How Ill Managed Waste can Harm us & our Environment

Following Part 1 of the series on Waste Management in India – Battling the Menace of Waste & Garbage in our Country, we now delve into how it can harm us and our environment if we do not learn to responsibly dispose off our waste and make a conscious change in how we consume goods and services.

A man-made catastrophe - mindless garbage that can be easily reduced. Photo courtesy: Ben_Kerckx
A man-made catastrophe – mindless garbage that can be easily reduced. Photo courtesy: Ben_Kerckx

There is a long list of culprits that harm and pollute the environment says Chirag Mahajan, Communications Manager of Waste Warriors, from our air to water and even land. These ecosystems are under immense pressure from our consumption and waste generation habits. These are five main culprits that need to be curbed:

  1. The illegal sale and rampant use of banned plastics continue. This includes categories like low-micron plastics, styrofoam/thermocol, and even plastics with BPA. Consumers will buy what is most convenient and cheap, so it is up to various state governments and pollution control boards and municipal administrations to take charge and strictly enforce their bans by raiding and stopping the points of manufacture, distribution, and sale of such banned plastics.
  2. Similarly, there have to be stricter regulations on curbing excessive product packaging. Most of the urban population has at some point purchased goods online or physically that come with so much wrapped and moulded plastics. The packaging of items is not something a consumer can control, they are limited to just not making that purchase if they so choose to care. The primary responsibility of reducing excessive packaging lies with the companies manufacturing them, and they have to rethink the packaging design and minimise it, if not to curb plastic pollution then at least, as an incentive, to reduce their own manufacturing costs.
  3. Speaking of packaging, a huge culprit is what is called multi-layered packaging (MLP), especially for FMCGs like dry edibles (chips, biscuits, etc.). These packets have multiple layers of polymer films, as well as a shiny metallised film layer. These layers are important to prolong the shelf-life of the edibles by preventing exposure to moisture, air, and the resulting oxidisation of the food. However, the resulting MLP waste that is generated is tough to effectively recycle, and therefore the value chain of collecting, sorting, storing, and processing it is very low, which is why kabaadiwallas rarely bother with it, and the majority of MLPs end up being dumped in landfills. This is why it is crucial to rethink the manufacturing of this packaging, keeping in mind the recycling process, not just the shelf life of the edibles, because otherwise if left untouched the life of the packaging itself will be hundreds of years longer.
  4. A significant challenge, especially from an awareness-raising perspective, is dumping of mixed waste. This happens when people do not segregate their waste at source, especially food waste (cooking waste, leftovers, and expired food) and mix that with dry waste. Once the recyclables are soiled with wet and food waste at the source, it makes the whole process of waste management and recycling so much more difficult. The only solution to this is segregation of waste at source, using at least three dustbins. This requires a combination of effective awareness-raising campaigns, proper dustbin usage and, from the municipality’s side, correct segregated collection of the waste. If this does not happen, all the garbage will go to the landfill.
  5. The last culprit that is a major issue when it comes to air pollution is the burning of waste, especially plastics. Without any awareness, the unfortunate general tendency for some municipal staff and even the public is to sweep their areas, collect their mixed waste into large piles, and set that on fire. The huge amounts of smoke from such piles burning across countless cities and towns is a massive problem, causing air pollution levels to spike, and releases so many harmful carcinogens that people breathe in, not knowing how harmful it is for their bodies, especially lungs, heart, and even their brains.

This can be put in place when every village, town and city of India diligently follow the environmental norms. According to Mathangi Swaminathan’s report in Economic and Political Weekly, How Can India’s Waste Problem See a Systemic Change?, (Vol. 53, Issue No. 16, 21 Apr, 2018), “Seventeen rules have been passed or revised since the first National Environment Protection Act, 1986, each dealing with the management and handling of a specific type of waste, such as e-waste rules, 2011, plastic waste rules, 2011, and batterie rules, 2011. The lack of one comprehensive policy with an umbrella framework of governing bodies has perhaps been the greatest stumbling block for effective implementation. Different rules require different certifications from Central Pollution Control Boards (CPCB), making the process tedious.  Here are the key features of the solid waste management rules, 2016:

  • A mandate for all waste generators to segregate waste, but with no specific penalty on non-compliers
  • A mandate for bulk generators (any institution with an area greater than 5,000 square metres) to manage their own waste, but with no penalty mentioned for non-compliance of the same.
  • An extended producer responsibility on brand owners to set up a collect back scheme for managing waste produced during packaging.
  • Promotion of WTE (waste-to-energy) plants and a directive to the Department of Fertilisers to market compost along with chemical fertilisers.
  • Provision for local bodies to levy waste collection fees on waste generators, with no penalty on non-compliance.”

It goes to show that we shouldn’t take waste segregation lightly. A little effort from our end from segregating dry and wet waste and consciously avoiding excessive/ unnecessary packaging can significantly reduce the load of waste and garbage we create on our planet.

Please note – This is an independent 3-part research article on ‘responsible garbage disposal and recycling in our country’ by The Lifestyle Portal.

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