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MANAGING PLASTIC WASTE
The quest for neatness, cleanliness, orderliness, beauty and aesthetics is eternal. A clean and green environment, as they say is not only good for our health but deeply satisfying for our sense of well being and a feeling of cheerfulness and happiness.
Keeping in view this societal need, the Governments world wide, have been making sincere efforts to make Acts and put in place rules; and ensuring their enforcement including through creating awareness among citizens, teaching good practices and punishing the wrong doers for keeping our environment clean. In India also there are plethora of Acts and rules with these objectives in mind in which many Departments play a key role and the main ones being the Environment department and the local bodies, specially municipal authorities. The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and linked Swachh Census that ranks local bodies in terms of cleanliness is an example that has gained considerable media traction.
The disposal of garbage coming from households, shops, factories, institutions, offices was never easy but due to easy marketing of items like old newspapers, waste wood, iron and steel and their recycling and the rest being biodegradable, disposal used to be was less difficult to manage. Though no doubt, heaps of garbage and litter were always there on the street corners as eye sores, as most of us would remember from our childhood days, the increasing use of plastics changed things.
With the advent of plastics and their strength and resilience, the variety and diversity of plastic products increased exponentially ranging from small zip bags, carry bags to packaging products, industrial products, IT and computers, and transport items like cars, trains and even ships planes and space vehicles. Plastic captured the imagination of the world as a major source of raw material. As their use and spread became wider and deeper their disposal and recycling emerged as a new problem and challenge and Governments across the world tried to regulate the same incorporating new research, techniques, defining the responsibilities of the citizens and the Government agencies . The various Environmental Acts and rules and regulationsin India also laid down vital guidelines including banning of certain types of plastics and prescribing procedures for disposal.
The problem with plastics is their degradability. It is said that they do not degrade for even 100s or even 1,000s of years and when left untreated and undisposed they enter drains, open areas, trees, mix with other biodegradable garbage and even reach oceans and sea forming hills and islands. They are a major eye sore specially in the cities where human density is more. The cows eat them and fall ill and even the birds and animals and fish in the seas and oceans fall prey to them leading to even infection of the food we eat. The enforcement and implementation of the rules leave much to be desired. In this situation it is extremely vital for the State agencies and the people to be more aware and diligent in their duties.
At the heart of waste and plastic management is the need of segregation of waste at the household, institutional, shop and commercial level followed by a segregated journey to the recycling and disposal point. However there are only a few examples, specially in India of rigour in the practices which are enjoined upon by the Acts and rules regarding segregation, of the Environment dept and local bodies.
Atleast the waste that is biodegradable ie vegetable and fruit peals, left over food etc from the kitchen degrades on its own. Wood, iron and steel, aluminium items, old newspapers can be sold to waste collectors if segregated at base level. However the plastic waste, which is growing in weight and volume needs more scientific treatment. Of this also a huge quantity is of dry plastic plastics.
The need of the hour is therefore to atleast begin with segregation of dry plastics including bags, packaging material, broken hard plastic items at house hold, office, institutions, factories and shop level. This then can be collected by trucks or even rickshaws specially assigned only to collect plastics. The local bodies can easily do this and the trucks, rickshaws can have a designated colour and fixed time for collection. This will atleast ensure that the 50 to 60% of the plastics, which are dry can be easily sorted out and sent to the concerned recycling plant or used to make fuel as the case may be. This will take care of a major aspect of the problem. Practically I have tried it ot at my own level and do find willing collectors to accept it for free. This ensures that the plastic has a reasonable chance of recycling.
The problem will then be reduced to scientific disposal of plastic bags and containers that have wet and liquid items and generally get mixed with other biodegradable garbage. For this also more research is required in Universities and scientific and management institutions so that the disposal of such waste at the management centres of Municipalities and panchayats becomes easier and we have a less polluted environment.
A genuine concern for cleanliness, check on pollution and good aesthetics and whole hearted efforts at all levels alone will make this possible.
THE VIEWS EXPRESSED BY THE AUTHOR ARE PERSONAL
MEENAKSHI HOOJA The writer is a Retd IAS offi cer and former Member, Central Administrative Tribunal