Is Maharashtra really sitting on the brink of an eco disaster that it had to ban plastic? Is that the only solution?
Sameer Joshi: Plastic ban has been a worldwide phenomenon but in Maharashtra, it has come as the jolt from the blue (sic). Elsewhere in the world, whenever the ban happens, they give a certain deadline - a year or two years and then the ban takes place in phases but unfortunately, here, we got only three months.
Harish Jalan: And thermocol decorators did not get a single day notice. Our season will start in Ganesh festival and we have not got even a single day to dispose of the material.
Nikhil Rathi: This ban came overnight, just like demonetisation. When you ban something, you have to come up with an alternative. Paper is being talked about as an alternative but it has its own limitations plus you are cutting down trees and increasing carbon footprints to manufacture it. It’s true that it gets dissolved in water easily but I would say, even plastic is not bad, our littering habits are. If we throw plastic on the road after use, it is bound to run down the nullahs and choke them.
Segregation is another problem. Although we are segregating dry and wet waste at home, the person who comes to collect trash, is mixing it all.
Joshi (showing one green bag and one t-shirt): This bag and t-shirt have been made by recyling six pet bottles each. So if six pet bottles had not been littered, they could have gone into making a t-shirt or a bag. Recycling, reusing, not littering - these are the things that we need to learn.
We made a Guinness World Record in January 2018 - we collected 200,000 one litre plastic bottles and made a t-shirt that measured 100 mx70 m and we used 10,000 bottles for it. Post that, we made such t-shirts and bags and distributed them among the underprivileged children. You see, someone’s waste can be someone’s wealth.
The theme for this year’s World Environment Day was ‘Beat Plastic Pollution’. We just added a line to it and made it ‘Beat Platstic Pollution and Let’s Find A Solution’. It’s very easy to ban things in life but having that restriction and not thowing or littering is our goal.
Jalan: But providing a proper system where we can throw the garbage or litter is also important.
Kishori Gadre: The informal sector is already collecting dry waste. If we see the size of this sector, it’s huge. The World Bank says that two per cent of the population in developing countries is involved in this informal sector which collects and recyles garbage. So this industry is growing at the rate of 15-17 per cent, but it is looked down upon as scavengers and not given any facilities. You find it at work somewhere on the city outskirts because it cannot afford the space in cities. When it operates from an unauthorised land, the land mafia comes into picture and then people start thinking about it negatively; the Pollution Control Board too does not authorise it in any way. But in reality, the people in this sector are doing a good job. Right now, they are recylcing 70 per cent of the plastic collected. If we create a system by which every bit of plastic reaches the industry, then everything will be recycled and there will be no need for the ban. If we strengthen this industry by giving it space and some facilities, and monitoring their work, it will take over the role of the corporation in garbage treatment.
Not all kinds of plastic is covered under the ban, for instance the plastic used in packaging— where is it going? All the mixed waste is now going to dumping yard. So the government is not really stopping the damage, but just making the lives of citizens miserable.
Plastic is an innovation which has helped us in every respect and we are negating this innovation just because the waste is creating a problem.
Now paper is being used as a substitute for plastic. But we started using plastic so that we don’t have to cut trees to make paper. It seems we are back to square one with the ban.
Gadre: Why paper, even the cotton bags that they are giving as an alternative to polythene bags are synthetic and not environment-friendly. If they go into nullahs, they will choke the nullahs. But it’s fashionable to criticise plastic.
Rathi: The government has introduced EPR (Extended Producer Responsibilty) policy, which implies that if I’m a manufacturer of film or laminates and I supply to companies like Haldiram or Chitale Bandhu, who use it to pack Bakarwadis, chips etc, it is their resonsibility to see that the plastic is recycled. We welcome this decision of making everyone responsible but I don’t know how it’s going to be implemented.
Also, the government has exempted laminates used in the packets of chips made by multinational companies from the ban because nobody wants to touch the big multinationals. They’ve given verbal assurance that this plastic will also be banned but when, nobody knows.
Gadre: Columbia University had done a study of major cities in India where they found that every tonne per day of recyclables collected informally saves the urban local body of Rs 25,000 and avoids emission of 721 kg of carbon dioxide per year. But we are not doing that because that is the government responsibility. Instead we are blaming people, saying they are irresponsible.
Rathi: Coming back to paper, it’s not practical. In India, there are many restrictions when it comes to cutting trees, and it is very expensive to import paper. Even when you are manufacturing paper indigenously, the scale of effluents relased by this industry is the highest.
Joshi: American Chemcial Council, one of the respected organisations has prepared a report which says that the cost to replace plastic is five times more than the normal cost.
Rathi: Glass bottles were proposed by the government to substitute plastic milk bags, but it takes five to six litres of water to clean the bottles for reuse. Contamination is another major issue. Sealing of the bottles, breakage, transport - it’s all a big challenge. It’s very easy to say that we will find a solution but it’s really tough.
At individual and household level, what measures can we take?
Gadre: There are some enthusiastic people who are doing some work individually but I don’t think this is an individual problem, it’s a societal issue. Five people doing something does not matter to the crores of people out there. It’s a system issue. If the system is right, every individual can be built into it in such a way that s/he contributes to the system. Now, 50 per cent of Pune’s population is segregating their waste but what is happening? The corporation is sending thousands of tonnes of the waste to the dumping ground. So what individual contribution can you do if the system is not in place?
Jalan: My will is to throw the garbage in the bin but if there is no bin, where do I throw it?
Don’t you think, this one time use culture, not just in case of plastic, but everything, that we have adopted, should be changed?
Gadre: I don’t think that kind of culture is there in India. People collect and re-reuse the plastic bags.
Rathi: Yes, people in India keep and reuse all the plastic containers from restaurants, adn high quality bags from shops at malls. The government has not studied the probelm properly. There problem is with the thin polythene bags that vegetable vendors give consumers. They put the vegetables in and tie it up in knots that the consumer can’t untangle when they get home. So these bags are torn and thrown in trash. And that’s where the problem was.
Gadre: These thin plastic bags can be reused in making pipes. But since there is no system currently to collect these bags, the rag picker does not give heed to it. Look at this from the financial point of view, let money be the driving point. Privatise this collection and give the waste its value, then it will have its own chain and it will go to the market.
How is the ban on thermocol going to affect the Ganesh utsav celebrations?
Santosh Dahotre: The plastic industry and thermocol industry are completely different. But since the government clubbed the two in their order on the ban, everyone from the authorities to researchers to those working at the base level, came to the conclusion that the properties of both plastic and thermocol are one and the same. The problems and challenges before the two industries are different.
The ban order said, ‘thermocol mukt Maharashtra’ - or thermocol free Maharashtra. But the notification doesn’t mention one item that comes under thermocol manufacturing. Even at this moment, there is no ban on thermocol in packaging industry but there is ban on the hand crafted thermocol products, which affects us.
Our grievances are:
a) We don’t manufacture thermocol.
b) We make decoration items out of it. Maharashtra is known for its skilled artisans. This growth has been seen in the last
100 years. Ganesh festival has employed these skilled artisans. The number is in fact much higher than what has been mentioned in the government records. This is the base level employment, which cannot be calculated.
c) All our work is hand crafted. No machinery is used, so it doesn’t lead to pollution.
d) The leftover thermocol (from the decoration) is sent back to the MIDC units.
Gadre: Thermocol is recycled. If it wasn’t, you could have seen it on the streets, in the nallahs etc. You don’t see thermocol even in dumping grounds. It is going into the market.
But in Mumbai, we see that the thermocol is thrown in the sea..
Gadre: It must be thrown when the idol is dipped for immersion. But it goes into the market. When I was in the PMC, I went and saw how a dry waste picker operated. He told me that the thermocol gets sold.
Dahotre: Even if we consider that the last user throws thermocol into garbage, it is easier to segregate thermocol from the waste/garbage. Throughout the year, except for Ganapati festival, you cannot spot any decoration made from thermocol in the waste bin. It can be treated, recycled.
We told the authorities that we will collect the thermocol from the river ghats and give it to them for recycling. Or we will send it for recycling. But the government says this is not practical and feasible. This plea was rejected by the courts. Importantly, the court gave us 30 minutes for the hearing. How is it possible to understand all the angles of this case in 30 minutes?
Jalan: The court didn’t understand the problem - we are artists, we are not from the packaging industry. The issue of thermocol first popped up in the Government Resolution (GR), especially the term, ‘decoration’. We didn’t get a single day to explain our situation. Ours is a seasonal business.
Rathi: The gazette said that whatever stock you have got has to be disposed outside Maharashtra. But can a retailer sell out of Maharashtra? Then, the authorities said that the user gets three months to dispose of. I was present for the hearing. The manufacturing of plastic was asked to shut down from March 23. Whatever stock you are not able to dispose outside the state, give it to the government.
Jalan: Our products don’t get sold outside Maharashtra. Ganesh utsav is celebrated here only, so what do we do?.
Dahotre: The not-so-privileged members of society are involved in this work.
Also, what about the products, decorative material that is already available in the market? We asked the government for a waiver...because our livelihood is dependent on this business. We did try to make decorative pieces from other material. But knowing the requirements of the market and our customers, I can tell you that there are some material which are more harmful than thermocol. If they are used as an alternative, then the cause is lost.
We used paper pulp. We couldn’t get fresh paper, so we had to make do with raddi - old newspaper, the ink used for printing would then bleed. And if that is thrown in the water during the immersion of the idol, it can’t be segregated and will add to the pollution.
Next alternative is fibre. Fibre will cause more pollution. And, so will wood. A person can get injured if the nails used for crafting the temple are thrown carelessly on the banks. I think this issue needs to be studied carefully.
In our discussions with the authorities, we were told that we could get a waiver for our products this year.
Are there any incentives given to the non-governmental units which are recycling plastic? Are we building on that infrastructure?
Gadre: Not at all.
Joshi: Just recently there came an annoucement that the government is working on a national recycling policy and incentives to such groups will come in due course. I was present for a meeting on June 18 when Pravin Pardeshi specifically gave instructions that all the banned plastic recycling units in Malegaon should be regularised. Get them into mainstream and don’t look at them as a problem.
Is installing machines to recycle plastic and giving incentives a solution?
Gadre: We have to think about our maturity level in every aspect -- whatever suits our psyche, behaviour patterns and habits. Whatever works in Mumbai may not work in Pune because the lifestyles in these two cities are totally different from each other.
— Transcribed by
Vrunda Juwale and Ambika Shaligram