Plastic pollution in Delhi and Karachi

Akshata Mishra & Arsalan Sheikh

India observed World Environment Day on June 5 where it hosted “Beat Plastic Pollution”, an event in association with the United Nations EnvironmentProgramme (UNEP) in New Delhi. Even then, plastic pollution is on the rise and not nearly adequate measures have been taken to curb it.

ThePlastic Waste Management Rule, 2016 has not been implemented entirely and remains on paper largely. A specific rule under the Extended Producers’ Responsibility (EPR) states that the producers and generators must be held responsible for the plastic waste management system. There should also be a collect back system to deal with such waste, as per the rule. However, it is yet to be implemented entirely.

Delhi had banned plastic bags in 2009. The ban on plastic bags includes the manufacture and sale of all kinds of plastic sheets and bags. It includes shopping bags, garbage bags and all kinds of plastic films and storage packets. Only plastic bags which are required for medical waste is exempted. The use and disposal of plastic bags are still prevalent by and large for carrying groceries and takeaways, etc.. However, according to a report, 25,940 tonnes of plastic waste is produced in Delhi every day, which is home to about 20 million people. 50%of plastic waste is single-use or disposable.

Despite various provisions, policies and laws the use of plastic is prevalent by and large. It has caused the death of bovine animals and has also lead to land, water, and underground water pollution. Traces of microplastics have even been found in drinking water as plastic disposed off on land degrades slowly and its chemicals leech into the surroundings. India accounts for almost 18% of the world population. With its 2.4% of the global land area, the accumulation of plastic waste is enormous. A study revealed that 20 rivers (mostly from Asia) carry two-thirds of plastic waste to the ocean; the Ganga’s contribution to itis one of the highest.

“The Centre’s somewhat liberal estimate shows over 60% of about 25,000 tonnes of plastic waste generated daily is collected. That essentially means a staggering 10,000 tonnes of trash is being released into the environment, a lot of it is going into the sea. Also, not every piece of plastic collected by the system is scientifically processed”, quoted a news report in The Hindu.

In the wake of the current situation of the problem of plastic pollution in Delhi, it has become imperative that the citizens of the national capital take matters in their hands and venture forth to clean their city. The concept of Plogging – running and picking up trash – a movement that was started in Sweden, has now become an activity practiced worldwide. “With the exception of a small population of environmentally conscious individuals and organisations, public concern towards the issue is largely laced with apathy and indifference”, stated Abhimanyu Chakravorty, the founder of PloggaIndia, a foundation which takes up the initiative of plogging in Delhi.

A lot of the garbage on the streets doesn’t picked up and stays stacked up in landfills and waste houses. As it lies accumulated and does not get disposed off properly and recycled or composted, it ends up getting dumped in rivers and oceans, clogging the streets giving off stench during the rainy season and getting washed off into the river, polluting it further. The problem of waste management in Delhi has reached its acme. Problems like landfills catching fire, the Bhalswa landfill recently is another calamity which the city faces when it comes to disposing off of plastic waste. “Ploggingbecame our way of addressing plastic pollution and over time, we started to address other issues in the waste management system, such as recycling, the lives of waste pickers, the concept of zero waste, tree plantation drives etc.” stated Chakravorty.

Tobacco packets, styrofoam plates & glasses, single-use polythene bags, chips packets in large numbers, plastic bottles etc. are some of the common items that are picked up by ploggers. The waste collected is then segregated to recyclables and non-recyclables. A very less percentage of plastic waste collected qualifies for recyclable waste, which is then sent to the municipal authorities. The rest of it goes to the landfills. A waste audit is also done by plogging teams regularly to notify brands so that they may shift their packaging to more organic ones.

Another problem that the city faces is the lack of an equitable number of dustbins. Even if they are present they are not separated and tagged to collect organic and non-decomposable waste separately. While a considerable number of the population do not bother to throw the waste in the dustbins, segregation becomes an impossible task. Even the trash collected from homes, which can easily be segregated, is not separated. Moreover, the municipal authorities have only one vehicle to collect all the waste and as a result, it all gets dumped in one place. This becomes the breeding ground for vectors and a deadly fodder for bovine animals. “We definitely need to segregate waste at source. We also need to respect the work waste pickers are doing for us, they are the backbone of our informal recycling sector, and they need better wages for them to do their work best! ” stated Chakravorty.

It was observed that when the citizens engaged in activitieslike plogging, they became more environmentally conscious. It had a positivespill over effect in the closed community that was formed, in terms ofsustainable use of energy. “It’s our throw away culture that’s at the root ofthe problem. We have traditionally lived a frugal lifestyle but consumerism hastaken over and this is what is leading to the waste problem. We need to getinto the waste minimisation mode where we start thinking of reducing, reusingand precycling”, stated Chakravorty. Precycling is identifying the kind of plasticsbefore we make a purchase. This practice makes us aware and conscious of the type of plastic that the consumer is going to buy and if it is recyclable or not.

Field biologists are of the opinion that overflowing landfills have contaminated our groundwater beyond proportion, for the communities living next to them. The people living next to them are consuming this contaminated groundwater and are becoming prone to various health risks right from birth. The marine ecosystem has been heavily affected by the slush of plastic waste which stays there for hundreds of years, leading to death, starvation, deformities and even extinction. Plastic pollution has now started to add to the already deplorable condition of air pollution in Delhi. Land pollution is another aspect which is quite complex and not easy to solve due to the paucity of it. However, a recent study conducted by Universities abroad has also found traces of microplastics in the human body. It is largely due to the consumption of underground water and species of animals which are exposed to plastic waste. In a way, the entire food chain is under threat due to plastic pollution.

Karachi’s Plastic Monster

Plastic is convenient and cheap, thus it is widely used around the world. According to Plastics Europe, a trade association which represents plastics manufacturers active in the European plastics industry, in the year 2016 alone, 335 million metric tons of plastic was produced

A byproduct of oil and gas, plastic may have its uses but it is a known fact that it does not get decompose on its own. Depending on the type of plastic, it may take anywhere between 100 and 600 years to decompose.

It is virtually impossible to recycle the heaps of discarded plastic every day, so it find its way to landfills, large burners or in the seas. Erik van Sebille’s research article revealed that almost 8 million metric ton of plastic is being thrown in the oceans annually, which is like dumping a truck full of waste every minute of the day. Interestingly, a new study of Dr. Christian Schmidt of Germany, found almost 95% of the plastic which is polluting oceans comes from only 10 rivers and Pakistan’s Indus River is one of those.

According to the researchers who conducted the study, 88% of this volume is the result of sheer mismanagement. Pakistan Plastic Manufacturers Association reported that the per capita use of plastic in Pakistan in 5.5 kg, moreover, the country imports 1.07 metric ton of polymers every year.

Karachi being the largest city of the country, consumes a large chunk of plastic products produced in Pakistan. However, even with the constant increase in the usage and production of plastic, authorities seem to be at a loss when it comes to waste management.

There is a sizeable plastic manufacturing industry in Karachi.”The plastic Industry in Karachi is huge, with private firms producing it on various volumes of production,” says Ahsan Khan, a representative of Pakistan Plastic Manufacturers Association. The body is affiliated with the Director General of Trade Organizations and is working to expand the industry in the country. “However, a large majority of these manufacturers are not registered with the government,” he lamented.

The government of Pakistan only allows the manufacture and use of oxo-biodegradable shopping bags, which are usually above 30 microns. The shopping bags of 30 micros are thicker, they do not fly with air pressure and are also reusable. However, there is no implementation on these sanctions from the authorities as bags without D2W, a substance that sets a pre-programmed life of plastic and starts naturally decomposing, are openly used everywhere in Pakistan, including Karachi.”Manufacturers are selling shoppers with a biodegradable stamp on them, though it is fake and there is no inquiry against them,” Khan added.

These non-biodegradable shoppers are nearly impossible to recycle and they do not decompose. As a result, they become a threat to the environment. A significant chunk of this plastic ends up in rivers and oceans through different channels, which adversely affects the marine life.

A World Economic Forum’s report estimated by the scientists that by 2050, the amount of plastic will exceed the number of marine life in the sea in terms of weight. Fish and other sea creatures consume this plastic and are then eaten by human, thus becoming part of the food cycle and cancerous for people.”There have been much talk about birds and fish dying because of consuming plastic, similarly, there must be fish and crabs eating plastic, which we dine on and the particles transfer to our body, because it does not decompose, it is one of the reasons for cancer becoming so common,” says Toseef Pasha, an environmentalist.

There are two other ways of disposing plastic waste – either you burn it to ashes or you bury it in the ground. The amount of plastic which is being produced and added to waste is too much to effectively dispose of in this manner. Besides, both methods are unsafe for the environment as well as living organisms.

“When plastic wastage is dumped in landfills along with other discarded materials, it creates a chemical[Leachate], which leaks down to water reservoirs in the rocks. The contaminated water is consumed by animal, plants and humans, which again end up in the food cycle,” explains Ahmed Shabbar, who has been researching the subject with the intent to set up a recycling plant. On the other hand, burning plastic is a common practice in Karachi and is disastrous for the environment.”Toxic gases are being released on burning plastic, so it cannot be a viable option to handle this problem,” he adds.

“See the environment of the city, there is no rain, there is scorching heat throughout the year, winters hardly arrive. Our food is contaminated, our water is toxic, we have been eating, breathing, seeing pollution and plastic has a huge role in this dilemma,” laments Shabbar.

There are recyclers working in Karachi, but they are unaware of the affects it is causing on the environment or on public health. All they know and do is to crush and melt all the plastic from which they can produce more plastic.”The recyclers in localities like Shershah are interested in crushing plastic, melting it, washing it and then producing grains for further manufacturing,” mentioned Zeeshan Khan, who is an engineer having experienced of working plastic manufacturing firms and currently associated with Ministry of Industries.

There are two major problems in what they are doing in the name of recycling. The first and foremost issue is, they do not differentiate between the recyclable and non-recyclable products. Secondly, they tend to melt plastic in open burners, which cause air pollution.”Recyclers in Karachi mix hospital waste, such as used syringes, gloves and other harmful objects with other plastic. No matter how much you wash or heat them, there is always some toxic particles attached to them, if you reproduce any food packaging material from these, it will be harmful,” Khan added.

So the question remains – how to deal with this plastic monster? “First, government has to step in, which has been almost ignorant of this massive problem. The government should run campaigns to create awareness regarding the cons of using this eco-unfriendly products,” Khan suggested. It is the people, who can make a significant difference, otherwise the devil is almost impossible to stop.”We have already been crushed by these mountains of plastics, there are researches going on, hopefully they will come up with a solution, but unfortunately, we have gotten late, we need drastic measures, we do not have 50 or 100 years to take down this problem,” Pasha stated.

Karachi has become a city too big for its own good, so do the problems of the city.Karachiites will have to come to basic to tackle this plastic pollution. It is the citizens of Karachi, who need to step up and get aware of the issue. Boycotting plastic bags is one of the solutions, it will be tough for them, but it will help the cause slowly and gradually.”Take the bag of cloth, use bowls to buy things like yogurt, get a bottle when you purchase milk, it sounds old-fashioned, it sounds a bit tough, but you have to go some extra miles to win against plastic, tolerate the inconvenience and think about our future generations,” emphasized Pasha.

On the other hand, Pakistan Plastic Manufacturers Association is in talks with the Minister of Climate Change, Zartaj Gul, regarding the pollution caused by their production. They are looking to bring in laws that can help the industry grow safely and at the same time mitigate the environmental problem. They are hopeful to convince government to introduce harsher penalties for those flouting the law when it comes to the manufacture and sale of plastics.