The River of Plastic: Not a Faraway Story, Coming Soon to a Water Body Near You

If dumping of untreated garbage continues at the present rate, India will by 2050 need 88 square kilometres of land -- an area almost as big as New Delhi -- for landfills, according to a 2017 study by Assocham and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Lucknow

As the riverside cafe owner watched stunned, a small river that supplies drinking water to the two biggest cities of Himachal Pradesh -- the capital, Shimla, and Solan -- raged down the hill. But this year, it had something else flowing in it.

Hundreds of kilograms of plastic. Bags. Bottles. Garbage. The river -- known for its pure water -- had become an almost solid mass of garbage.

Two weeks later, 1,700 kilometres to the southwest at Mumbai's iconic Marine Drive, residents woke up on July 14 to witness an unprecedented sight: the Arabian Sea high tide had spat out 12 tonnes of garbage onto the Queen's Necklace, the posh south Mumbai promenade where some of India's richest live and work.

The two videos -- that travelled through thousands of phones across the world -- are an urgent reminder of the crisis of plastic pollution in waters around the world. Videos of the seabed plastered with thousands of kilogrammes of plastic waste and choking and dying whales, dolphins, turtles and other sea animals have become commonplace.

But the crisis is no longer far away -- it is a reality for millions of Indian citizens.

If dumping of untreated garbage continues at the present rate, India will by 2050 need 88 square kilometres of land -- an area almost as big as New Delhi -- for landfills, according to a 2017 study by Assocham and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

For Mumbai resident Alka Sharma, a bureaucrat who recently moved there from New Delhi, the sight of the garbage-splattered Marine Drive came as a shocker.

"I have recently moved to Mumbai and for me, Marine Drive is a haven. Sitting in the office all day, I look forward to going there for a walk every evening. But that day, I was driving past in the early morning and was totally shocked," she told Gaon Connection by telephone.

"For a while, I could just not figure out what had happened. There was garbage till the middle of the road."



In Himachal Pradesh, Sharma's Xanadu Cafe is about four kilometres from the Salogra garbage dump. Like almost all the garbage dumps in Himachal Pradesh and most Indian urban hubs, even this one is overflowing.

The Ashwani Khad rivulet is also one of the sources of drinking water for Shimla and Solan. In 2016, a jaundice epidemic in Shimla and Sanjauli was traced back to contamination of this same rivulet from untreated sewage leaking from a sewage treatment plant. At least 10 people were reported dead.

"It was not even raining when this flood of garbage came upon us," said Abhay Sharma, a resident of Meri Village in Solan district, who on July 2 shot the video of the Ashwani Khad, a rivulet in Solan district of Himachal Pradesh.

"This garbage kept coming down the river for more than two and a half hours," Sharma told Gaon Connection by telephone from his Xanadu Cafe in Meri Village in the Solan district. "This is not the first time that I saw this kind of a flood of garbage. The first time it happened was in June. At that time I was totally unprepared. But when it happened again, I had my camera ready."

India's garbage problem is spiralling out of control. The country produces more than 62 million tonnes of garbage produced every year; of this 5.6 million tonnes of plastic waste is produced annually.

In all, India produces 43 million tonnes of solid waste every year. Of this only 22 per cent is treated, the rest 31 million tonnes is dumped.

Overflowing Garbage Dumps

"There is no more land in Himachal Pradesh for garbage. Village panchayats are refusing to give any land near their villages for garbage dumps," Pradeep Sangwan, founder of the Gurgaon-based Healing Himalayas Foundation, an NGO dedicated to finding a comprehensive solution to waste management, told Gaon Connection."So places like Manali and Kullu where the garbage dumps are already overflowing have no place else to expand."

Outside the tourist hub of Kullu in central Himachal Pradesh, the National Green Tribunal has directed that the Mahol garbage dump servicing Kullu and nearby areas be relocated.

"But they have not got land anywhere. So even now, they are taking the garbage from the city, but not from other areas," Sangwan said. "People are resorting to dumping directly in the rivers."



The Solution: Waste to Fuel

The government is taking some steps to manage the problem. Some of the garbage from Kullu is being sent to a cement factory in Barmana, where garbage is being converted to electricity at cement plants.

Manali, another Himachal tourist hub, has plans for a waste-to-electricity plant which is in the final stages. Shimla also has a 150 tonnes capacity waste-to-electricity plant made by Elephant Energy Limited, but it is reportedly running to half capacity.

"The problem with these waste to energy plants is their location. Getting the garbage from far off villages to Shimla, for instance, costs a lot," Sangwan said. "The Shimla Municipal Corporation ferries the garbage to the plant Bharyal free of cost. The company sells the power to the state for Rs 7.9 per unit. But only about 75 tonnes of garbage is reaching the plant. Ferrying garbage to the Barmana cement plant is also very expensive."

Think Small

The solution, says Pradeep Sangwan, lies in finding a more cost-effective answer.

"If we are going to expend more energy and money in transporting garbage to the waste-to-fuel plants, then it becomes counter-productive," he said.

"The solution lies in finding ways of creating smaller waste-to-fuel plants at the local level. If the plant is in the village, it will be less expensive to set up and almost free to run. It will provide employment to locals and it will give energy to the village," he suggests.

In Mumbai, Alka Sharma said the sight of garbage thrown back by the sea was a wake-up call.

"If you use the sea as a trash can, it is all going to come right back to you," she said.

India's garbage Problem

62 million tonnes of garbage produced every year; of this 5.6 million tonne of plastic waste every year

43 million tonnes of solid waste every year; of this only 22% treated, rest 31 million tonnes is dumped

MUMBAI's garbage

3 landfill sites in Mumbai to manage 9,600 tonnes of garbage daily

Deonar has garbage mountains as high as 6 storey-buildings

Mulund is spread over 25 acres and also full to capacity

NEW DELHI

9,000 tonnes of garbage daily goes to Ghazipur, Okhla and Bhalaswa

Ghazipur has over 12 million tonnes of garbage spread over 70 acres; the garbage mountain is 50 feet high

The FUTURE

If dumping of untreated garbage continues at the present rate, India will by 2050 need 88 square kilometres of land -- an area almost as big as New Delhi -- for landfills, according to a 2017 study by Assocham and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Waste to Energy

2,200 waste to energy plants in the world

445 in EU

150 in China

86 in the US

8 in India



Also Read:Water scarcity in Shimla: A series of unfortunate events

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