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How 1 second of your time can reduce India’s plastic problem

By Chittaranjan Tembhekar, Priyangi.Agarwal@timesgroup.com, Krishnendu.Bandyopadhyay & Saikat.Ray | Jun 16, 2023

Plastic can be recycled, but the process becomes difficult, if not impossible, when you throw plastic bags, razor heads, bottles, etc, in the same bin as vegetable peels and eggshells. The examples below show how cities across the country struggle to manage plastic waste because it comes mixed with other things. Now, imagine the difference we all could make by taking a second to drop plastic waste in a separate bin. It’s time to start segregating waste at home   

Mumbai casts a tight net, yet half of its waste slips through

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In percentage terms, plastic might not be a big part of Mumbai’s waste problem, but even then thousands of tonnes of plastic waste remains unprocessed in the metropolis every year. 

Bombay Municipal Corporation’s (BMC) own statistics for 2022 show the city generates about 6,400 tonnes of solid waste daily. Of this, 73% is ‘wet’ or food waste. The remaining 27% – roughly 6.3 lakh tonnes every year – comprises all kinds of dry waste, including 3.2% plastic.

The problem, however, lies with the low recycling rate. Last year, only 47,000 tonnes of dry waste – including 12,402 tonnes of plastic – was recycled. That means, about half of Mumbai’s plastic waste ended up in landfills or got buried under soil and washed into water bodies. 

A white paper by Praja Foundation, an organisation working in the field of urban governance, shows only 425 tonnes of electronic waste and 408 tonnes of thermocol were recycled in Mumbai last year.

Experts say Mumbai can recycle more by segregating waste at source. Although a BMC environment status report shows waste segregation increased from 65% in 2017-18 to 81% in 2021-22, they point out this was due to the establishment of 55 dry-waste segregation centres.

For example, data shows 90% of dry waste – including paper, cardboard and plastic articles – collected from Mumbai’s 24 wards was recycled. But again, this data is from the 55 dry-waste centres. 

A senior BMC official involved in solid waste management also told TOI that plastic collected through the formal system in the city “never goes back into the environment”.

The official, who did not wish to be named, explained that about 1,000 tonnes of dry waste – mainly paper and plastics – is segregated every day at the Kanjurmarg landfill, Mumbai’s largest. From this, about 500 tonnes of clean waste is recycled, while the remaining soiled waste is used as fuel in boilers and factories.

As for the 4,000-odd tonnes of unsegregated wet waste added daily at the Kanjurmarg landfill, it is “put in bioreactors and after five years it is excavated for further processing”.

Stressing on the need for segregation at source, Kedar Sohoni, founder-director of Green Communities Foundation, said if all households segregate their waste, and this waste is treated properly, Mumbai would move up on the Centre’s Swachh rankings. 

Delhi burns its plastic, then hopes it’s gone with the wind

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Delhi, which generates about 1,100 tonnes of plastic waste daily, claims to have relatively high recycling and processing rates across its civic bodies. For example, New Delhi Municipal Council and Delhi Cantonment Board claim to recycle and process 100% of their plastic waste. The much bigger Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) claims 78% recycling and processing currently, and will increase it to 100% by June next year.

While these figures sound impressive, there is a catch. An expert, who did not wish to be named, told TOI that “only a very small amount” of the 871 tonnes of plastic waste handled by the three civic bodies daily is recycled. “Most of the plastic waste is sent to the four waste-to-energy plants where it is incinerated,” he said. MCD officials did not respond to TOI’s queries on this.

Siddharth Ghanshyam Singh, programme manager for the municipal solid waste unit at Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), also said, “The term ‘processing’ is very tricky.” 

Priti Banthia Mahesh, chief programme coordinator, Toxics Link, said, “Waste-to-energy plants are certainly not a solution and may hinder the key environmental objectives of ensuring the transition to a circular economy, waste prevention and recycling.” She added that plastic waste that cannot be recycled should be reduced and eliminated, not incinerated.

“Recycling is the last option in the waste hierarchy and should be used as the final measure for the plastic that cannot be reused or repurposed. We can’t really recycle our way out of the plastic problem.”

So why aren’t more plastics reused or recycled? It comes down to the segregation problem, said Swati Singh Sambyal, a Delhi-based waste management expert. “Recycling depends on the quality of plastic waste feed. Due to the lack of robust segregation systems in Delhi, most of the feed is contaminated and thus entails costs to wash and clean before recycling. This is not possible for small recyclers. Hence, most of the plastic waste ends up in waste-to-energy plants.”

Storm of polybags rises, but Kolkata is clutching at straws

Almost a year after plastic spoons, forks, plates, etc, were banned in India, Kolkata restaurants continue using them. A recent survey by Prof Sadhan Ghosh, a waste management expert from Jadavpur University, found them at 73% of Howrah restaurants, while 53% of North Kolkata eateries were using plastic straws. 

At Dhapa, Kolkata’s biggest landfill, 70% of the plastic waste is single-use carry bags. Considering that 4,000 tonnes of municipal waste is offloaded at Dhapa daily, and 35% of it is plastic, we are looking at about 1,000 tonnes of carry bags every day. But Ghosh says the carry bag problem is much bigger as 70% of Kolkata’s plastic waste does not reach landfills. It chokes drains, litters playgrounds, and flows into rivers. 

When kitchen waste is dumped in carry bags, it becomes difficult to decompose and use as manure. Compactor machines introduced over the past 10 years compound this problem. While they remove streetside garbage dumps, compacted waste cannot be segregated by ragpickers. 

That’s why Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) started a project to segregate waste at source last December. It has given two buckets each to 8 lakh households for sorting wet and dry waste, but segregation is yet to become a habit, especially in north and central Kolkata. The corporation is planning awareness drives in the wards before imposing fines on errant households.

KMC has had some success with other waste-management measures in the past few years. For example, the bio-mining work it started at Dhapa in 2019 has crossed the halfway mark. Recyclable materials recovered from the landfill could be turned into products.

The corporation’s fertiliser plant processes 500 tonnes of waste every day. The civic body also has plans to make plastic furniture from recycled plastic, and compressed natural gas from biodegradable waste 

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