Paralysis by Plastic Plagues Delhi's Ecosystem

Despite a complete plastic ban in the city, the state government agencies seem least concerned. Not a single shopkeeper has been fined so far for using plastic bags.

Published: 24th May 2015 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 27th May 2015 12:07 PM   |  A+A-

Paralysis by Plastic

NEW DELHI:It’s not just cows, but the entire Delhi is gagging on these weapons of mass destruction. A city of 1.82 crore people generates a staggering 690 tonnes of plastic waste every day of which over 40 per cent go recycled. Civic authorities say the daily addition to the waste is 276 tonnes. A huge portion ends up in landfills and the rest clogs the city’s roads, drains and the Yamuna River causing untold damage to the pollution-infected population’s health. Plastic clogs the earth of Delhi’s fragile green belt and parks that are already under siege from land grabbers and squatters, stopping the free flow of water, which in turn stunts vegetation growth and in some cases even destroys it completely. Plastic waste also encourages the mushrooming of illegal recycling units, which send the banned items to wholesale markets from where they find their way to pavement hawkers, small shopkeepers, chemists and even big establishments. A large slum population and irresponsible residents discard plastic bags and tetra packs, which choke the drains and have turned the Yamuna banks into “layers and layers of plastic wastes” as an ecologist puts it, where thousands of tonnes of plastic can be found any day.

TONNES OF TOXIN: Delhi generates 2,51,850 tonnes of plastic waste every year of which 1,00,740 tonnes are lying on roads, inside drains, in parks, the green belts and the Yamuna, according to a Plastic Waste Management report prepared by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). A concerned Union Environment Minister, Prakash Javadekar pulled up state authorities for not strictly implementing the rules on plastic waste management and enforcing the ban of plastic carry bags. In the last session of Parliament, the minister said the government will set up surveillance squads with the power to levy spot fines on manufacturers of plastic bags that are below 40 microns—the permissible thickness of biodegradable matter. Plastic is not digestible matter, so a part of it comes out in cow dung and is consumed by birds and animals, causing more deaths. Medical experts say that the exposure of children to chemicals used in manufacturing of plastic packages, and chewing of plastic teethers and toys can cause cancer, damage the immune system and hinder development. Apart from littering, the burning of plastic waste in public spaces poisons the already toxic atmosphere of the capital where, according to the Centre for Science and Environment, one air-pollution-related death happens every hour. Contact with food substances stored in plastic containers and bags cause the chemicals in them to be absorbed by human bodies, causing hormonal and other health perils. Floating plastic waste, as found in the Yamuna, can survive for thousands of years in water, transports alien invasive species, disrupting habitats. Plastic buried in landfills cause harmful chemicals to be released into the city’s groundwater. The Delhi Health Department, informed about groundwater poisoning deaths in Greater Noida, is investigating deaths caused by stomach cancer, eczema, hepatitis and liver disorders. Delhi’s drains choked with plastic bags filled with rainwater become breeding grounds for mosquitoes, which cause dengue and malaria. MCD spokesperson Y S Mann said that during the rains, sanitation workers find 70 per cent of drains are closed due to plastic waste, stopping the flow of silt and water. Civic authorities estimate that by 2021, seven lakh tonnes of un-recyclable plastic waste will choke the city. “The drains will be filled with plastic. The 22km stretch of the Yamuna riverbanks in the capital are already covered by layers and layers of plastic waste and 10 years down, the river will turn dry and vanish in Delhi,” Manoj Misra convener of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan, an NGO, told The Sunday Standard. Marine fish life in Yamuna is almost extinct and a large cause of this is consumption of discarded plastic by marine life.

AGENCY APATHY: Despite a complete plastic ban in the city, the state government agencies seem least concerned. Not a single shopkeeper has been fined so far for using plastic bags. On October 23, 2012, the Delhi government imposed a blanket ban on manufacturing, use and sale of plastic bags after they found that they “caused blockage of gutters, sewerage system and drains”, resulting in serious “environmental and public heath-related problems”. The only exception permitted is the use of plastic specified under the Bio-medical Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 1998 for packaging food products, milk, cooking oil, flour and plastic cups used by tea vendors. Immediately after the ban, the All India Plastic Industries Association challenged the government notification in Delhi High Court. In December 2012, the HC stayed the ban, taking on record an undertaking by Delhi Pollution Control Committee that it won’t book plastic manufacturers and traders till the petition is still before the court. “The matter is still pending with the HC and therefore no implementation as on date,” said Kulanad Joshi, Additional Secretary, Delhi’s Department of Environment.

So far, only the Delhi Cantonment Board had challaned 22 people for violating the rule. As far as the state government is concerned, it’s a different story. “In Delhi, there is no mechanism to implement the plastic ban as there is absolute lack of coordination between different government agencies,” says RTI activist Jagjit Singh Walia.

RAMPANT VIOLATIONS: To tackle the menace, Delhi’s environmentalists approached National Green Tribunal. Taking a strong stance, it passed an order in March, stating that anyone throwing puja material in plastic bags into the Yamuna will be fined Rs 5,000. It also restrained individuals, including municipal corporation employees, from throwing or dumping any kind of waste in the drains and ordered a fine of Rs 5,000 for violating its directions. In another order, the tribunal banned the burning of waste, dry leaves or plastic in the open and imposed a Rs 5,000 fine for violators. This is responsible for nearly 30 per cent of the air pollution in the city. “Burning plastics emit harmful quantities of dioxins and furans, which can cause cancer, impotence, asthma and a myriad other allergies to human beings,” said Priti Mahesh, chief project coordinator of Toxic Link, an environment NGO. Residents of Okhla have filed court cases against the waste-to-energy (WTE) plant established there, citing rise in pollution and toxins being released into the atmosphere due to waste incineration to generate just 16 MW of power. With two more WTE plants coming up, the total waste that will be incinerated per day will rise to 7,500 tonnes.

After the NGT order, Deputy CM Manish Sisodia on Friday expressed concern that the municipal corporations that cover the majority of Delhi have not made any serious effort to prevent the burning of plastic. He reminded all the municipal corporations and other local bodies to display helpline numbers for the public to lodge complaints about burning of material in open.

DELHI DISASTER: The number of households in Delhi is estimated as 42.98 lakh, of which 0.86 lakh live in the rural outskirts and 42.12 lakh in the urban areas. On an average, each household generates 0.5 kg of solid waste daily, which amounts to 2,146 tonnes per day. The rest of waste is generated from commercial and industrial units. Five municipal bodies are responsible for solid waste generation and management. The three municipal corporations cover 96 per cent of Delhi, which approximately comes to 1399.26 sq km. The rest comes under the New Delhi Municipal Council and the Delhi Cantonment Board. Even with 65,000 safai kamarcharis on the roll, MCD is unable to clean and collect garbage.  They have involved various private players to carry out garbage collection, but to little advantage.

In Delhi, there are four landfill sites at Bhalswa, Ghazipur, Okhla and Narela-Bawana Road, of which three are filled beyond capacity. “The corporation finds it difficult to segregate waste despite running several awareness programmes. We tried to control plastic waste at sources but people do not respond. We have roped in private players for this task,” Mann said.

VICIOUS CYCLE: Delhi’s ragpickers are key players in the plastic game. There are around one lakh of them, constituting men, women and children. Each of them collect 50 kg of waste every day, reducing the load of government agencies by 1,200-1,500 tonnes. “They gather waste from garbage dumps, the streets or landfills and sell the sorted waste,” says Mahesh.

The waste is sold to small traders, who in turn sell it to kabaddiwalas. The kabaddiwalas sell plastic waste to a dealer. He uses dismantlers to separate different plastic resins before selling them, since segregated plastic fetches a better price. Then come the recyclers and recycling units where workers separate different types of plastic, which is recycled. In 2013, the municipal corporation came up with a proposal to form an association of ragpickers to generate employment. “They would be given charge to maintain public toilets as well as have the opportunity to collect garbage directly from households, and segregate plastic from bio-degradable waste,” said Mann. The proposal is yet to be finalised. 

Delhi is the largest recycling hub in India, and one of the largest in the world, with waste flowing in from all parts of the country and from outside India as well.

ILLEGAL SPREAD: The plastic waste trade and processing units are widely spread across Delhi. Plastic processing units are spread across Mundka, Narela, Tikri Kalan, Kirti Nagar, Shahadra and Bawana, which have more than 10,000 plastic scrap hubs. In Mundka itself more than 4,000 units spread across four km are engaged in sorting, cleaning, trading and processing of the waste. Only around 180 registered plastic recycling units in Delhi have been given licenses by the Pollution Control Committee. The rest function in key locations where plastic scrap pre-processing and processing operations take place such as Kirti  Nagar, Mayapuri Industrial Area, Inderlok, Karawal Nagar,  Patpargunj, Udyog Nagar, Okhla. There are around 500 units in these areas, mainly engaged in pellet making and moulding.

Plastic is sold openly in Sadar Bazaar Market, one of the largest wholesale markets for plastic bags. A small lane named Bahadurgarh Road has more than 100 shops where all kinds of plastic bags are sold in wholesale.

“We can’t impose a complete ban on plastic usage. But it can be regulated. Solid waste management and segregation of plastic from solid waste should be properly implemented by government agencies as well,” added Mahesh.

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