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Kiran Karnik

Kiran Karnik is an independent policy and strategy analyst, and Chair, Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology, Delhi

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Segregation, Bins And Bans

Questions and contrary views, especially for “environmental extremists” to think about ...

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Segregation is the flavour of the times. Not the type of separateness or apartheid enforced in South Africa in days of yore, but the practice of segregating garbage into various categories. The purpose is to facilitate their separate processing: “wet” waste (basically cooking residues) into compost; bio-waste, if any, handled with special care; plastic and other non-bio-degradable waste for re-cycling. Housing societies generally have separate bins – mandated by law in many cities – where the collective garbage is stored in distinct bins.

In theory, such segregation is an important step to minimise pollution, including of water resources. However, before extending unreserved and politically-correct support, one might note the many pitfalls. First, even when individual households separate their garbage, the collector may, for his convenience, club smaller quantities into a bigger bag, thereby mixing the different categories. Second, in the large collective bins, the distinction may not be maintained. Third, as actually observed, the municipal garbage collection agency – often an outsourced one – is seen to mix all the different categories. Sometimes, this is because the collection staff is looking for something of possible value and does so by just emptying the different containers into a common whole. Finally, as a short-cut or due to a lack of sufficient processing facilities, all garbage is dumped into a common landfill.

The problem of “dumping” is a severe one, best exemplified by the garbage mountain in Delhi (competing to be Delhi’s highest peak). Now and again, not unlike our society, it spontaneously bursts into flames - spewing unhealthy gases and smoke into a wide neighbourhood. At other times, it continuously emanates a foul stench, which “all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten…”, as Lady Macbeth says in a different context in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Apparently, one cause for the growing mountain is the insufficient capacity and other inadequacies of processing facilities (another reason may be the unstated desire to enter the Guinness Book of World Records). Elsewhere, debris from construction and demolition is dumped, with impunity, wherever convenient. It is sad to see lovely, forested areas right along the roadside (in the Aravalli’s on the outskirts of Gurgaon, for instance) despoiled by such rubble. It is unimaginable how truckloads of it are unloaded, and yet the authorities are unable to stop it.

Going back to the individual household, many RWAs are insisting not only on segregation, but on “wet waste” being handed over to the garbage collector in a paper bag or directly from the dustbin. While the former (segregation) makes sense, if it is followed, the latter is impractical. Can you imagine left-over curries being put into a paper bag? Alternatively, the dustbin gets continuously dirty and will require constant cleaning. It is more practical for households to store and hand-over wet waste in plastic bags, which the collector can transfer into the appropriate community bin and then put the empty plastic bags into the plastic-waste bin.

From 1 July, there is a ban on single use plastic (SUP); an “environment friendly” move – like waste segregation – which no one will dare to oppose. Yet, the practical aspects are again daunting. If seriously enforced, items like plastic straws will not be allowed. These are included in small packs of various juices and drinks, much appreciated by travellers and those on the road, since they ensure both convenience and hygiene.

Paper straws, suggested as an alternative, are apparently more expensive and – as per contested reports ‒ require import of paper. High-end restaurants can afford the changeover, but the economics may be deterring for low cost, low profit packs which depend on a mass market. There are similar problems with plastic cutlery (another item on the banned list). Plastic spoons are a common sight in roadside eateries, ensuring convenience and hygiene (if not re-used; if they are, then they are not SUP: Catch 22!). Alternatives – from metal to wood to innovative edible spoons made of multi-grain flour – are more expensive.

With our penchant for reuse and improvisation, plastic is a versatile and much-used source. Plastic bags, for example, decried by environmentalists, are used for carrying tea from a vendor to a worksite, or for taking chutnies and curries from home to work, or as a raincoat/shower cap in the rain. As noted earlier, most homes also use them for collecting/storing garbage. There are myriad other uses one sees daily. Glass water bottles (open and refilled) are now fashionable in restaurants and seminars, but sealed packaged-water bottles are yet perceived as safer. More importantly, the latter too are re-used times without number.

Plastic is, without doubt, a serious threat, choking drains, killing animal and fish, polluting the land, water and air. We do need alternatives for many items that use plastic. Should we not invest in R&D on this as a long-term solution? In India, practically nothing is one-time use. We are world-beaters in recycling and innovative reuse. Therefore, would it not be better to immediately focus more on quickly and hugely ramping up the re-cycling and re-processing facilities for plastic, preceded by an efficient collection mechanism which ensures an efficient supply chain for them?

Though we love bans (be it books, food, clothes or social practices), should we put a blanket ban on something that the deprived, in particular, find useful? Should this be done even before we can provide viable alternatives? Are we putting the cart before the horse, and just aping the presently-fashionable Western agenda? Batteries are huge and dangerous polluters of ground water, but we don’t ban cell phones (or batteries). Is this an unfair analogy?

Questions and contrary views, especially for “environmental extremists” to think about ...

* Kiran Karnik loves to think in tongue-in-cheek ways, with no maliciousness or offence intended. At other times, he is a public policy analyst and author. His latest book is Decisive Decade: India 2030 Gazelle or Hippo (Rupa, 2021).


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plastic Magazine 16 July 2022