Do we have a dirty city because we have a throwaway ethic, or is it because our government is not efficient enough to handle the waste generated by a fast-growing metropolis? It would appear to be a mix of both.
There is little doubt that a lot of waste could have fresh life in some other form and can be kept out of Chennai’s garbage bins, with sufficient commitment from citizens. As these columns have highlighted over several days now, mixing waste of different kinds and sending it to the dump sites where it is mostly burnt only creates problems for suburban residents.
Toxic fumes are released into the air, and a lot of harmful chemicals leach into the groundwater, while the area used to dump mountains of trash is constantly growing.
Modifying the ‘use and throw’ culture through a massive city campaign could cut a lot of the trash. But the growth of the petrochemical industry and the availability of cheap plastics have dulled the conscience of consumers, and removed the incentive to carry their own bags. Excessive packaging, much of it plastic, is also increasing garbage by volumes.
It is worth mentioning here that according to Edward Humes, the author of “Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash,” 92 per cent of Americans have potentially harmful plastic chemicals in their urine. If plastic rules the lives of Indians, and there is no effort to reduce its entry into environmental streams, health impacts may be a cause for worry here too.
Since it is flimsy plastic bags with little recycling value that clog the City, the answer to this free-floating problem would be to enhance the price of bags in shops, under the rules that the Ministry of Environment and Forests already has in place.
Charge high price for plastic bags
At present, the price charged by a minority of establishments is a pittance. If consumers had to pay a high price for something that they always got free or nearly free, the rational response would be to bring their own bags. The more environmentally-conscious establishments could provide customers with cloth bags emblazoned with their colourful logos and names, and thus be assured of free advertising for months. Ireland, Humes says in his book, was particularly successful with costly plastic bags, and after some time, people carting their stuff in a plastic tote were seen as committing a ‘social gaffe.’
Like the India story, the pricing was initially resisted in Ireland by stores acting as proxies for industry, but the many social benefits of going ‘plastics-free’ including lower costs to consumers finally won.
To arrive at such a point, the Government of Tamil Nadu and the citizen would have to mount a massive mobilisation campaign, involving schools, colleges, the media and big names in trade and industry, the latter publicly ranked on compliance.
Cutting the amount of wet waste — which mars the ‘clean city’ goal — calls for a fertile idea: decentralised composting. Several hundred converted residents practice it even now, but in a dense metropolis, chock-a-block with apartments and slums, it remains a challenge.
The Corporation of Chennai and its concessionaire in some zones, Ramky Enviro, must be compelled to create systems to compost organic waste, and sell compost back to the public in parks and corporation offices as proof of their work.
If the compost is not on sale, it would mean the system is not in place. The ‘tipping fee’ model of waste management of the Corporation involving massive contractual payments to transport mixed waste to monstrous landfills in Perungudi and Kodungaiyur, and possibly other future sites, does not sit well with the objective of a Clean Chennai.
Many citizens, of course, would fault the ‘trashy’ state of Chennai’s civic infrastructure for their own scepticism. If the Chennai Corporation, Highways and Public Works Departments can only provide muddy, dirty, and broken footpaths, debris-lined roads, and canals and waterways no better than sewers, would individual clean-up efforts add up to anything?
The answer depends on how far the civic body and the other agencies are willing to go to win over the sceptics.
Almost a century ago, Mahatma Gandhi wrote in Navjivan (Nov. 2, 1919) that there should be no ditches in which water can collect, and lead to malaria. He also stressed the importance of sanitation and cleanliness. Yet, most drain projects of the Corporation under way even today under the JNNURM scheme are nothing but massive ditches with stagnating water, left half done. They tempt the public to throw waste into them, since they already are receptacles of filth. The city suburbs are no different. Such failures do not absolve the careless consumerist.
Today, even less is too much. Buying things that last, and do not have much packaging, is wisdom. Composting is green. Reducing, reusing, recycling, and upcycling as a City Mission are the key.
My Chennai My Right, an inititative by The Hindu
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