I recently anchored a conference on ‘Positive Attributes of Plastics and its Waste Management’ backed by the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers, Government of India. It sounded technical and when I looked at the programme sheet, I knew I had to pay extra attention to draft notes and comments. To my utter surprise, I thoroughly enjoyed every presentation and learned a few cool things!
The speakers and audience included industrialists, recyclers, educators, NGOs, government officials from the Pollution Control Board and Corporation of Chennai, along with a few students. I was honestly startled at the participation from the audience, having rather ignorantly expected silence and boredom.
In a nutshell, the conference discussed domestic and industrial use of plastics, its manufacturing techniques, technological innovations in the field, and most importantly – managing plastic waste.
I learned about how plastic itself does not pollute, it’s its mismanagement that affects the environment. I learned that most plastic is recyclable and that there are companies in India that are treating and recycling PET bottles and other plastics to produce wires, pillows, clothes, food packaging, zippers, carpets etc. I learned that it takes 6 PET bottles to make a T-shirt. Who knew!
Fact – one recycler based in Karur said they crush 7.5 lakh PET bottles every single day!
I learned about bioplastics and how they are different from biodegradable plastics. I learned about the release of excess CO2 when plastics break down, and how companies and researchers are trying to re-engineer plastics to reduce the amount of the greenhouse gas. I also learned about waste hierarchy.
The biggest issue with waste management is segregation
Plastic that is mixed with other trash cannot be recycled. In India, our waste collection method is still manual. A human opens the garbage bag you leave outside, picks through it with their hands, and separates them into recyclable and general waste. One fuming speaker said the worst thing that citizens do is dump all waste into one thin plastic bag, tie it up in a tight knot and drop it in the common bins. This means that the rag-pickers have no inclination to open up our smelly trash and pick through it. Would you pick through someone’s garbage? It’s frankly quite unimaginable. The solution is simple – segregate.
I have been separating my plastic waste for about 4 years now, ever since I learned that the Corporation of Chennai uses this waste to mix into bitumen for construction of roads. But sometimes I’m guilty of throwing things like cheese wrappers in with regular waste. The passionate speech hit me pretty hard, so just to see how much plastic waste we (2 adults) generate per week, I collected it and took a picture.
- 2 lay’s chips packets
- 1 wrapper from buying bell peppers
- Box of juice
- Box of milk – TetraPaks are a mix of plastic and paper. I’m uncertain if technology to recycle them exists in Chennai, but it’s better to separate them anyway!
- Plastic box of brown rice
- 2 iced tea bottles
- 1 bisleri bottle
- 1 cheddar cheese wrapper
- 2 plastic spoons from a takeaway
- Chickpeas wrapper
- Bread wrapper
- Paneer wrapper
- Toiler paper wrapper
- Strawberries box
- Cheese slices wrapper
- 2 bubble top can lids with plastic wrap
- 5 wrappers from buying vegetables at Nilgiris
- 3 biscuit wrappers
- 5 cheese slices cling
- sanitary napkin wrappers
The day after I took this picture I cleaned out my kitchen, so another bag of plastics like these was generated. As a side note, if you use shower gel, please do not use ones with sparkly microbeads in them. They’re made of plastic and terrible for the oceans! Read the BBC report here.
The Pollution Control Board Mandates 40 Microns for Plastic Bags..
…for a sad reason. The speakers talked about rag-pickers and the ostracism they face on a daily basis. They said plastic bags (used to throw trash in) under 40 microns are too flimsy for rag-pickers to pick out. So they ignore them for more lucrative garbage – thicker bags, glass bottles, metal scrap. By increasing the minimum thickness, the authorities believe the rag-pickers will have more incentive to pick it up for the recycler.
The Government faces a number of logistic issues with recycling plastics – segregation, collection, delivery to recyclers, cleaning, costs of setting up plants, recycling centres being too far away from source of garbage, no common recycling parks for recyclers to pool resources. Our role as citizens seems easy, yet for some unfathomable reason, ignored.
We all want to do things that help the environment – buy organic food, patronise non-chemical dyes, use eco-friendly products. A very simple step towards helping the government do its job is to begin segregating. If your maids do all your household chores, please talk to them to put plastic waste into a separate bag. You will help the local rag-picker make a few rupees and do your good-citizen deed for the day as well.
A heartbreaking story one of the speakers narrated was of an experiment conducted in large apartment blocks (over 300 households) in Bangalore. All residents were asked to separate their plastics, glass, batteries etc., and use organic waste for a common composting pit within the complex. At the end of the two month experiment, the local authorities were stunned to receive the 60 rupee fine from every home, and not a single earnest citizen!