Waste collection in India would be much more difficult were it not for the informal sector: an army of independent garbage collectors who collect plastic waste and resell it to recyclers. Waste hunters, people digging for waste in landfills or on the streets, also help reduce the plastic mountain of waste to some extent.
This sector is probably made up of about one and a half million people, and they are responsible for the fact that you see relatively few bottles on the streets of India: those are the reusable plastics that are produced the most. Plastic waste accounts for half of waste seekers’ income, and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles again make up half of the total plastic collected, says Bharat Chaturvedi. He is the director of Chintan, a nonprofit organization that helps waste researchers.
The fact that so much plastic is recycled in India, an estimated 60 per cent, is largely due to the informal sector. (By comparison, less than 40 percent of plastic is recycled in the Netherlands.) But non-recyclable waste doesn’t make any money, so bags, food packaging, bags and other household waste are left on the street. Then they end up as litter in the Ganges.
In October 2021, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the second phase of the Clean India campaign. The first phase consisted of installing about 90 million toilets across the country to prevent people from defecating outside, which is still happening on a large scale in India. The next step is to make cities litter-free. The Modi government is committed to building incinerators where waste is converted into energy. A comprehensive ban on the production of single-use plastics has also been announced, which is set to come into effect in July 2022. The new law aims to reduce the use of plastic bags, foam trays, cutlery, cups, plates, straws, candy sticks and ice cream , and other single-use plastics.
The gap between ambitious national legislation on the one hand and its implementation by states and municipalities on the other hand is large in India. Robin Jeffrey says the current federal waste legislation is “absolutely cool, and it covers everything you could wish for.” Together with Asa Doron, he authored the book Waste of a Nation, which examines the waste problem in India. “Just no one can follow these rules at all.” India has been trying for forty years to reduce the discharge of sewage and factory waste into the Ganges, but so far without success.
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