“Thank God men cannot as yet fly, and lay waste the sky as well as the earth”, pondered Henry David Thoreau couple of centuries earlier, obviously consoling himself, at the same time bemoaning, the rapidly accelerating imprint of industrialization and burgeoning levels of pollution.
Mankind has since been not only flying high up the skies and between far-flung lands but the Elon Musk among them is also eyeing possibilities of colonizing outer space through inter-planetary travels, probably compelled by need to seek an exit option from steadily mounting volumes of inorganic waste and filth threatening to devour life on earth, as startlingly exposed by a recent spectacle, which may be an alarmingly recurring event at various regions around the world, of a dead elephant floating across the Pamba River. The post-mortem report attributed the death to indigestion caused by ingestion of plastic along with food as evidenced by significant traces of plastic found in the pachyderm’s alimentary canal. Located in the south Indian state of Kerala, Pamba is the third longest river in the state. The hill shrine of Sabarimala, to where there is heavy influx of pilgrims, is located at the banks of the river. The area surrounding the hill shrine is densely forested and teeming with wild life. Fortunately, the peak flow of pilgrims happens mostly during a sixty day period stretching from mid November to mid January every year. The numbers of pilgrims, however, keep rising every season disturbing the wild animals and polluting the environment with empty food cans, plastic bottles and other debris readily picked up by wild animals for traces of food. Forest conservators and veterinarians inspecting elephant trails post the pilgrim season discovered to their horror pieces of plastic, toffee-wrappers and more from samples of elephant dung drawn from sites alongside trails. The elephants, it is inferred, cannot distinguish between plastic and foodstuffs, tempted as they appear to be by the sugary and tangy taste of food residues inside left-over cans and bottles,
How to diverge from the disastrous path to which humanity seems to be headed? “If it can’t be reduced, reused, repaired, rebuilt, refurbished, refinished, resold, recycled or composted, then it should be restricted, redesigned or removed from production” was how in the last century folk singer Pete Seeger envisioned the eco system to be sustained for the future. The spectre of countries submerging under mountains of plastic and life altogether extinguishing may no longer be in the realm of fantasy. It is extremely difficult to move around towns and cities in India, where management of waste is one of the worst anywhere in the world, without encountering humungous quantities of rubbish piled up. There is garbage billowing out of fields in the villages, on the forest floor, and in the beaches, where one’s toes are tickled by strands of plastic. Not too late in the day is the governmental mission of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan or Clean India Mission, a campaign aiming to clean up the streets, water bodies and environs of the country’s urban and rural areas. Not too late in the day too is the central government’s project to clean the Ganga that provides water to forty percent of the country’s population, and for a phased conversion of public transport from diesel to electric vehicles. Yet there is little determination to promptly implement relative policies or follow through on performance targets. Also, the government machinery is too often seen as buckling under pressure of vested interests and lacking in political will to mete out deterrent punishments to offenders.
Clearly, an effective solution to a problem of gigantic proportions cannot work without efforts on war footing from all stakeholders, of which the statutory agencies are just one. Additionally there is the general public or the consumers of goods and services, and the producers or the industry churning out goods and services to cater to the need and, nay. greed of people. When we think of waste stream management, we often think compartmentally of downstream or upstream solutions. Citizens must consume less with focus on eco-friendly products. Waste must be segregated at source and organic waste to be compulsorily composted at source. Going upstream, producers have to mandatorily switch to reusable packing like glass bottles replacing plastic. For far too long, private enterprises have been allowed to appropriate profits arising from an expanding economy and socialize the cost of coping with the waste generated. The fortune at the bottom of the pyramid in the form of mass production of FMCGs and ensuing profits has apparently been realized by many well established companies but the people at the bottom of the pyramid have been left in the lurch to grapple with detritus of that fortune.
It is high time for industry to take its social responsibility with greater seriousness as otherwise things are bound to spiral out of control. With India going digital, there is a massive and potentially hazardous e-waste generation. Even though recycling helps to harvest valuable metals from e-waste, it does not solve the problem as the residual waste is highly toxic if it is allowed to leach into the ground and water bodies. E-commerce, the other sunrise sector in India, is expected to register quantum leaps in volumes, set to grow from current usd 16 Bn to usd 200 Bn by 2026. The generation of huge amount of plastic and other packing materials that the sector is set to consume may further exacerbate an already worsening scenario. Imagine a geometrically scaling up situation with increasing consumption of a growing population; every available stretch of land and water will see rising levels of styrofoam, plastic, cardboard and metal resulting in endangered public health and environmental hazards. Global production of plastic has gone up from 1.5 million metric tons (MMT) a year in 1950 to 300 MMT per annum at present, and only 14% of such plastic is recycled. In India, more than 15000 tonnes of plastic is generated every day, a third of which remains uncollected; where the missing plastic ends up is anyone’s guess.
The only real solution is for the corporate sector to join hands with governments as producer-regulator, to control and enforce strict norms on the consumer. The need is to shift to a production and consumption protocol that is smart, innovative, and sustainable based on efficiencies across the entire life cycle of the product. The shift must focus on reducing, if not eliminating, the use of plastics, particularly single-use, wherever practical, contributing to reduction and conversion of waste to energy through aerobic and anaerobic digestion. The “clean and green Madukkarai” is an illustrative example of corporate social responsibility under the laudable initiative of ACC, the largest cement company in India, partnering in the management and recycling of waste in Madukkarai, a south Indian city suburb; the place is in the Guinness Book of World Records for the world’s largest largest recycling initiative. With the help of around 50 women, who are now called ‘Green Friends’, and a simple, scalable model, it is leading the way for efficient waste management. Next, the focus must be on redesigning products and developing alternatives. Recycling and recovery of plastics for reuse by the industry and as raw material in sectors such as construction will considerably reduce plastic waste.
Sooner or later, we will have to recognize that the Earth has rights, too, to live without pollution. What mankind must know is that human beings cannot live without Mother Earth, but the planet can live without humans. One of my early glimpses of an urbanizing society, sadly seeing increasing realization in the present and boding ill for the future, was the modernizing Eliotian world-view where civilization has been reduced to a ‘waste land’, with the land losing its fertility and ability to bring forth life, with even the living apparently suffering from some kind of spiritual wound. But how can we fix such societies? By regaining spiritual and psychological enlightenment and making peace with our demons. There is a need for deep self-realization, that we have an organic relationship with nature, duly acknowledging that human beings have an eloquent bond with all of creation. Rumi’s verse gives it lyrical expression: “Be like the sun for grace and mercy. / Be like the night to cover others’ faults. / Be like running water for generosity. / Be like death for rage and anger. / Be like the Earth for modesty. / Appear as you are. / Be as you appear”.