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Vol. XXX No. 6, July 1-15, 2020
While we fight off the coronavirus, the creation of a sustainable hygiene and sanitation environment through appropriate infrastructure and civic practices is crucial. Nearly 20 per cent of Chennai’s solid waste is plastic. The volume and scatter of plastic waste make separation and collection difficult. In turn, low collection leads to clogged pipelines and the accumulation of filth. Tamil Nadu’s efforts to contain plastic waste began in January 2019. With public health a high priority today, it is an apt time to review the impact of those efforts.
To collect solid waste, segregate plastic waste into recyclable and non-recyclable buckets, and then dispose of them with the least possible quantity going to the landfill is a mammoth, labour-intensive operation and logistical nightmare. Accounting for time to put together the necessary infrastructure, Tamil Nadu’s campaign lasted effectively for 12 months or so. So, it is too early for the alarming newspaper headlines worrying about “single-use plastics back in town”.
The only public domain data available to evaluate the campaign is information reported by the newspapers regarding the last five months’ seizure of 11 tonnes of banned plastic material compared with 306 tonnes in the first ten months of 2019. It is the outcome of 4.5 lakh raids carried out in the past year. With such rigorous enforcement, the lower average monthly seizure of 2 tonnes – compared to 30 tonnes in the earlier 12 months – suggests that single use plastic has been curbed substantially. This inference is vindicated by the opinions of small groups in Adyar, who felt that it had fallen by about 35-40 per cent. According to them, most trading outlets, barring the informal road-side ones, comply under the pressure and preparedness of customers; the negative aspect, however, is the persistent visibility and stink of waste awaiting collection, including plastic. The collection system seems to be a weak link of all solid waste in general. It is also the most difficult and important link to which authorities should give attention.
The continued use of non-recyclable plastic is confined to small vendors of wet flowers and fruits, for which a paper wrap is not suitable. Vendors use plastic when customers do not bring their own non-plastic bags. This category is a small proportion compared to the indiscriminate plastic use that was common until 2019.
Corporation officials are optimistic of irreversibly arresting undesirable plastic use in 2-3 years. The substitution of single use plastic is quicker in districts, aided by easy availability of materials like plantain leaves etc. Chennai’s daily collection of total waste is about 5,100 tonnes, of which wet material is 2,600 tonnes and dry 2,500 tonnes. Of this, plastic waste accounts for around 620 tonnes. Pre-segregation by waste generators speeds up collection and removal. Going by the January 2020 numbers of total waste, single-use plastic waste is about 274 tonnes per day (tpd) – 40 per cent of all plastic waste. This part of the waste is cleaned, compressed, and baled for the recyclers. Baling equipment have been set up at several locations to handle this operation in a decentralised manner, saving time and cost. As an experiment, a new collection contractor, employing superior methods of collection, has been engaged in a couple of zones. This will be extended in due course to other zones.
The legacy of huge accumulation in landfills in three locations is a health hazard and has to be resolved speedily. Happily, the process of disposal has commenced. It is being sorted and separated according to the type of disposal needed, which include composting, recycling, incineration etc. The authorities have set the end of March 2021 as the deadline for clearing landfills and reclaiming the land for normal use. As the process is complicated and unavoidably slow, the deadline seems optimistic but speaks to the seriousness with which the task is being pursued. Decentralised gasification units of 100 tpd capacity are being set up. Over 2,000 composting centres, based on the successful Ahmedabad model, are being set up and quite a few have already been commissioned.
The Corporation is finalising terms with Dalmia Cements for use of plastic waste as fuel. Going by experience of Ambuja Cements and other units in Gujarat, a typical cement plant could absorb 70-100 tpd of plastic scrap.
The objective is to reduce plastic use and absorb the rest through recycling – as fuel in cement plants, as well as material (not very sizeable) for road laying. Recycling helps produce useful articles and leaves the waste for final extinction after a couple of usage cycles. It also supports many small and medium enterprises, providing employment to thousands. It helps reduce production of virgin raw material. As complete avoidance of plastic may not be feasible, recycling plays a useful role in the cycle. The government should help these small and medium units to function profitably.
A practical impediment to enforcement relates to definition anomalies. A plastic bag without a handle is permitted as legitimate packing material, but the same with a handle attracts the ban. This is a minor feature and a slender basis for the ban. When news of raid reaches an area, traders have the handles clipped out before the inspection official arrives. Plastic, finished like aluminium, is passed off as aluminium packing material. Such loopholes must be sealed to make enforcement more effective.
A State-wise evaluation for the period 2019-20 from the Central Pollution Control Board, may be available only by December 2020. In the meantime, the State government could post details of on-going programmes and progress indicators in the public domain.
The separation of plastic from other waste was only about 30-40 per cent efficient prior to 2019. Through better methods and incentivisation, segregation efficiency has been improving steadily. Initially, this will reflect as a higher recovery of plastic waste, giving the impression that plastic usage is increasing. Once segregation reaches optimal efficiency, the quantity of plastic waste extracted will fall as usage falls. Till then, the daily collection figure cannot be used as an indicator of changes in usage. Instead, the quantity going to the landfill makes a good indicator and should be made available on the website.
While there are a lot of innovative programmes and infrastructural developments, these are not communicated through periodic reports. Quantities sent for disposal – to recyclers, cement plants, composting centres, gasification units and to landfill – are reliable indicators.
Covid-19 has sensitised the public at large to their responsibility in ensuring a hygienic environment. Hygienic practices have become a necessary obsession, a magnificent obsession. This is the time to strike hard and enforce proactive practices to win the war on plastics.