Let us beat littering first to beat plastics pollution once and for all

Thingbaijam Ibotomba *

Garbage (Plastics) clogs Nambul Turel :: July 16, 2010
Garbage (Plastics) clogs Nambul Turel in July 16, 2010 :: Pix - GNet CyberCafe


We are worried about the plastics waste. But what is the point of education if the educated people still throw the garbage pack in plastics bags on the road side or river bank ultimately to be picked up by the uneducated people? (Source: Gangtok Municipal Corporation). "Plastics is not the problem; it's what we do with it," said Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment, in a report on single-use plastics. Schulze, Environmental Minister, Germany stresses "banning single use plastics is no panacea.

When single-use plastic plates are now simply replaced by disposable aluminium plates we have made zero progress." As of 1 January 2019, a new packing law comes into effect in Germany that aims to ensure packaging can be better recycled. But that alone will not suffice. "Above all, we need to change people's mentality so that throwing away waste is no longer normal". Because once rubbish makes it into our oceans, it is almost impossible to retrieve.

Civilians used to throw household Solid Waste pack in plastics bags indiscriminately since there is no proper place for disposal of Solid Waste at the average across India. It is a matter of fact that India is an exporter of thin plastics (less than 20 microns) bags to other countries including Germany. According to a study by the German Economic Institute (IW), Germans are exemplary recyclers and the most efficient of all Europeans when it comes to recycling. Germany is not just a leader in recycling, but also in producing waste. So, it is the right time now to pay a visit to Germany by our concern authority of solid waste management to see the actual scenario of advance waste management there.

First let us say BIG NO to Littering:

The per capita consumption of plastics in India is ~12 kg against the global average consumption of ~50 kg. Ironically, the consumption of plastics is less, but the waste created out of it is apparently magnified due to indiscipline uncontrolled littering habit. What should be done to stop plastic from going into drains and landfills? Animal eats them, they block drainages, and they create land pollution as they are non-biodegradable. All these things happen because of our throw away culture on the roads and not in dustbin.

To find out a solution, we should attack to the root cause rather than focussing on the effect. So, first of all, the main problem of littering is to be addressed very seriously. The problem is not with plastics but with the common people who need to be educated for its safe disposal after its intended use. There is no meaning of banning single-use plastics if we can't stop the littering habit. At the same time, if we are in a position to stop the littering habit, no need to ban the single-use plastics.

So the very answer to it is to stop the littering habit first. It is high time that we start realising the menace of waste and to imbibe a culture of bin system so as to minimise the littering habit. In order to enforce this system, imposition of fines on littering may also be looked into, as done in other countries. Infrastructure is where government should first invest if they don't want people to litter plastic. The ultimate intention is to facilitate the implementation of a robust systematic waste collection system through BIN system of management so that people do not throw plastic bags in open spaces such as road side, river side and drains.

It is worth sharing here that two Australian surfers founded an innovative way to clean up the ocean: ocean garbage bin made out of recycled plastics. Aptly named Seabin, these garbage bins float around harbours and marinas vacuuming loose rubbish. It sucks in floating trash, oil, and other waste into a reusable bag that can be pulled out and the trash can be collected. This particular garbage bin, a floating debris interception device, can be suggested to install in a specific "Debris problem area" like lakes and rivers.

But amazingly, the founders have said their product is not the solution; their mission is "to live in a world where we don't need Seabins." Education is the real solution if we'll ever achieve trash free oceans. Cool technology won't ever solve the problem if WE won't stop being the problem.

Waste Segregation should start first at the household level:

Waste should be segregated first at the very source itself i.e. at the household level, which may then be transported by the municipal authorities or industries that have the facilities for recycling or decomposing the waste. This will help in recycling of plastics to a considerable level and will be definitely higher than the existing level. The best example can be seen in Netherland, where residents segregate their waste and have to pay only for the disposal of trash and nothing for the recyclable materials. That means you pay more if your wastes are more, thereby incentivising recycling. But changing behaviour is not an easy task. It takes three generations in Singapore to bring about sustained behaviour change.

The World Could Learn a Lot from the German Recycling System (source: Hashem Al- Ghaili). German leads the EU when it comes to recycling municipal waste with a total recycling rate at 79% and municipal recycling rate at 66%. Germany's total waste volume was 402.0 million metric tons in 2015; of that, 317.7 million metric tons were recycled. This includes the construction industry, production facilities and municipalities. Germany's waste management success really comes down to two things-Strong government policies and its citizens embracing recycling.

In 1991, the Packaging Ordinance requiring manufacturers to take responsibility for the recycling of their product packaging after a consumer was finished using it. In 1996, the Closed Substance Cycle and Waste Management Act were passed which mean business have to avoid producing waste that can't be recycled and recycle the waste they produce. The waste that can't be recycled must be disposed of in an environmentally safe way. And finally, the GREEN DOT sticker placed on the outside of packaging indicates that it must be accepted by the recyclers. Depending on their packaging, manufacturers pay a fee and are then given permission to place the green dot on their packaging. Companies using green dot abide by all of Germany's recycling laws

Over the years, these 3 policies have assisted Germany in not only increasing its recycling rate but also building a culture of recycling among citizens. These policies led recycling bins being placed everywhere in Germany. Germany has multiple recycling bins requiring its citizens to do the sorting themselves. There are 6 different bins: black for general waste, blue for paper, yellow for plastics, white for clear glass, green for coloured glass and brown for biological. By pre-sorting their recycling, the German government saves a lot of money and also reduced the amount of contamination that can potentially ruin entire batches of recycled material.

In India, the initiatives of Sikkim school's waste management initiatives influenced a lot to the teachers, students and parents alike to practice segregation and recycling of plastics waste since 2011. In the serene hills of West Sikkim, the students of Lingchom Government Secondary went to the adjoining villages to gather waste materials from the people for reuse and recycling and setting an example for their elders and rest of India to follow. Sikkim is the only state in India that always stood first for cleanliness and sensitisation on sanitation.

One of the accepted systems for bringing about a change in our behaviour pattern, which is widely practised in Japan, is 5S. This 5S stands for Sort- by removing unwanted things, Set the things in order, Shine through cleaning and inspection, Standardise the best practices and Sustain by ensuring it as a part of daily work and eventually becomes a habit. We can too if such a small country and after the World War-II devastation rose up to become one of the biggest economic countries in the world. If we ponder a little bit then we can realise that everyone and all types of business will benefit by implementing 5S program as its principle is applicable in all areas of life.

Let us encourage a shift away from the 'Use and Toss Culture of thin Plastics bags:

Plastics waste, of course, is a concern, only when it is not properly stored or disposed, collected systematically, reused and recycled. Considering the littering habit prevailing in our country, we should support government programs in shifting away from the 'Use and Toss Culture of thin Plastics bags' by using thick plastics bags of above 50 micron thickness which can be reused again and again. But it is better to encourage to use minimum size of atleast 8 x 12 inch.

Reusing thick plastics bags will drastically reduce the throw away culture, reduce the demand for new production and can eliminate thousands of thin plastics bags over a person's life. Alternatively, we may switch over to reusable biodegradable plastics bags such as ENVIROSAX, BIOGREEN, and ENVIGREEN. One of the entrepreneurs in Manipur for the first time in North East India is on the way of making biodegradable plastics bags and he is awaiting certification from the concerned authorities. At any cost, let us not forget to carry a shopping bag always with us whenever we go out for shopping. It does not matter whether the bag is made from plastics or fabrics.

Points that would have been considered before banning thin plastics bags:

Considering environmental point of view, right, we should ban thin plastics bags. But there are key points to consider:

It would have been very mature decision if we would have sufficient alternative economic products in sufficient number before banning thin plastic bags since every ban in India, we create black-market network. We should believe in destroying the demand. No demand, no supply. No supply, no black-market. No black-market, no tax-theft. No tax-theft, healthy India. Bihar, Manipur and Gujarat have Alcohol Ban. But it does not mean that alcohol is not available here and there 100%.

There should be a proper transition period to make awareness about the alternative products and make people opt for such products over thin plastic bags. Slowly we have to make sure people are buying only jute, cotton, paper bags or thick plastics bags. Once the purchase of thin plastic bags decreases to almost failing stage, then it should be banned. Plastics will be age old tech if its demand dies, even if polythene is useful, now who cares about plastics when it becomes non-existent?

Sudden ban may create a lot panic for consumers without any proper distribution of alternative and sufficient production.

Banning thin plastics bags ultimately depends on consumers, are they willing to put the extra money for using jute, cotton, paper bags or thick plastic carry bags.

Ultimately, thin plastic bags should be banned. But all the conversations bring us to one sole point every big change has two sides and its success or failure will only be determined by how administration collaborates and assists its citizens to adapt to it. Definitely we have to win this time.

Plastics Threat into Plastics Thread and Plastics House:

All recyclable things like paper, plastics and metal always provide a big business opportunity. One ton of recycled plastics will help in saving 685 gallon of oil, 5.774 KWh of electricity, 98 Million BTU's of energy, 30 cubic yard of landfill space, and will help in reducing air pollution and save sea creatures. Let us always remember "WASTE is WEALTH". When plastics water bottles are recycled they can be made into lots of stuff: t-shirts, sweaters, fleece jackets, insulation for jackets and sleeping bags, carpet and blankets etc.

It takes about 10 bottles to make enough plastic fibre for making a cool new t-shirt. It takes 63 bottles to make a sweater. It takes only 14 bottles to create enough insulation (fibrefill) for a ski-jacket. And 114 bottles are enough insulation (fibrefill) for a sleeping bag. NIKE and ADIDAS have take a step forward in this area by recycling plastics water bottles for making Clothes and Shoes, transforming marine plastics pollution into high performance sportswear. They have been successful in converting the Plastics Threat into Plastics Thread, spinning the problem into solution.

Meanwhile Start Up entrepreneur (M/S EcoDomum) of Mexico develops very low cost insulated house made from plastics waste turning an environmental problem into a housing solution and every country including USA is focussing now in MEXICO. EcoDomum constructed more than five hundred affordable houses using huge amounts of recycled plastic and is working on contracts for several hundred more. The company manages to go through 5.5 tons of plastic waste per day, all which turning it into homes for low-income families.

Conclusion: Let us store plastics waste in a separate dustbin or a big bag in every household, which should be totally separated from other household wastes. These plastics wastes so collected and segregated at every household may be sold or even donated for use in road construction or making some valuable products like plastics-wood profiles.

If we asked God for one thing (neat and clean) and received another (pollution), TRUST, He will always provide us what we need (neat and clean) at the right appropriate time. Let us keep on and going on to HIM without doubting and murmuring and ultimately we will get what we need. What we want is not always what we need. Mr. Rahul Marathe, an Entomologist from Pune while experimenting with the caterpillars, which were kept in plastic bags, two of the caterpillars escaped after eating the plastics bags.

In order to ascertain his findings, the caterpillars were shifted to nylon bags. This time also the caterpillars ate the nylon bags and escaped. There are also some latest innovative findings in the University of Portsmouth in the U.K. and the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in that an enzyme have been engineered that can "eat" most of the commonly used plastics, potentially providing a new strategy in the fight against plastics pollution. So time is near now to beat the plastics pollution once and for all since everyone is focussing for the right solution.

* Thingbaijam Ibotomba wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is Principal Director, CIPET: CSTS Imphal
This article was webcasted on September 11, 2018.

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