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Vol. XXVIII No. 12, October 1-15, 2018

Green Warriors and the Plastic Monster

by A Special Correspondent

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The mountains of waste challenging the ragpickers.

It needed World Environment Day to awaken us to the dangers of accumulating plastics in our surroundings. Discarded plastic clogs our waterways and stormwater drains, artificially flooding our neighbourhoods. Landfills are rising higher and higher with dumped plastic posing a serious health hazard. Recently, in Patna vets removed 80 kg of plastic from the stomach of an infected cow. Annually, around the world, nearly 13 million tons of plastic waste is dumped into the seas affecting marine life and endangering marine species.

The problem about plastic is that, on the one hand, it cannot be totally avoided as it is indispensable for our good living, permeating every part of our lives and our needs. The problem on the other hand is that it does not decompose easily, and its waste keeps accumulating around us. Therefore, not being able to avoid it altogether, we can only avoid its use wherever possible, and where it is still used, reduce its rate of accumulation by recycling. All this does pose a challenge as to where to begin and who should do what to tame this ever-enlarging monster.

The Plastic Waste Management Rules 2016 stipulate the procedure and discipline for producing, using, recycling and disposal of plastic products. There is little to quarrel over these provisions which have remained on paper as a good piece of bureaucratic craftsmanship. The last report of the Central Pollution Control Board, India, is for 2015-16, the very year of the Plastic Waste Management Rules and is of little value to assess the impact of the Rules. No report is traceable in their website for 2016-17. It is too early for the 2017-18 report. That much for the seriousness of enforcement of the PWM Rules by the promulgating body itself. There is no sign of the provisions of these Rules having been taken seriously by state governments and the local bodies under them. Most important among the requirements under PWM Rules is of an organised system to be evolved by local bodies for collection, segregation and disposal of plastic waste. The apathy of the system – and, of the citizens – in orchestrated harmony in dealing with such a serious threat to environment is disturbing.

That nearly 50 per cent of plastic usage is for single use or disposable products – plastic bags, plates, throw-away cutlery, bottles – does give a sizeable opening for reducing usage itself. Carrying one’s own cotton or jute bag/s to receive grocery and vegetables could substantially reduce usage. Nothing stops our doing it here and from now – except the will to do it. The collective impact, if all “mothers” in every household impart a force to this movement, would be visible and the change dramatic. We will have achieved much to tackle the plastic menace. We should not wait for a law, under fear of penalty or punishment, to tell us do this.

The problem of unavoidable use of plastic, calls for more effort. We buy medicines, beverages, toiletries that come in plastic containers. When throwing waste away, we could take a little trouble to segregate them to make the collector’s job easier. Collection of used plastic for recycling is a logistic nightmare. The makers of products with recycled plastic are supported by, and dependent upon, a large network of rag-pickers at the base of the pyramid with retail and wholesale collectors above them who, in turn, provide the raw material to the recyclers for turning them into granules. These are bought by manufacturers to make plastic products.

The ragpickers’ job is indeed a tough one having to scavenge among garbage to separate the plastic waste day after day. The least we can do is to lighten their task by segregating our waste diligently every day. This makes the basic collection efficient and enables the ultimate completion of the cycle – waste, collection, recycled granules to plastic product with recycled material saving one cycle equivalent of plastic accumulation. Recycling cannot be done endlessly for technical reasons, but one recycling of 100 per cent of the waste itself could halve the accumulation rate, provided 100 per cent of the waste is successfully collected. It is estimated that currently collection effectiveness is only 40 per cent. Taking it toward the 100 per cent mark is in our hands by segregating at source and presenting it in a manner that makes the ragpicker’s job a little easier and a little less unpleasant.

Segregation and collection activities are inherently difficult for enforcement as these are mostly individualised activities spread over tens of thousands of households and establishments, day after day. There is no answer other than a strong civic sense driving every one of us to take a little trouble to segregate at source and making it easy for collection.

Rightly have the ragpickers been hailed as “green warriors”. Their activity operates synergistically with civic bodies in charge of collection of garbage and waste for disposal. It is estimated that there are about 60,000 ragpickers in Chennai who generate 400 tonnes of plastic waste a day. The ragpickers keep the recycling units working. If collection effectiveness is raised from 40 per cent to 80 per cent the recycling units can double their production, make more profit, give more employment and keep the environment plastic-free. The ragpickers have a tough job over 12 hours or so to earn Rs. 8-10,000 a month. They are the unsung heroes of this environment saga.

There are 8,000 registered and 10,000 unregistered plastic units in Tamil Nadu. Unimaginative imposition of 18 per cent GST on scrap had reduced the demand for recycled granules as it narrowed down the cost differential with virgin raw material. On representation, the government reduced GST on scrap to 5 per cent but, strangely, retained GST on granules at the same 15 per cent. It is offering more food to the still strangled person. The one-sided reduction of tax has not remedied the situation as granule demand for recycling continues to be adversely affected. We can expect accumulation of garbage and loss of livelihood for ragpickers who have been contributing to clearing waste. The Tamil Nadu government should have taken this up at the last GST Council meeting. This small sector plays a central role in creating a plastic free environment. Leave alone subsidy and tax exemptions, it is self-defeating to punish them with an incongruent tax rate.

Admittedly, larger issues of replacing plastic components, wherever possible, by those made of alternative bio-degradable and replaceable material are even more relevant in taming the plastic monster. Meanwhile, desisting from plastic containers in everyday purchases and facilitating the collection and recycling of plastic waste lie within reach and can produce speedy visible impact. Households with a civic sense and ragpicking green warriors can strike the first assault.

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