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Collaboration Is Key To Tackling The Growing Pollution Problem

Microplastics have seeped into our water systems — over 80 percent of drinking water in India is contaminated with it — and even infiltrated our food sources

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Joint efforts by stakeholders can help control the use of single-use plastics and effectively manage solid waste.

When a dead pregnant whale washed ashore in March 2019 in Italy with nearly 23kg of plastic in her stomach, it created ripples on social media. Just weeks earlier, a young whale also died in the Philippines after ingesting almost 40kg of plastic bags. But such tragic events are not just limited to Italy or the Philippines, it is an alarming trend that has also been seen in Indonesia, Thailand, and Spain.

How many of us throw away plastic shopping bags once we’ve emptied them? How often have we binned plastic spoons and straws after just one meal? Excessive use of single-use or disposable plastics is having severe environmental consequences, and the dead whales are just the tip of the iceberg. The UN estimates that up to five trillion single-use plastic bags are used every year across the world. Overall, half of all plastic produced is designed to be thrown away after just being used once.

As single-use plastics continue to choke our rivers, seas, and oceans, it doesn’t seem surprising then that microplastics have been found in the Mariana Trench, which is the deepest part of the ocean in the world. Microplastics have seeped into our water systems — over 80 percent of drinking water in India is contaminated with it — and even infiltrated our food sources. Research hasn’t yet figured out a way of filtering them and scientists are racing to find out the implications on our health.  

Managing India’s solid waste

Closer home, the situation isn’t too different either. India generates 25,940 tonnes of plastic waste every day and at least 40 percent of this doesn’t get collected, according to official statistics. It usually ends up poisoning the soil and choking water bodies.

The situation (rightfully) seems grim, but there is hope. Efforts by various stakeholders, including the government, the community, local bodies, and the private sector are proving to step in the right direction. The Swach Bharat Abhiyan, the Government’s five-year cleanliness drive, for example, works towards collaborative efforts, including that of citizens, to tackle cleanliness and waste segregation disposal. Workshops, cleanliness drives, and rallies have been held to sensitize stakeholders in various cities on the importance of solid waste management. This has reflected in results wherever it was implemented properly: door-to-door collection coverage increased from 53 percent to 80 percent in 2017 and 43 percent of wards in the country have been segregating their waste at source (as per data available in 2018).

Extended producer responsibility or EPR, which was a key element of the Centre’s Plastic Waste Management Rules 2016, has also led to plastic being collected and being recycled, reused or designed to be compostable. The Central Pollution Control Board’s EPR waste recovery targets have further given a fillip to recycling efforts.

Local solutions for local issues  

Local bodies too have been playing their part. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) decentralized solid waste management in order to promote recycling and converting waste into energy. Garbage at its Kanjurmarg landfill is treated using bio-methanation. BMC staff has also been training households on how to segregate waste. The Muzaffarpur Municipal Corporation in Bihar adopted a zero landfill model and now has two processing centres for segregated waste from 34 of 49 wards.

The biggest change however probably been seen among the community itself. Though community participation is mandatory under the new Solid Waste Management Rules 2016 (SWMR), awareness is clearly increasing. The “world’s largest beach clean-up in history” is proof enough of this. It took hundreds of volunteers, three years and the removal of 20 million kg trash to transform Versova beach — one of the dirtiest in Mumbai — into an Olive Ridley turtle breeding site. A small but growing number of people are exploring leading zero-waste lifestyles by embracing the three pillars of waste management: reuse, reduce and recycle. Many are also realizing the wisdom of following simple practices such as carrying cloth bags to buy groceries, ditching plastic cutlery, or even using steel or glass containers for storage.

Involving corporate stakeholders

Corporates can also play a proactive role in promoting the cause for cleanliness through their CSR and sustainability programmes. There are several testimonials to corporate playing the Good Samaritan. Dabur has tied up with the Indian Pollution Control Association and a waste management company to recycle plastic waste across nine states. Coca-Cola India’s bottling partners work with other stakeholders to collect and recycle PET waste. Bisleri’s Bottles for Change programme connects waste pickers with schools, colleges, and offices in 14 wards in Mumbai to collect PET bottles safely. Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail upcycles PET bottles into staple fibers to create sustainable clothing.

Godrej has reduced its plastic intensity by 14 percent and by 2025, it aims to ensure that the plastic it uses will be recyclable, reusable, recoverable and or compostable. Seventy-two percent of its waste is currently diverted from landfill and it aims to touch 100 percent.

Another corporate intervention is facilitating behavior change communication through partnerships with local government bodies and nonprofits. However, individual efforts are not enough to tackle the emergency at hand. In order to bring change at scale, it is imperative that the government anchors campaigns save the environment.

Tackling solid waste and ending plastic pollution requires a multi-pronged effort. Increasing awareness, bringing about large-scale behavior change and effective partnerships between all stakeholders concerned can help achieve it. And as recent efforts have shown, it is possible to bring about change and make a dent in the pollution problem. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Dr. Vikas Goswami

Dr. Vikas Goswami, Head Sustainability at Godrej Industries.

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