Honourable Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi Ji, through his Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has spread massive awareness about the state of sanitation in India. Open deification along with building toilets has been his governments primary focus in the last tenure of his government, with limited emphasis being laid on waste management. It seems that in his second term his government has decided to focus on rural waste management and eliminating or reducing the use of single use plastic and encourage entrepreneurs to com forward with innovative solutions to recycle plastic waste.
Our prime minister has always had his finger on the pulse of the nation, specially trending topics that the youth are discussing on social media platforms, and off late the trending has been that of bashing plastic as the culprit for all that is wrong with the waste management system in India. Sudo environmentalists, insta influencers, their followers are on a social rampage about how single use plastic is responsible for polluting the environment and chocking the oceans. Headline News and sensationalising subject matters that they have little or no information about has become a trend, with hundreds of hash tags related to recycling, zero waste, plastic pollution gaining traction online spreading fear through misinformed information.
Our prime minister should be carful and not fall in the trap of implementing a policy of doing away with single use plastic completely. By definition single use plastic is something that is used once and discarded. PET for example has become the poster child for everything that is wrong about single use plastic to the point that it is becoming socially unacceptable to carry a mineral water bottle in public due to misrepresentation through misinformation about a product that can be recycled at least 6-7 times. If you repeat something enough times people start to believe it, but that does not make it true and such is the case with plastic. Given that there are certain types of plastics, MLP for example that are tough or impossible to recycle as of now, but options have started to emerge.
Attacking the symptoms rather than the cause has led to the wide spread belief that once we ban single use plastic equilibrium will be found and our rivers and oceans will be able to breathe again. This thought process is misplaced for multiple reasons, have we really stopped to think why plastic has become a challenge to handle?
- Two parallel systems Organised & Unorganised : The process of collection, transportation, segregation of municipal waste (I am only focusing on MSW here, although the same is true of E-waste also) is mostly done by the unorganised sector in India. Even in cities where the municipalities have tendered out the entire waste management process, it is the unorganised sector that is doing the heavy lifting of door-door collection, segregation, aggregation and reprocessing of waste (processing mostly plastic waste & E-waste). Companies that have been granted the tenders to manage the waste for a city or from a certain part of the city are more than happy to let the arrangement work as they get paid on a tipping fee model, the more they dump at the landfill the more they get paid. Further the unorganised sector is helping them meet certain requirements as mentioned in their tenders, such as door to door collection, segregation and insuring that recyclables are recycled. This leaves organic waste, inert waste, horticulture waste and construction debris left for disposal, which again they only have to collect from a central point and dispose. These are two distinct systems that are operating in complete polarity, one organised (so it claims) and the other completely unorganised.
As the prime minister has stated on more than one occasion, the government has no business being in business, this way of thinking needs to be extended to the waste management sector as a whole, by first providing the sector Industry status & bringing the unorganised sector under the preview of the law.
2. Redefining SWM 2016 Policy For Clarity & Ease of Business: There are some glaring gaps in the current policy document which are hampering the growth of the sector. Take for example Sub point (a) of the current policy document which states the following
“handover segregated wastes to authorised waste pickers or waste collectors as per the direction or notification by the local authorities from time to time”.
The point above clearly states that the waste must be handed over to authorised waste pickers or waste collectors, but there is no policy in place for private companies, waste pickers or the unorganised vendors to apply for such permissions. Most municipalities or authorities are clueless about how authorisation can be given and in absence of proper clarity, simply reduce to provide such permissions. The business if collection, transportation, open segregation and dumping continues in all cities in India and a major reason for this is the lack of participation from private players in absence of clear policy mandate. A detailed policy document with precise steps that need to be taken is available for the reader on my profile under the article section.
3. Building Capacity: Serious capacity needs to be built on the collection, transportation, segregation and treatment sides of the sector as a whole. As previously mention the sector remains unorganised to a great extent with most treatment of plastic waste and E-waste undertaken by the unorganised sector. A portal needs to be developed and marketed to inform the unorganised and organised sector where they can sell their plastic waste so that it is dealt in a manner as prescribed by law. Collection centres across cities need to developed, not by the government but the private sector where people can come deposit their segregated plastic waste and get rewarded for the same. As of now India has many unorganised collection centres spread across neighbourhoods and also a system of collecting recyclables from homes through the kabari (local scrap dealer) network. But there are challenges in the system in regards to trust and transparency of what is happening with the material in terms of how it is stocked and treated. Capacity in terms of collection of waste from residential sector is a huge challenge, as the volume of waste generated daily is low making collection from individual houses unviable unless a heavy user charge is paid by the individual house owner. This is where the unorganised sector can be used as an point of aggregation from where larger traders can collect waste (which is what is happening), but this needs to be formalised and collection centres need to be easily accessible and appealing in the sense that customers are willing to make the effort to transport their waste and deposit it at the said centres.
4. Implementation of current rules: The government is tightening the rope around companies and societies to start segregating and managing their waste in accordance with the law, yet there remains much to be done. Most residential societies are not segregating their waste and some even selling their mixed waste to local rag pickers. The same is the case with most small and large corporations functioning in the country. Waste unfortunately in our country has a legacy mindset attached to it, and we asa nation must over come this in order for us to move ahead in the right direction. The implementation of the current rules need to stricter and must start with the individuals and companies segregating there waste, and paying a user fee in accordance to the amount and type of waste being generated at their end. Take the example of the ban on production of plastic bags under 50 microns, the ban is complete and as notified by the government no organisation is allowed to manufacturer, distribute or sell any plastic item below 50 microns, yet this practise continues.
5. Redesigning the way products are manufactured: Companies need to start redesigning and manufacturer their products in a circular manner so that they can be recycled in perpetuity without loosing strength and chemical composition. This is will reduce the burden on mining raw material to feed the ever growing needs of companies to sell products packaged in materials that can only be down cycled, which is the case in plastic.
The prime Ministers intentions are good but the result of such an action (Banning Single Use Plastic) will be devastating for the economy. Lacks of people are engaged in the process of waste collection, segregation and treatment (plastic waste) in india.
We need to bing them in the legal preview so that the government uses their expertise to address the plastic menace, generate taxable income from them, improve the countries GDP numbers, increase employment numbers and attract much needed investments and innovation in the sector.
In my opinion, serious thought needs to be given at the opportunity of managing the current plastic waste in the country along with that of redesigning and manufacturing products that can be recycled in perpetuity, rather than taking a knee jerk decision that will end up costing the environment and economy more harm than good. The challenge is not plastic, it’s how we have designed the product, a lack of infrastructure to collect, manage and treat it along with misinformation being spread that single use plastic cannot be recycled and ends up in the ocean or rivers.