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Home / Columns / Metro Matters: How to rescue our landscapes from plastic, packaging waste

Metro Matters: How to rescue our landscapes from plastic, packaging waste

What is the one thing you will find in the remote stretches of Arunachal Pradesh, border villages of Ladakh, best-protected sanctuaries and far-flung beaches? Mindlessly discarded plastic.

columns Updated: Feb 05, 2018 16:04 IST
Shivani Singh
Shivani Singh
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Versova beach in Mumbai on December 7, 2017.
Versova beach in Mumbai on December 7, 2017. (Shashi S Kashyap/HT Photo)

The topography and the landscape may keep changing, but what is that one thing you find everywhere as you travel across India? The answer would be the ubiquitous plastic bag, a pet bottle, a candy wrapper, an empty chips packet, or a pan masala sachet.

I have seen the packaging litter scattered in the most pristine of locations: the remote stretches of Arunachal Pradesh, the border village in Ladakh’s Turtuk that opened to tourists only a decade ago, some of our best-protected sanctuaries or far-flung beaches.

Urban centres, evidently, are the most affected. Even Mysuru, which was adjudged India’s cleanest city for two years in a row (2015 and 2016) under the Swachch Bharat Abhiyan, seemed at peace with this kind of littering as I passed by last week.

While the municipalities are focussed on finding big-ticket solutions for waste disposal, it is the little pieces of scrap — bags, wrappers, straws and pet bottles — that are left forgotten where they lay. This innocuous piece of trash, discarded most mindlessly, is the most harmful to the environment.

Plastic bottles and bags are easier to recycle because they are made from a single material. It is the multi-layered packaging materials that pose a bigger ecological hazard. Made from polymer films coated with a thin layer of metal, usually aluminium, these wrappers do not break down easily. Swept from the streets by cleaners, they get mixed with other waste, reach landfills, and remain there, almost forever.

A good quantity of such garbage is, anyway, never collected from the roadside. Lying unattended, it makes its way into the drains, causing urban flooding when it rains.

Centre for Science and Environment’s Swati Singh Sambyal says that multi-layer packaging, which cannot be recycled, is best disposed of through incineration. It has high calorific value and makes for a good fodder for waste-to-energy plants. But in most Indian cities where collection, sorting and transportation of garbage are the biggest challenge, how does one ensure that this scrap reaches its destination?

It has to be the producer’s job to take the waste back and dispose of, just as it is the consumer’s responsibility to get them to the collection centres. The Solid Waste Management rules, which all Indian states, including Delhi, have to enforce to streamline garbage management, call for an “extended producer responsibility.” The producer has to become responsible for the entire life-cycle of the product and especially for the take-back, recycling and final disposal.

Vends, milk booths, eateries, food stores, malls, cafeterias can turn into collection points for used food packets, wrappers, bottles and other packaging waste. While strict enforcement will be the key to make this initiative a success, appropriate incentives can encourage people to volunteer.

A discount on the return of a food packet or a bottle has worked as a sop in many communities. In Estonia, for instance, shops sell colas, beers and water for a product price plus deposit, which can be retrieved when the empty bottles or cans are returned in the form of a discount on the next purchase. Started in 2005, this scheme retrieved 3.2 billion “deposit packages” in 12 years, reported The Guardian last year, with the retrieval rate reaching as high as 75-87% in 2016.

The best solution, however, would be to dissuade people from using such material due to its heavy environmental cost. It can be done by printing disclaimers on packets because when it comes to food, people do read labels, says Sambyal.

Also, as far as possible, we must buy our stuff unpacked. Two years ago, Bulk Barn, a Canadian grocery store chain, started allowing customers to bring their own containers to carry practically everything they bought.

These are not new ideas. Many would remember how not too long ago, our parents carried their own bags and even large steel containers to buy sugar, cereals and flour from the fair-price shop or the mill. There was nothing more delightful than eating freshly made goodies and snacks from paper bags.

The idea of package-free-shopping is certainly worth recycling. Never mind if it requires smart packaging to become fashionable again.

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