Humble ragpicker deserves a salute

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]ndians consume only one-tenth of plastic used by Americans and, yet, the ubiquitous white material has become an integral part of our daily lives. The decision by the Maharashtra government to ban plastics fits eminently with India’s status as the host nation for this year’s World Environment Day, the theme for which is ‘Beat Plastic Pollution’.

Maharashtra is said to generate 1,200 tons of plastic waste every day, with Mumbai, alone, accounting for 500 tons. These end up in garbage dumps and landfills, while a lot of it clogs drains and pollutes seas. As the ban has taken effect, officials of the civic bodies, forest department, police and Maharashtra Pollution Control Board staff stand empowered to impose penalty for violations, starting at Rs5,000 and even 3-month jail for repeated offences. Mumbaikars have coped up well with the ban, as the cultural ethos of the metropolis is always sympathetic to common causes. Many Indian cities have also enforced different types of ban on the use of plastics, but some, like Hyderabad, have achieved a high success rate.

According to UN figures, one million plastic drinking bottles are bought every minute around the world. The world also uses up to 5 trillion disposable plastic bags. Globally, around half of all plastic consumed is single-use, meaning it immediately becomes waste if not recycled. But India has a much better record when it comes to recycling, because the practice is a part of our culture.

According to Union environment ministry statistics, about 25,000 tons of plastic waste is generated every year in India, of which at least 60% is recycled. In the US, which consumes 10 times more plastics, the rate of recycling is as low as 10%, indicating that they have a much bigger problem on their hands. In India, plastic is even seen as a proxy for economic progress, with the country boasting a flourishing recycling economy worth thousands of crores of rupees.

India’s recycling economy revolves around the humble ragpicker, who is doing a great service to the nation by helping fight pollution, as well as contributing to the national economy. At the other end of the spectrum, India has seen some of the most innovative plastic recycling initiatives. These include projects to develop methods for recycling plastics, while some others seek to develop products out of them that are safe and biodegradable.

Some companies are beginning to develop products that are better suited for recycling. PET bottles are among the easiest to recycle and India has a sizeable industry engaged in recycling this type of material. The recycled bottles become clothing, sofa covers, or pillow stuffing. These initiatives are promising to create an economy that is set to become increasingly circular.