Alex Jensen in his thought-provoking article on waste management, focuses our attention on plastic wastes in India and the associated environmental problems. He highlights linkages between climate change, environmental health, plastics production, waste & health of the economy, to drive home the point of interdependencies and the need to move towards zero waste options. Above: Leh landfill. Photo Credit: Juan Del Rio

When we drop our garbage into the bin, or dump it somewhere, or burn it, the waste goes out of site, and out of mind. However, the stark reality is, there is no away. Over the last several decades, a throw-away consumer economy has emerged and become normalized across the world, beginning in the industrialized countries and spreading outward from there, churning out ever greater volumes of packaging and products designed for rapid obsolescence and disposal. The precipitous increase in waste is burdening the earth’s ecosystems and harming communities and heath, worldwide. From saturation of the world’s oceans with plastic, to overflowing landfills on the outskirts of every city, to waste incinerators belching out toxic emissions, it is no exaggeration to say we are facing a waste crisis.

But this crisis is not merely about unsightly rubbish; in many ways, waste epitomizes the pathological unsustainability of modern consumer capitalism: recklessly squandering materials for convenience and profits, bequeathing posterity a poisoned and diminished planet. Waste and climate change are not separate issues, but two severe expressions of the same fundamental problem of the modern industrial system, namely the treatment of the commons as an infinite dump.

I will focus in this short essay on the issue of plastic in India, which is rapidly proliferating across the country today – as it is across the rest of the world – seriously impairing environmental health. The focus on plastics, to the exclusion of the many other materials that constitute solid waste in India, has two primary motivations. First, though there are many competing definitions of ‘waste’, the one adopted here is material that is not meaningfully or safely re-circulated through either biological or social circuits. Statistics on increasing plastic waste in India (see below) confirm casual observations that plastic is a material that finds no place in what has otherwise traditionally been an incredibly resourceful, thrifty economy. In fact one could say that waste, as defined here, is an historically novel problem in India that emerged relatively recently with the introduction of plastic. In other words, the modern waste crisis is largely a plastic crisis, and vice versa.

Second, related to the issue of safety, plastics (to varying degrees) inherently pose environmental-health threats throughout their lifecycle in ways that do not characterize other materials to the same extent or in the same manner. Plastic is disposed off by burning (in the open as is done across India millions of times each day, or in large incinerators) or by dumping[1]. In the former case, the chemical constituents of plastics create toxic air emissions and ash (Thornton 2000; GAIA 2008, 2009; Gullett et al. 2001; Lemieux et al. 2004; Sidhu et al. 2005). In the latter, the dumping of plastics, from dispersed ‘littering’ to concentration in landfills that are rapidly reaching or exceeding capacity (Sethi 2006; Singh 2013), causes numerous environmental-health impacts[2].

On a global level, the inability of society or nature to absorb plastics is most starkly evidenced in the great ‘patches’ of plastic waste that have been discovered in the world’s oceans (Murray and Andrady 2003; Weisman 2007; Marks and Howden 2008; Bongiorno 2010; Connor 2010; Cumming 2010; Melia 2010). One of many examples of the effects of this: The European Commission estimates the stomachs of 94 percent of all birds in the North Sea contain plastic (Jowit 2011).

Around 300 million tonnes of plastic are produced globally each year. About two thirds of this is for packaging; globally, this amounts to “170 million tonnes of plastic largely created to be disposed of after one use” (Jowit 2011).

Waste Burning and Climate Change

Waste and climate change are fundamentally parallel problems. This is true in a literal sense. Recently, researchers have estimated that almost half of the world’s waste (~970 million metric tons) is burned, which is contributing significantly to climate change. The amount of harmful pollution from the burning of waste may be underestimated by as much as 40 percent (Hoag 2014).

To my knowledge, the contribution to the dangerously worsening air pollution suffered in India’s cities today (13 of the world’s 20 most air-polluted cities are in India (Ghosh 2015)) from both waste burning and from the constant toxic emissions from permanently smouldering landfills, has not been calculated, but one can safely surmise that it is significant.

It is not only the burning of waste that connects it so intimately to climate change, but perhaps more importantly, the increase in the pace and scale of the throughput as well as the consumption of resources as the industrial economy expands, of which waste accumulation is a particularly glaring manifestation.

Tackling the waste crisis is a necessary component in tackling climate change (Platt et al. 2008).

The Plasticization of India

Plastics consumption and waste are growing at a phenomenal rate in India today. The Indian plastic industry is worth Rs 90,000 crore and is growing 15% per annum (Dutta 2013). By 2013, Indian per capita plastic consumption was about 8.5 kg per annum, or 11.8 million total tonnes per annum. The world’s average per capita consumption is 22 kg per annum (ibid.). Though current per-capita consumption p.a. in India is relatively low compared to China (25-30 kg) and North America and Western Europe (80-100 kg) (CRISIL n.d.; CIPET 2008; Plastindia Foundation 2009), in terms of total plastic consumption, India is third, behind China and the US (which consumes some 25 million tonnes of plastic per annum (ibid.)). This comparatively low consumption is simultaneously lamented by the plastics industry and government for its reflection of an ‘underutilisation’ of plastics in India, and celebrated for the vast, ‘untapped’ growth market it represents (Plastindia Foundation 2009). Representatives of the plastics industry enthusiastically envision the expansion of plastics consumption in India. One of them was recently quoted: “We have a target to double the polymers consumption within next five years” (Dutta 2013). Elsewhere, it is reported that, “The plastics industry eyes India’s polymer consumption to rise rapidly from 11.8 million tonnes per annum during 2012-13 to 17.6 million tonnes per annum by 2016-17” (The Hindu 2015). According to some projections, by 2030 the total consumption of plastics in India will increase about six-fold to reach 20,000 kilotonnes (kt) (Mutha et al. 2006).

This rapid growth of plastic consumption means equally growing plastic waste. Over 5,400 tonnes of plastic waste was being generated daily in 2000-2001, and the percentage of plastics in municipal solid waste (MSW) increased from 0.7 percent in 1971 to 4 percent in 1995 (ibid.). By 2030 it is projected that plastic waste will increase 10 times from 2000-2001 levels, amounting to over 18,800 kilo tonnes (ibid.). A substantial one third of all plastics manufactured in India are used in packaging, and two thirds of that are for food and beverage packing (ICPE n.d.; Mutha et al. 2006).

Plastic Bharat Abhiyan

From independence (and before), India’s élite political and business classes have embraced a developmental paradigm that equates national progress with economic growth through application of modern science and technology and heavy industrialisation. The petrochemicals and plastics industries have been cast as fundamental to this project, and the Government of India (GOI) has provided systematic structural support for their growth, especially since the 1991 embrace of economic liberalisation/globalisation (Edwards and Kellett 2000; GOI 2007). National 5-year development plans allocate thousands of crores of rupees in petrochemical complexes across the country, and state governments provide tremendous subsidies, rebates, land, resources, and other incentives to set up plastic parks. Gujarat is the leading plastic centre in India, with over 10,000 plastics units producing 70% of plastic raw material (polymers) (Dutta 2013). This output of plastic is a direct consequence of welfare to the industry by the Gujarat government. For example, recently the government has allotted 200 acres land at Dahej in Bharuch district in Gujarat, and intends to allot another 100 acres of land at Sanand in Ahmedabad. Such systemic, structural supports have made the industry powerful, facilitating the ascendance of giant corporations, most notably Reliance Industries Limited (RIL), India’s largest private sector enterprise and largest plastics manufacturer.

Economic liberalisation policies are also facilitating the entry and spread of supermarkets and transnational food corporations (TFCs), which are inextricably linked to the spread of plastic packaged and processed foods (Gelhar and Regmi 2003; Halweil 2004; Vepa 2004; Hawkes 2006; Neilson and Pritchard 2007; Pingali 2007). The proliferation of plastics packaging enables and is essential to this increasingly commercialised/globalised food system, and the latter propagates the former in turn, leading to increasing volumes of waste (Lang and Barling 2007). Corporate food marketing intersects with the globalisation of TFCs to become “the main cause of the expanding market for ready to eat foods [in India]” (Vepa 2004: 222). Globalisation of communications technologies, commercial media and advertising have dramatically grown with neoliberalism (McChesney and Edwards 2001; Ciochetto 2009), acting as ideological engines that propel India “into the culture and ideology of consumerism” and nurturing the “expansion of foreign businesses into India” (Ciochetto 2009: 202). Finally, waste itself is being globalised along paths of least regulatory resistance from the industrial West to countries like India. The U.K., for example, exports millions of tons of waste, including plastics packaging, significant portions of which end up in informal waste markets in India (Ungoed-Thomas et al. 2007).

The Orthodox Diagnosis

The above structural drivers causing the expansion of the plastics industry, or the commercialisation and packaging of the Indian (food) economy, tend to be completely sidelined in mainstream discourse about the waste issue. According to the conventional diagnosis – especially, but not only, from the plastics industry itself – the growth of both plastics consumption and waste is explained apolitically by reference to trends and figures, most commonly rapid population growth and urbanization, a young population and a giant and quickly growing middle class which ‘naturally’ aspires to the material lifestyle of a globalising consumer culture (CRISIL n.d.; ICPE n.d.; Business Wire 2007; Plastindia Foundation 2009; Unnikrishnan 2009). The increase in plastics waste is similarly apolitically explained as a result of irresponsible behaviour (‘littering’) – usually by the poor and/or ignorant – and by a lack of a ‘waste management’ infrastructure (dustbins, collector trucks, more landfills and incinerators, etc.). This stems in part from a widespread, but mistaken, notion that the West has solved its waste problem through plentiful dustbins and efficient waste management systems, and that therefore India should simply emulate that. The stark reality, however, is that comparative litter-free condition in the West is the converse side of the export and sophisticated concealment of its waste. (Recall that the U.S. consumes the most plastic in the world: 25 million tons per annum. Annual per capita trash generation in the U.S. is 2,000 lbs. With less than 5% of global population, the U.S. generates close to 20% of the world’s waste).

From this diagnosis stems the orthodox prescription, echoed by both industry, politicians and media: stopping littering, and promoting more and better waste management and technological fixes – e.g. better collection, ‘waste-to-energy’ incineration, and conversion of plastic waste into fuel (ICPE 2006; Unnikrishnan 2009; Times of India 2010).

Additionally, plastics and the plastics industry make solemn commitments to recycling (Times of India 2009; Vyas 2010), and adoption of voluntary environmental governance standards that embrace selective pollution reductions rather than phase-outs or bans (Edwards and Kellett 2000).

The ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’ (‘Clean India Campaign’) of the current central government is a clear example of the depoliticised approach to waste. By relentlessly focussing on ‘cleanliness’, the waste issue gets reduced to a problem of litter, which can be solved, unsurprisingly, by not littering, and by sweeping up existing litter!

This is paired with an emphasis on the need to massively expand the number and reach of dustbins, in which to deposit the swept up litter. No mention is made about where those dustbins must be emptied. No thought is given towards the reduction, the prevention of waste, which would require rethinking and reforming all the policies and processes that currently promote more and more plastics. Consequently, the obsession with cleanliness becomes a distraction from facing up to the actual situation, and deludes people into thinking that as long as their own space is clean, all is well, no matter what other common space was dumped on in the bargain. As plastics factories multiply and the landfills swell and burst at the seams all around cities, citizens are made to feel virtuous for sweeping and using dustbins.

Towards Genuine Solutions: Zero Waste

As long as the policies and processes that are engendering ever-expanding volumes of plastic packaging persist, the waste crisis will worsen, period. So the most meaningful steps in tackling waste are also the most daunting and difficult, because we are talking about reversing a state/corporate juggernaut, and economic globalisation itself. The capture of politics by industry will have to be reversed, subsidies will have to be shifted, bans enacted, trade and investment policies rewritten, and much more.

Ultimately, the reigning model of growth, consumption, industrialization – and proximate ‘cleanliness’ – must be replaced by a model of ‘zero waste’ that is both new, and very old. As defined by the organisation GAIA, “Zero waste means reducing what we trash in landfills and incinerators to zero. Most things can and should be safely and economically recycled, reused or composted. We also need to simply use less and redesign our products so that they are toxic-free and built to last” (GAIA n.d.).

Zero waste is based on core values that are diametrically opposed to those that rule the current system. Instead of consume more, dispose, use up, and throw away, zero waste emphasizes a constellation of ‘Re’s’: Return (to old waste-free practices), Re-vision (well-being and the purpose of the economy), Re-think (what our needs are and what contentment is), Refuse (that which we don’t need), Reduce (that which we do need), Reuse (that which we already have), and Recycle (that which we cannot reduce or reuse).

As flagged at the beginning of this essay, this is not a new concept – it is what India essentially was prior to the industrial era. Ask grandparents: ‘How did you live in your youth?’, and many solutions to the waste crisis will emerge.

Zero waste can be, and is being, implemented on many scales, at many levels, from the institutional to the personal. While we must not neglect the larger political changes that are necessary to truly turn the tide on waste, we can also immediately begin the shift towards zero waste in our institutions, communities, homes, and personal lives. This is possible through all sorts of related actions: re-localizing food systems and revitalizing food traditions (obviating packaging); creating low-to-no packaging shops; instituting zero waste purchasing policies; supporting the sharing economy to connect people to each other and to the knowledge and things they need rather than on new commodity dependence; community and household-level composting; spreading information about the harms of plastic; and much more.

[1] Significant amounts of some plastics are also collected by waste pickers for recycling, but this process too has its environmental and health impacts. Limitations of space prevent explication of this issue.

[2] These include, among others: exacerbating and even causing urban floods by clogging drainage (occurring for example in the devastating Mumbai floods of 2005 (Talwar 2005)); creating mosquito-breeding stagnant water environments; suffocating rivers and other waterbodies (The Hindu 2010); interfering with ploughing and blockage of soil drainage when it accumulates in agricultural fields; killing or debilitating livestock when they ingest it (Edwards and Kellett 2000; Krulwich and Goldstien 2000; Chintan 2006; Clapp 2010); when accumulated in landfills, contributing to: terrible and often health-impairing stenches; proliferation of vermin; toxic leachate that pollutes water tables and streams, etc. (Rootes 2009).

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