a failure. Every other form of plastic is available everywhere,” says Chirag Mahajan, working with a waste management NGO in Dharamshala.  

According to Vijay Kothari, CEO, Wealth Out of Waste (WOW), a waste management service provider in Ahmedabad, while PET bottles and milk packets in the city are being recycled to some extent, all other form of plastic is reaching landfills or roadside dumpsites. “Recyclable plastic is being taken care of by the informal sector to some extent, but use of other single use plastic is rampant,” says Vijay.

Even in Bengaluru, a city with a strident anti-plastic movement, single use plastic can still be seen around. “The ban has to travel across the states for an effective implementation. If manufacturing of such plastic is indeed banned in Bangalore, why is it still around? Moreover, the state pollution control board should be transparent about its action plan. The road map should be available for everyone to see and understand the measures that are being taken to curb plastic menace,” says Wilma Rodrigues, founder and CEO of the Bengaluru-based waste management company, Saahas Zero Waste.

While some cities are trying their level best to get rid of single use plastic, experts say that the central government’s latest amendment (replacement of the term “non-recyclable multi-layered plastic” with “multi-layered plastic which is non-recyclable or non-energy recoverable or with no alternative use) to The Plastic Waste Management Rule (2016) is proving to be obstructive.

“The term ‘no alternative use’ can be deceptive. A person acquiring banned plastic can put it on his/her head and say that it has an ‘alternative use’. This clause defies the purpose,” says Harshad Barbe, a representative of Swach Pune, a cooperative of waste collectors providing front-end waste management services.   

Use of PW in road construction is one of the ways in which PW can be dealt with, and while many cities tried to adopt that, it seems to be headed towards a dead end. “As per the Karnataka government’s approval in 2017, as much as 700-800 metric tonnes of PW was to be used in road construction, but only around 60 metric tonnes have been used so far. The initiative took off well, but the contractors are not following this guideline for a couple of years now,” says K Ahmed Khan, managing director, KK Plastic Waste management Pvt Ltd, a PW waste management company in Bengaluru.

Informal sector shows the way

When it comes to PW management and disposal in India, it is the informal sector (rag pickers, junk dealers, private recyclers) that has been leading the way.

“Most of the PW recycling is made possible by the informal sector. The number of rag pickers across the country is anywhere between four to 12 million. There are over 10000 rag pickers in Pune city alone, out of which, three thousand, that are registered with the Pune Municipal Corporation, are responsible for saving 3.3 million trees through paper recycling,” says Harshad, quoting a study done by Swach.

While cities like Pune and Mumbai have come up with regulations to set up PET bottle collection machines, Harshad feels it might not be the solution. “More than 90% of the high value recyclable PW like PET bottles and milk packets are already being recycled by the informal sector. The focus should be on integration of informal sector and not exclusion,” says Harshad.

Let’s stem the tide

Source segregation, inclusion of the informal sector in a comprehensive waste management policy, educating stakeholders and putting the right policies in place are some of the ways that can be used to deal with plastic menace.

“Source segregation seems to be the best mantra. It can take care of more than 50% of the PW. This will ensure that the chain does not break with PW ending up landfills and not being recycled. Moreover, municipal corporations across the country will have to pull up their socks and contribute,” says Naveen Kumar Sadana, manager, outreach and partnership, Waste Warriors (2008), NGO in Dehradun.

Experts opine that inclusion, not exclusion, of the informal sector is the need of the hour. “Informal sector is already doing most of the PW management and recycling. Scrap dealers and rag pickers should be incentivised and should not be pushed out of the business with policies like ‘buyback’, ‘waste bank’ and ‘PET bottle collection machines’.

PET bottles and milk packets are high value recyclables. If high value recyclables are take care of by the formal sector, the informal sector, which does most of the recycling currently, will be left with recyclables that will not fetch them enough. This will bring down their motivation to segregate and collect PW,” says Harshad.

According to Ashish, educating stakeholders is the key to success of anti-plastic policies. “Plastic waste, that cannot be recycled or used to generate energy, can be used in laying the roads. But contractors shy away from using plastic in road construction. They fear that plastic mixed road will shoot up their maintenance cost post construction. Moreover, the plastic recycling sector is informal and highly unorganized. There is no database of segregators, recyclers and distributors that can be referred to,” says Ashish.

Amidst multiple solutions floating around to make plastic ban a success, here comes the most elementary one – “Changing people’s mindset will do the trick. After all, we do not use disposable paper cups, plates and cutlery on a day-to-day basis at our homes. Then why are we using these outside?” asked Vijay.

Pockets of hope

With cities floating in a sea of plastic, it seems that the most progress, at least in relative terms, has been achieved in namma garden city. “Bangalore is doing far better than most of the other cities. This can be attributed to active citizenship. A lot of work has happened since March 2016. Supermarkets and malls are doing their bit too, says Wilma.

Nalini Shekhar, co-founder, Hasiru Dala, an organization of waste workers in Bengaluru, seconds this opinion. “Hasiru Dala has 33 centres spread across seven regions in Bangalore. While we used to get 2.5 to 3 tonnes of PW/month at each centre before the ban, it has reduced to 200-300 kilograms/month now. Moreover, one can see wooden/paper straws at hotels and food joints, and sugarcane bagasse being used as food packaging material. Source segregation is happening in most parts of the city.”

Swach Pune Co-operative Society is setting an example by integrating as many as 3000 ragpickers with the help of a formal contract between Pune Municipal Corporation and the Society. “These rag pickers have been issued identity cards and a dress code; they collect PW door-to-door. This way, they are not only getting the deserved incentive from the municipal corporation, even these houses pay them occasionally for their services,” informs Harshad.

Working in the same direction is Dehradun, a city nestled in the foothills of Himalaya. “We have as many as 150 notified rag pickers in Dehradun. These rag pickers are entitled to see their collectives to the recycling centres that we have tied up with. This way, they are not being fooled and getting the right money for their scrap,” says Naveen.

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