India produces 15 million tonnes of plastic waste annually, and most cities and towns in the country do not have the means to manage this. The lack of integrated solid waste management systems leads to numerous health and ecological crises. The burden of this issue falls on the Safai Saathis, or waste pickers, who collect and sort through waste daily. The job is dangerous and has little reward. Stepping in to tackle this issue is the United Nations Development Program’s Plastic Waste Management Programme. This project improves upon existing waste management systems to mitigate the dangerous effects of plastic waste in India. Before delving into the project, it is important to understand why plastics are so harmful in the first place.
Why Are Plastics so Harmful?
First, there is enough plastic waste on this planet to cover it four times over. Plastic waste can be found from the deepest depths of the ocean all the way to the clouds in the form of air pollution. There are even microplastics in people that come from food and water. Plastic waste build-up clogs sewage systems, thereby polluting rivers, groundwater resources and the air.
There are numerous implications of plastic waste in India. The waste harms animals who ingest or entangle themselves in it. The carcinogenic chemicals found in plastic can cause severe issues for human health, such as hormonal or genetic disorders, interference with the endocrine system and damage to reproductive health. Land pollution is yet another consequence of plastic waste. The plastics leach hazardous chemicals into the land, which destroys its capacity to support life.
More than this, plastic waste never actually goes away, and 95% of that waste does not get recycled. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, almost every piece of plastic ever made is still on Earth today. This is why it is mandatory to have waste management systems that can recycle old plastic and manufacture new things out of it. In other words, plastic waste is the ideal candidate for a circular economy.
UNDP Plastic Waste Management Programme
The work of this project can greatly aid in the fight against plastic waste in India. The main objective of the project is to establish a sustainable, community-led approach to efficient recycling. The initiative operates in 20 cities throughout India with 22 Swachhta Kendras (material recovery centers). It is designed to lower the devastating impacts on environmental and human health through the enhancement of sustainable plastic waste management practices.
According to the UNDP, the four main components of this project are to:
- “Create a socio-technical model for taking plastic waste management from informal to formal economy.
- Establish Material Recovery Centres for sustained practices in waste management.
- Institutionalize Swachhta Kendras within governance framework structures and improved socioeconomic conditions of waste pickers.
- Develop technology-supported knowledge management: Promote Cloud-based traceability, accountability and digital governance along waste value chain through our technical partner Mindtree through field implementing partners.”
According to a source from UNDP India, the greatest challenges to this program lie within the general lack of awareness by citizens of the threats related to handling plastic waste in India. For example, better waste management programs and access to education can prevent deadly practices like burning plastic waste and open dumping in channels and gutters. This project enhances methods of material recovery, separation and recycling. In addition, it also creates jobs, addresses better social security measures and positively impacts the livelihoods of waste pickers.
One of the most profound outcomes of this ongoing project is the initiative to improve the standards of living of Safai Saathis. Before the UNDP stepped in, waste pickers worked without the use of any safety equipment. Exposure to so much waste puts their health at risk. Because of the UNDP Waste Management Programme, the lives of many Safai Saathis strengthen in safety and social security.
Safai Saathis are deprived of social benefits and stuck in an abusive system. A great emphasis of the UNDP’s work is to ensure their dignity and social inclusion, as well as to increase their access to health care and self-help groups. As a result of the help of the UNDP, many have seen an increase in income. The workers also experience social upliftment from opening bank accounts and improved working conditions.
The fight against plastic waste in India is multifaceted and constantly progressing. Circular innovations like this Waste Management Programme turn unfathomable amounts of waste into new and useful materials, empowers communities and protect the health and safety of everyone in India.
– Rochelle Gluzman