CHENNAI: Chennai Coastal Cleanup last weekend collected almost 40 tonnes (as heavy as 8 elephants) of garbage — collected, segregated and 56% of sent to recycle! Recycling is the last part of the process all volunteers were told first we have to reduce and reuse, else we will only keep recycling all the waste we are party to the creation of.
I was part of the cleanup act on a local ECR beach and it was a peaceful start to the day as I walked up and down scouting our cleaning zone with ‘Rosie’ the beach stray. Being outside the main city limits, one would think there would be much less junk on this beach, but all the usual suspects were sprinkled around in abundance — plastic wrappers of every size conceivable — from foil-lined chips packets to candy wrappers; PET bottles galore, coke, pepsi you name it; glass bottles of alcohol, medicines, old spice to picnic ‘stuff’ the cardboard/foil base from cakes, plates, spoons, knives, cups — the works! There were even clothes, chappals, face cream dabbas, shampoo packets, toothbrushes, even a packet of Amma Salt! Every aspect of human activity was happening right here and all this remaining garbage was painting a grim image of what we are doing to our environment.
While plastic was the predominant focus for the day (since it is easily recyclable), there was also the nebulous ‘non-recyclable’ category. Non-recyclable material is basically another way of saying “no hope for this stuff except landfill” — all this material will remain practically forever with no easy way of being recycled with today’s waste management capabilities. The biggest contributor of waste on the shoreline after the Chennai floods was thermocol, and today our beaches continue to remain peppered with it in various sizes and shapes. This material sadly is a ‘non-recyclable’. Thermacol which is known by many names is the same as Styrofoam and is ‘Expandable Polystyrene’(EPS) — a plastic very commonly used as an expanded foam and as a popular packing material.
EPS is loved by our local fisherfolk — it has applications on their boats as buoys, fishing net floats and is fitted into the boats to make them virtually unsinkable. Once fish are caught, they are transported in ice boxes — so you see, there are many ways for EPS bits to be found strewn around our beaches! In our homes we encounter EPS as well — packaging from online delivery sites love using it. The reason it is not being widely collected for recycling is because of the lack of financials associated with it. Often, it is collected alongside the garbage and since it has ‘no value’, it’s dumped into the corporation truck which takes it straight to the landfills. When in the landfills, it takes up a lot of space and if burnt then is highly flammable releasing carcinogenic fumes! As a solution, it is worth considering at-home solutions for dealing with EPS — it can be dissolved in various solvents by following a very simple methodology — break into small bits and drop into a container full of acetone or orange oil or limolene which are all common household items. The resulting material can be re-purposed as clay for models or adhesive.
Next time you are on a beach, be careful what you drop and if you can, pick up the thermacol, even a small bit could choke our sea creatures!
(The writer is an architect, urban designer, dancer and chief designer at Shilpa Architects)