Plastic is slowly but surely choking Chennai’s waterways. Floating on rivers, clogging drains, forming an impermeable film over lakes, choking fish and killing animals that drink from them.
Stormwater drains, so crucial during the monsoon for the discharge of rainwater, are clogged with the plastic that many commercial establishments dump in them. Illegal sewer inlets into rivers and unofficial drains are chock-full with muck and plastic, including food wrappers, cups, covers and packaged water bottles.
Plastics and packaging materials now form 7% of municipal solid waste. The absence of source segregation, inadequate street sweeping and timely removal of garbage from bins have led to this sorry state of affairs.
Residents along canals have also been dumping plastic waste in the waterways. MGR Canal in K.K. Nagar is one such example. According to official estimates, residents dump around 10 tonnes of plastic waste every day into the canal that connects Rajamannar Salai and Adyar River. Dumping of plastic waste in the Ekangipuram Canal near Perambur Railway Station has also been a challenge for civic agencies. “More than 30% of the waste in stormwater drains is plastic,” said an official.
Disaster management expert N. Mathavan said clogging of stormwater drains with plastic waste is the principal reason for waterlogging on the 471 bus route roads during the monsoon. “One clear example is the stagnation on Broadway, caused entirely by clogged stormwater drains,” he pointed out.
Waterbodies in and around the city haven’t been spared. Over the last two decades, they have turned into dumping yards for trash, said Environmentalist Foundation of India’s Arun Krishnamurthy. “There is all kinds of trash, ranging from polythene wrappers, footwear, discarded plastic furniture to celebratory streamers. Ninety percent of the trash is usually plastic and non-degradable polymers,” he said.
There is also the larger problem of leachates into waterbodies from the dumped trash. The quality of water and soil is negatively impacted, leading to health hazards. It also makes the water unusable, leading to increasing numbers of people buying water from external sources than tapping into a source close by, added Mr. Krishnamurthy.
Over a period of time, the waterbody is damaged beyond repair. Plastics covering the top of the waterbody lead to the death of the waterbody itself.
According to ecologist Sultan Ahmed Ismail, when dissolved oxygen levels fall, the hypoxic condition leads to aquatic plants and fish dying, with the waterbody taking on the traits of a sewer, and emitting stench.
What are the solutions? Dr. Ismail’s prescription is to reduce the use of single-use plastics, combined with a judicious use of all plastics. “Our society used to utilise dhonnais (cups made of dry leaves) and banana leaves for packing. What needs to be put in place is a proper system to collect and recycle plastics,” he said.
The Tamil Nadu Plastics Manufacturers Association, on its part, has been campaigning for a law to include packaging in the recycling ecosystem. Former president of the association, B. Swaminthan, said that of the 7% of plastics that goes into landfills and waterbodies, only about 1% is one-time use plastic bags. “The rest is all your biscuit and chocolate wrappers, cosmetic tubes, sachets in which oil and shampoo are packed... The plastic industry is ready to work with the government to run a recycling facility. What we need is land and a system of collection,” he added.