January 11, 2002 -- At a time when Indian cities and the rural countryside are reeling under a plastic waste crisis, official import data indicates that India has been a favoured dumping ground for plastic wastes, mostly from industrialized countries like Canada, Denmark, Germany, UK, the Netherlands, Japan, France and the United States. According to the Government of India import data, more than 59,000 tons and 61,000 tons of plastic wastes have found their way into India in the years 1999 and 2000 respectively. (Source: Statistics of Foreign Trade of India. March 2000 and March 2001. DGFT, GoI).
The imports included wastes of highly toxic plastics such as PVC (poly vinyl chloride), exported primarily from United States, Taiwan, the Netherlands, Japan, France, UK and Belgium. The data was compiled by NoPE (No Plastics in the Environment), a growing coalition of voluntary organizations from around the country that advocates a reduction in the use of plastics rather than indiscriminate disposal or recycling in toxic and unhealthy conditions which endanger both public health and the worker's right to a clean environment.
The expose on plastic waste dumping in India takes on a serious tone in the context of the soon-to-be concluded Ranganath Mishra Committee. The Ministry of Environment and Forests, represented by Dr. Indrani Chandrasekharan, has barred the participation of public interest groups, trade unions, ragpicker associations and environmentalists in the committee, which is deliberating on issues impacting on public health, worker safety and the environment. Ironically, apart from government officials, the only other organisation allowed consistent access to the Committee's decision-making is the Indian Centre for Plastics and Environment, an organization set up by the plastics industry and funded by Reliance, India's largest plastics manufacturer.
''The Ministry of Environment has clearly succumbed to the pressure of the powerful plastics industry lobby. Asking the plastics industry to deal with the problem of plastics is like asking a drug peddler to help set up de-addiction centers,'' NoPE observed.
From the experience of a few groups allowed to make brief and limited interventions before the committee, NoPE learns that the discussions in the Committee are reported to be heading merely towards greatly enhanced public relations efforts aimed at cleaning up the plastics industry's image. Reports also indicate that the Ministry of Environment and the ICPE are advocating the incineration of plastics -- a dangerous recommendation given that incinerators
pollute the environment with highly toxic substances like heavy metals, dioxins and furans. The latter two are the most toxic chemicals known to humans and can cause a variety of serious health problems including damage to the reproductive system, the immune system and cancer.
Rather than seek ways to phase out the recycling of toxic plastics and promoting safe recycling, the ICPE is allegedly promoting cosmetic changes to an otherwise "business as usual" approach to the hazardous work conditions faced by workers in the recycling units and ragpickers.
''In an easy swoop, the Ministry of Environment has done away with transparency, public participation and the principle of Polluter Pays, all upheld by the Supreme Court. It is ironical that the agency set up to protect the environment is championing incineration -- one of the most notorious sources of pollution as well as uncontrolled consumption -- while policies all over the world are aimed at reducing waste'' NoPE said.
NoPE has called for an immediate ban on the imports of plastic wastes, and recommends a comprehensive mechanism for dealing with the plastics problems based on:
Transparency and Public Participation: The Ranganath Mishra Committee should end its closed-door negotiations with the polluter, namely the plastics industry, and restart the policy discussions with broad-based public participation.
The principle of Polluter Pays must be enforced- the plastics industry and bulk plastics users like Pepsi, Coca Cola and Bisleri, should be held responsible for the retrieval and safe processing or disposal of plastic wastes.
Plastics Use Reduction: Phase out the use of plastics from non-priority areas such as carry bags, short-life packaging; restrict the use of plastics to select priority areas.
Revisit recycling: Recycling is not always green. Most plastics can only be downcycled into lower-quality products that often have higher and more leachable levels of toxic additives. In India, recycling facilities are operated by migrant and unprotected workers including a large number of children. Recycling, where possible, should be done in state-of-the-art facilities with full regard given to worker and environmental safety.
Phase out toxic plastics like poly vinyl chloride (PVC) and the use of toxic additives such as cancer-causing phthalates, and poisonous heavy metals in other plastics.
Plastics are inherently unsustainable, coming as they do from non-renewable petroleum sources. From cradle to grave, plastics are implicated in a variety of problems, including environmental pollution and worker health hazards during manufacture, processing and disposal; toxic exposure to consumers during use; cattle and wildlife deaths due to ingestion of plastic wastes.
NoPE is a nationwide coalition aimed at holding the plastics industry
responsible for the damage caused by plastics. Members include DISHA
(Kolkata), Kalpvriksh (Pune), Mumbai Medwaste Action Group, Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti (Vadodara and Gandhinagar), Thanal (Thiruvananthapuram), Samvada (Bangalore), BGIA(Bhopal), Forum for a Better Hyderabad (Hyderabad), Samata (Hyderabad and Vizag), Chintan (New Delhi), Wildlife Trust of India, Centre for Environmental Education (CEE), Kriti (New Delhi), NOW (New Opportunities for Women), Delhi Bird Club and Youth Reach (New Delhi)
Simultaneously released from Kolkata, New Delhi, Vadodara, Gandhinagar, Mumbai, Thiruvananthapuram, Chennai, Bangalore, Pune, Bhopal, Visakhapatnam and Hyderabad