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In plastic waste crisis, some see opportunities for change

By Ujwal.Bommakanti@timesgroup.com, Kushagra.Dixit@timesgroup.com, Gauree.Malkarnekar@timesgroup.com | Jun 24, 2023

Without adequate intervention, plastic pollution is a growing problem. But many are finding innovative ways to reuse plastic waste and creating eco-friendly alternatives to plastic products. A look at some best practices in plastic waste management across India


In Hyderabad, anti-plastic crusaders take matters into own hands

While the government, NGOs and environmental institutions have established best practices against use of single-use plastics in the city, contributions made by individuals, too, have paid rich dividends towards a plastic-free society.

Aruna Lingam, for instance, has taken it upon herself to recycle plastic waste piling up in landfills. Aruna and her husband Prashant are building their home in Shamirpet using sustainable materials like bamboo and by converting single-use plastics into building materials. Now, the 44-year-old runs Bamboo House India, which manufactures furniture and constructs homes, schools and public facilities with eco-friendly materials and reused single-use plastics. 

“The possibilities are endless as it provides a livelihood for waste pickers. We have so far used single-use plastic for construction across 20,000 sq.ft of built-up area in the last three years,” Aruna told TOI.

Suresh Mittapally, a former banker based in Nalgonda, has followed a self-imposed plastic ban for 14 years. The 45-year-old carries a cloth bag containing a steel plate, spoon and bottle wherever he goes.

“One day I noticed that over the course of time, several cows died eating plastic waste that we dump in the garbage sites. What started as a self-imposed initiative then grew into an advocacy campaign for a swachh planet,” Suresh told TOI.

Through his sustainability campaign, Suresh has spent Rs 35 lakh of his own money over the last decade to give jute bags, bamboo toothbrushes, khadi clothes and other eco-friendly items to more than 2 lakh locals.

“This is part of my Mission One Crore, where I have vowed to run this promotional campaign till my loan amount hits Rs 1 crore,” said Suresh, adding that he has pledged two acres of land and other assets to ensure the loan is repaid.


From Startups To Temples, Delhi’s Change Agents At Work    

The national capital continues to suffer the menace of plastic pollution, despite several attempts to restrict it, including a ban last year on 19 types of single-use plastic and bags thinner than 120 microns.

But across Delhi-NCR, TOI found examples of best practices in plastic waste management and proponents of alternative materials that could all add up to make a difference.

Arpit Dhupar’s Faridabad-based startup Dharaksha Ecosolutions, for instance, offers sustainable packaging to replace polystyrene (thermocol) with biodegradable materials made of mushroom roots and crop stubble. Though some polystyrene products, like cutlery and ornamental pieces, are now banned, the material is still widely used in the packaging industry and continues to make its way to landfills. 

“Thermocol is worse than plastic as it isn’t recyclable. Almost 95% of it reaches the landfills and catches fire easily. So, we developed an alternative biodegradable material that can be moulded in any shape and decompose within 60 days,” said Dhupar, adding India produces at least a million tonnes of thermocol annually, of which about 2% is recycled.

Meanwhile, scientists at CSIR-CRRI and National Physical Laboratory (NPL), are converting multi-layered plastic, like food packaging, into high-quality tiles for roofs, pavements and roads. Not only do these tiles reuse plastic waste, but they also repurpose “red mud”, which is industrial waste generated during aluminium production, CSIR-NPL’s principal scientist Dr Rajiv Kumar said.

Delhi-based NGO Why Waste Wednesdays, founded by Ruby Makhija, is among several groups helping people break the plastic habit. Its Project Vikalp offers exchangeable cotton bags, each with a unique QR code, that can carry up to 10kg for a refundable deposit of Rs 20. What began in a handful of localities has now expanded across the city with more than a lakh bags in circulation.

The Shree Adya Katyayani Shaktipeeth Mandir in Chhatarpur, too, has taken steps towards sustainability by banning plastic inside the temple. “We have already replaced poly bags with jute bags and plastic bottles with unbreakable glass,” said Kishor Chawala, CEO of the temple trust.

How Goa is making waves in recycling landscape

At 6.45am, the first truck with nearly two tonnes of wet waste from Calangute panchayat is at the gates of the Saligao solid waste treatment plant. After the vehicle is weighed, it deposits its waste for processing – hard and light plastics, glass, tetra packs, thermocol, leather, clothes. 

The waste treatment chain will remain in action till midnight. Workers operate in two shifts, with meals served inside the premises. Welcome to India’s first integrated solid waste management facility, where waste of all kinds is treated and finds some use.

“We receive waste collected from 27 panchayats in North Goa, the entire coastal belt, and from the highways. That’s 140 to 150 tonnes of waste, which is all processed the same day,” said senior executive Nathan Vaz.

The waste comes mostly segregated following awareness campaigns run by the panchayats about separating dry and wet waste. All the wet waste and smaller waste items are converted to pulp and go to an anaerobic bio-digester that produces biogas, which in turn generates around 7MW/h of electricity every day, which is used to run the plant itself.

Hard plastics and the like go to recycling units outside the state. Food packets, multilayered wrapping paper, cloth, etc. are pressed into bales and sent to cement factories, which use them to run their furnaces in a way that avoids pollution. “Only 3% of the waste that comes here goes to a landfill,” says plant in-charge Pradeep Patil.

“The idea behind using machines to even open the bags is to put as few workers as possible into direct contact with the waste. The workers have check-ups and are given tetanus shots from time to time,” said Vaz.


A chatbot for reporting plastic waste

The world’s first chatbot that lets people report dumping of plastic waste in public places is being tested in Goa by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF)-India. To report dumping of plastic waste, one has to simply type ‘plastic’ and send it to WWF’s WhatsApp number, 7498982409. The chatbot queries users for inputs on the type and quantity of plastic dumped. It also allows the location and photographs of the waste to be shared. “The chatbot saves people the effort of downloading an app,” said Aditya Kakodkar at WWF-India’s Goa office. After the Goa trials, WWF-India plans to introduce the chatbot in other parts of the country.

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