Call for Entries: Swachh Bharat

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By Kashvi Shah, Class 7, Met Risikul Vidyalaya, Mumbai

For most people, the guilt of using plastic is very easily removed. They believe that throwing a plastic container or bottle in a bin showing the three-arrowed recycle symbol and demarcated as "recycling,” is enough. But doing just that is akin to eating half a gulab jamun and feeling like your diet is intact. Recycling is a very complicated process—something that goes beyond the average person’s comprehension. It has variables such as market demand, price determinations, local regulations, the success of which is contingent upon everyone, from the product-designer, to the trash-thrower, to the waste collector, to the recycling factory worker. However, the most critical role lies with the average person—the consumer. The products we use and the state we throw them away in, determines what the recycled plastic is valued as. Our economy is absolutely capitalist in nature, and while there are stellar programs such as Prime Minister Modi’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the primary impetus to recycle plastics will stem from the private sector. Without there being a market for recycled products, even if we place them in recycled bins, it will be pointless. The government does play an integral part in mobilizing the private sector to recycle. They can make recycling plastics lucrative enough for private players through the expansion of their schemes. If under the Swacch Bharat Abhiyan, our government provided subsidy and investment support—this would go a long way in encouraging private players to use recycled plastic products and create recycling plants. Once the price of purchasing a new piece of plastic is equal to the price of paying someone’s salary to sort, manage and recycle used plastic, we will automatically stop manufacturing more plastic. We are addicted to plastic as a society. From the food with eat to the clothes we wear, plastic is a household staple. Some scientists estimate it takes between 450-1000 years to decompose, some also argue that it may never decompose. So before thinking of how to recycle plastic in the most productive way, it is important to understand the nature of the material. In terms of collection, once the government has specific bins for recycling (just as America and the west has)—that will merely be the first step. Educating our public on how to use those bins is going to be much more important. There are multiple different kinds of plastics—and the collection, sorting and recycling of each of these plastics is different. There is dirty plastic—this includes any plastic material with food residues on (or in) it. None of these plastics can be recycled (unless you wash them). Non-dirty plastic is categorized on the basis of the temperature at which the material has been heated, and is numbered from #1 to #7. #1 is PET, ex: water bottles, these have the highest recycling value but we need to keep them out of the sun to prevent toxins leaking into the container. #7 (OTHER) is the catchall category: it includes non-recyclables and corn-based plastics (PLA). But these have negative health effects because some of them have carcinogens and other harmful toxins in them. For these reasons, most experts agree that you should stay away from #3 PVC (often found in pipes) and #6 PS (Styrofoam, often used as food/drink containers). If we as a public become cognizant of all the different types of plastic, it will be the first step towards ensuring the appropriate recycling of the plastics. It is estimated that since the 1950s, we have globally manufactured almost nine billion tonnes of plastic. Almost 90% of this has been discarded in the ocean and led to the creation of horrendous phenomena like the Pacific Garbage Patch. This threatens ocean life and leads to the filling of tens of thousands of landfill sites all over the world. Furthermore, according to the Plastic Pollution Coalition, an estimated 17 million barrels of oil a year are used to make new plastic and most of it is sadly thrown away after just one use. Luckily our local government has taken bold measures to reduce this by banning single use plastic such as bags and straws. We need to make this ban stricter and ensure that there is no plastic that cannot be recycled—by virtue of this there will be no plastic that goes to the oceans and landfills. We can however take this one step further. If we need to use energy and natural resources to create plastic, maybe we can recycle plastic to get back some energy and natural resources! India today generates over 15,000 tonnes of plastic. So the prospects of converting that plastic to fuel are very high provided there is sufficient infrastructure available. Countries like Japan, Germany and the United States have already found significant success in converting plastic to fuel. India has been more successful than these countries in recycling PET plastic waste to textiles. Dr Magesh Nandgopal, scientist from NCL’s (National Chemical Laboratory) polymer science and engineering division believes that India is on the right track to recycling plastic well. The entire Indian cricket team’s apparel for the 2015 world cup was made from recycled PET bottles. Even their current jersey is made from this material. But while we are achieving significant progress in converting plastic to textiles, our next goal should be focusing on getting fuel from plastic. "The fuel obtained from conversion of plastic is completely environmentally friendly due to absence of any toxic substances. Apart from producing petroleum and diesel, this technology will also ensure that urban and semi-urban areas become plastic free, as instead of disposing plastics as waste, they can be converted to fuel,” said Dr. Anjan Ray, Director, CSIR-Indian Institute of Petroleum. 1 kg of plastic can be converted into 750 ml of automotive grade gasoline and many states are already capitalizing on that fact. Goa and Andhra Pradesh already have some private plants that are producing fuel from plastic but the government needs to set up more incentives to encourage more of these plants to be set up. The environment is in tatters today. And plastics and human consumption play a big part in that. Once we become (i) more educated on the different types of plastic; (ii) ban single-use plastic pan India; (iii) create more recycling units through governmental help; (iv) try converting plastic to fuel—then we truly have hope for the future. But the first step starts with us. We need to know plastic better and then use and recycle it accordingly. Lets become more aware and more active and ask the government as responsible citizens to put more focus and funds in this field then we will have not only a Swacch Bharat but a Sustainable Bharat!

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Kashvi Shah Met Risikul Vidyalaya