Waste: Is It Merely A Matter Of Governance, Or Consumption, Or Just Litter?

by Shamili Mohanakannan

Most of us would have always wondered what that green recycling symbol with some weird numbering at the back of our milk packet is (you might want to look at your soy milk carton if you’re lactose intolerant). Or think about that one bamboo toothbrush brand that loves to call itself ‘sustainable’ (forget the bristles on their brushes and plastic covers on top), our toothpaste tubes, shower gels and cosmetic bottles (not to mention those exfoliating microbeads), those everyday tetra paks and sachets in our kitchen, that packed drink we’ve been bingeing on, those thin foils and styrofoam boxes that have our food covered, the fancy zero-waste running shoes, in fact, our online deliveries that come with never-ending plastic wrappers on it. You name it. 

The problem of plastic is often mistakenly thought to be addressed by ‘recycling’. However, while recycling is important, it only addresses a part of the problem. Only specific kinds of plastic are recyclable and the rest of the plastic ends up polluting our land, air and our oceans. Even though governments often recognize the massive problem that plastic waste poses, very little has been done to tackle the problem. Take, for instance, plastic carry bags. Plastic carry-bags fall under ‘Single-Use Plastics’ (called SUPs) which have had a national ban on them since July 2022, including straws, plastic cutleries, candy sticks and 17 other SUP products. How effective this ban is in reality is visibly questionable, though. The beaches in the Palk Bay area have colourful plastic bags and other single-use plastics strewn around everywhere. The market is flooded with single-use plastics of all kinds and there is hardly any restriction on the supply. Where does one really start the work?

I have been connected to this topic for quite some time now since I began my Dakshin chapter here at Palk Bay in Ramanathapuram district. A part of Dakshin’s work in the Palk Bay area focuses on the  ‘plastics and communities’ component that aims to understand the problem of marine plastics at four select project sites.  Most of the work on waste, including plastic waste, falls in the category of ‘waste management’, i.e. ensuring collection, segregation, recycling and dumping of waste.  But plastic needs an engagement beyond management. We have begun to examine the governance aspects of plastic waste. As a first step, the Palk Bay team at Dakshin, mapped out the different stakeholders involved in the plastic waste management chain – the recyclers or scrap shops at the village and district levels. We also mapped out the land-based waste hotspots (areas that have high loads of plastic pollution) in the four villages. Together, these maps highlight the pressing need for strengthening communities’ and stakeholders’ participation, capacities and skills with regard to addressing issues of plastic waste. The next step is to map out the role of local governance bodies with respect to solid and plastic waste management. We strongly believe that these maps and this process will in time help us identify areas of concern and key points of engagement to address some aspects of marine plastic pollution from land-based sources. 

Over the last few months, as I have begun to unpack and engage more closely with issues and impacts of marine plastic pollution, the journey also has been a personal one.  As I began learning about plastics and waste, and the politics around waste, every aspect of my everyday routine has been a moment for reflection and thinking. I look at how much waste an individual can generate and how inevitable plastic has become in all our lives. Mostly not by choice, but by compulsion. Also, those three chasing arrows in our plastic product that I spoke about in the opening statement represent recycling and the numbering represents the grade of plastic it falls under. This grading can be anywhere from 1 to 7, where each number stands for different grades of plastic, for example, 1 stands for PolyEthylene Terephthalate (i.e. PET bottles); 2 stands for High-Density PolyEthylene and goes on to 7. This is for recyclers and people who handle waste to segregate each grade and process them separately. And who gets to handle waste and live next to waste is another question.

I’m sure we all remember those days when our grandparents carried jute bags and shopping baskets when they stepped out for groceries; had glass bottles to refill milk from societies; and had the privilege to buy farm fresh veggies from a weekly farmer’s market with little to no packaging at all. How rare I feel this sight has become, in the name of convenience. Instead of buying that idea of ‘recycling’ have I ever thought of ‘refilling’ that bottle of shower gel? Well, I did. But do I have an option? Not at the moment. I’m wondering what options we have here as consumers. Even if the alternatives make sense, how affordable are they for all classes of people? Apart from what the Ministry lists as ‘Single-Use Plastics’, almost all the fast-moving consumer goods that we use on a daily basis come with a packaging that can be used only once and has no end-of-life. Can we argue here claiming that the producers produce not just the product but also loads of waste in the form of packaging and aren’t held accountable for their actions? Because years of industry lobbying and greenwashing have led us to believe that ‘recycling’ is an easy idea, and that it is okay to want more. Is waste merely a matter of governance, consumption, or just litter? At this point, I’m only attempting to gain a solid understanding of the problem, from a governance and socio-political angle. But clearly, I am against putting this guilt on consumers as we fall for consumption not by choice but by compulsion. Any answer here will be subjective and mine is a work in progress.