Addressing the Plastic Waste Crisis at Kolkata, India

Plastics can easily qualify as the one of the most user-friendly inventions of the 20th century. It has also successfully been able to dominate contemporary times. This ‘life-changing’ invention that has the advantage of lasting forever is also its greatest disadvantage.

Today, the plastic waste crisis is spiraling out of control. To help alleviate the rampant mismanagement of plastic waste, Earth5R, an Environmental Organisation based in Mumbai, India, developed a project known as the “Know Your Plastics” Project.

Helping Plastic Waste Management through “Know Your Plastics”

The project involves cleanup and sampling of plastic waste from 10 different locations by an Earth5R volunteer from their own localities. After the waste is collected within a limit of 5 minutes, it is segregated into six different categories :

MLP(multi-layer packaging), PET( Polyethylene terephthalate) plastics, LDPE(Low Density Polyethylene), HDPE(High Density Polyethylene), Tetra packs and Synthetic fibers. Any other waste found on site such as medical waste is included in the “Other” category.

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Categories of Plastic Waste used for segregation

Implementing Clean up and Segregation of Plastic Waste in Kolkata

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Kolkata, India (Source: Whereig)

Krishangi Jasani, Earth5R Volunteer, conducted clean up and segregation of plastic waste at 10 different locations in her locality in South Kolkata. The plastic waste collected was segregated and the resulting data was then analyzed to understand which kind of plastics generated the most waste.

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Plastic Waste collected by Krishangi Jasani, Earth5R Volunteer @Kolkata, India

The analyzed data produced some insightful results:

  • Out of a total of 370 plastic waste items collected, 37% were Polythene bags belonging to the LDPE category
  • This was followed closely by MLPs at 31.4%
  • HDPEs constituted 10.3% of the total plastic waste
  • While thermocol waste stood at 8.1%
  • Tetrapacks, medical waste and PET bottles made up 5.9%, 4.3% and 3% of the total waste collected
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Types of Plastic Waste found in South Kolkata

Krishangi observed that, “Majority of the waste that I found were Polythene bags and MLPs which I generally expected. However, when I also found sanitary pads discarded with all other waste, I realized that somewhere cultural taboos and beliefs are playing a role in delaying the proper management of waste and that we as a society have a long way to go.”

However, when I also found sanitary pads discarded with all other waste, I realized that somewhere cultural taboos and beliefs are playing a role in delaying the proper management of waste and that we as a society have a long way to go.

– Krishangi Jasani, Earth5R Volunteer @Kolkata, India

The Plastic Waste Crisis in Kolkata

When asked about the plastic waste crisis in her city, Krishangi stated that, “I feel that despite there being bans on the use of polythene bags which is the highest pollutant of the city, people still continue to use them. It is because it is convenient and widely available. And that is the issue. I believe that the solution to this issue lies with the conscious consumer and the government authorities who take strict action against all offenders.”

I believe that the solution to my city’s plastic waste crisis lies with the conscious consumer and the government authorities who take strict action against all offenders.

– Krishangi Jasani, Earth5R Volunteer @Kolkata, India
  • The city of Kolkata faces long periods of monsoon which often leads to waterlogging. This situation is observed for hours before the water is drained away since most of the drains are clogged with waste.
  • On September 30 2021, the city of Kolkata and the state of West Bengal banned the use of plastic bags which were thinner than 75 micron. This much needed decision came after the city’s drainage system was clogging up with plastic waste and choking the waterways.
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A street vendor handing plastic bags to a customer (Source: Telegraph India)

  • However, only a day after the ban was imposed, the use of plastic bags was still observed. As Kalyan Rudra, Chairman of Bengal’s pollution control board rightly says, “We need a people’s movement on the use and disposal of plastics….A regulation is welcome, but it has always a limited outcome, if it is entirely left to enforcement”; conscious consumers are equally responsible for the implementation of the ban
  • It has been estimated that currently Kolkata produces anywhere between 500 to 1200 tons of plastic waste while India generates 15 million tonnes of plastic waste every year.

The Global Plastic Waste Scenario

  • In 2016, the world generated 242 million tonnes of plastic waste (about 12 percent of all municipal solid waste). This waste primarily originated from three regions – 57 million tonnes from East Asia and the Pacific, 45 million tonnes from Europe and Central Asia, and 35 million tonnes from North America
  • Majority of the plastic generated is used in the form of packaging material and polythene bags that people use to carry their things. In 2018, data showed that the packaging sector was the highest generator of plastic waste followed by the textile industry.
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Distribution of plastic waste generation worldwide in 2018, by sector (Source: Statista)

  • Almost all of this waste ends up in the oceans through rivers causing massive harm to marine life and posing major environmental concerns on both land and water.
  • The recent COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened this situation. According to a recent study, more than eight million tons of pandemic-associated plastic waste have been generated globally, with more than 25,000 tons entering the global ocean
  • The waste generated from the pandemic was mainly from medical waste generated by hospitals, online-shopping package material and single-use plastics.

Plastic Waste Management through Recycling

  • The river Hooghly, a tributary of Ganga which flows through Kolkata city carries majority of the plastic waste into the Bay of Bengal and ultimately the Indian Ocean.
  • A recent study stated that as per 2015, Kolkata was the third highest generator of Mismanaged Plastic Waste in the world after Manila and Cairo which were ranked first and second respectively.
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Global mismanaged plastic waste (MPW) generation in 2015 (Source: Nature)

  • The global plastic waste disposal method has not changed much since the 1950s and a 2015 data shows that around 55% of the global plastic waste was discarded in landfills or the oceans, 25% was incinerated and only 20% was recycled
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Global Plastic Waste by Disposal, 1980 to 2015 (Source: Our World in Data)

  • With incineration also proving to be equally harmful for the environment, recycling of plastic waste seems to be the only solution to manage such huge amounts of plastic.

The global plastic waste disposal method has not changed much since the 1950s and a 2015 data shows that around 55% of the global plastic waste was discarded in landfills or the oceans, 25% was incinerated and only 20% was recycled

Conscious Consumers Leading the Way

The state of our planet has only gotten worse as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and pandemic or not, it seems like the situation will only get worse if steps are not taken towards its rectification.

It is not only the responsibility of the stakeholders, governments and private businesses to help save the planet but also the world’s citizens by changing their mindsets and everyday behaviors. This only happens when consumers are conscious of their actions, refuse any and every kind of plastic and make sure to recycle any plastic they use.

However, with that said, the plastic waste crisis cannot be solved by consumers alone. Proper waste disposal, waste segregation and recycling methods have to be established by governments and laws made have to be strictly implemented.

Only when each and every individual is working together towards a sustainable world, will there be a massive positive impact on the planet’s health.

Reported by Krishangi Jasani

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