Plastic Wastes — Rural India's Trash Bomb

Plastic waste generation is on the rise in the country but there is no separate data on the quantity of such waste generation in rural India. Single-use plastics have invaded the villages where there are no waste management systems in place. For instance, in West Bengal, Assam, Punjab and Bihar, the percentage of villages that have mechanisms to manage solid waste are 0.82%, 1.08%, 1.67% and 1.97%, respectively.

Manvendra SinghManvendra Singh   8 Dec 2022 6:11 AM GMT

Plastic Wastes — Rural Indias Trash Bomb

The waste collection and management system is almost non-existent in rural areas of the country. 

Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh

Polythene bags, plastic cups and plates, and wrappers of biscuits and wafers choke the Allupur village nallah that was once a source of potable water for its inhabitants.

"Before handpumps came into our village, this is where we got our drinking water from. Today we cannot even stand near the filthy drain," complained Giridhari, a resident of the village.

"There is neither any dustbin nor any arrangement by the government to handle the plastic kachra [waste], which is fast growing in our village," he told Gaon Connection. Allupur village lies 40 kilometres away from Uttar Pradesh's capital, Lucknow.

It is no different in Chincholi village in Maharashtra's Osmanabad district.

"Every village has a natural flow of water which leads towards the pond. In the absence of a proper waste management system, when people just dump polythene bags and wrappers and it rains, the wastes travel down to the pond," Ashok Pawar, a resident of Chincholi, told Gaon Connection.

India has about 600,000 villages. With the growth of the packaged and processed food industry in the country, ready-to-eat food items such as instant noodles, biscuits and chips, and sachets of shampoos, hair oils and creams, have made inroads into rural India.

Rural markets, which contribute about 35 per cent of the total FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) sales in the country, have seen a rise in the consumption of packaged foods, which are usually packaged in plastic. And, it is alarming to note that about 70 per cent of these packaging end up as waste.

Rural weddings now rarely use biodegradable leaf-plates. Disposable styrofoam plates and plastic cups are more the norm, be it at a jaagran or a mundan ceremony.

The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) that is entrusted with the task of maintaining records for waste generation and management in the country, does not have a separate set of data for urban and rural India.

Consequently, hundreds of thousand villages are today pockmarked with dumps of mixed plastic waste, which either choke water bodies or degrade the farm lands. Every now and then there are news reports of good samaritans removing kilos and kilos of plastic waste from the stomachs of cattle.

The central government has been enacting legislation after legislation and putting in place bans to control single-use plastics, such as disposable foodware, plastic straws, polybags, etc. But none of these seems to curb plastic waste in rural India where it is growing in leaps and bounds.

Wither data on plastic waste in rural India?

According to a report in March 2019 by the Ministry of Housing & Urban Affairs, 26,000 tonnes per day (tpd) of plastic waste is generated in the country. Of this, 9,400 tpd remain uncollected and pollute streams and groundwater resources.

However, these plastic waste estimates are for the entire country (mostly urban India) and there is no separate data for rural India.

"There are huge gaps in the official reporting of waste generated from rural India," Naveen Arora, head of the Department of Environmental Sciences at the Lucknow-based Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University, told Gaon Connection.

Naveen Arora, head of the Department of Environmental Sciences at the Lucknow-based Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University, told Gaon Connection.

"Most of the small factories in rural areas that produce polythene, wrappers of snacks, and plastic bags are rarely covered by the government's estimation or data on the plastic waste generation. The plastic produced by these units when dumped reaches agricultural fields and small water bodies wreaking havoc on the environment," he pointed out.

The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) that is entrusted with the task of maintaining records for waste generation and management in the country, does not have a separate set of data for urban and rural India. Everything is put together state-wise.

As per the Annual Report 2019-20 on Implementation of Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016, published by the CPCB, Maharashtra contributes the highest percentage of plastic waste in India with its share being 13 per cent followed by Tamil Nadu and Gujarat tied at second spot with 12 per cent (see pie chart).


When Gaon Connection approached the office of Uttar Pradesh State Pollution Control Board [SPCB] in Lucknow, officials declined to comment on record on the lack of plastic waste generation in rural areas.

"We don't collect the waste generation data ourselves. There's no staff to bring the data directly from the field. We only collate data sent by local municipal bodies. There's no differentiated data maintained for rural areas specifically," an official said on condition of anonymity.

"There is no official data which keeps track of the waste generation in the rural areas separately. Unless that is known in quantitative terms, it is impossible for the government to come up with an appropriate response," Naveen Arora, the environment science professor, said.

Plastic waste management in rural India

"I cannot imagine life without plastics," Kallu, a 26-year-old resident from Bodhadiya village in Lucknow district told Gaon Connection. "Plastic products are being used widely here but I wish somebody from the administration comes to collect the daily waste. That's the only solution I can think of," he said.

But, the waste collection and management system is almost non-existent in rural areas of the country.

This is reflected in the data maintained by the Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation. As of December 7 this year, in Manipur, West Bengal and Assam, the percentage of villages which have mechanisms to manage solid waste are 0.67 per cent, 0.82 per cent and 1.08 per cent respectively. In Punjab it is 1.67 per cent while in Bihar, it is 1.97 per cent.

Out of the total 97,640 villages in Uttar Pradesh, only 8,608 (8.83 per cent) have waste management systems in place.

Also, there are only six states for which these percentages are above 50 per cent mark — Telangana (100 per cent), Tamil Nadu (97.66 per cent), Himachal Pradesh (76.70 per cent), Karnataka (62.97 per cent), Sikkim (59.55 per cent), and Goa (60.27 per cent). Also, three union territories have these percentages above 50 per cent — Andaman and Nicobar Islands (100 per cent), Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Daman and Diu (97.94 per cent) and Puducherry (62.04 per cent).

MAP: State-wise percentage of villages with solid waste management mechanisms


67% of surveyed rural households burn plastics

Another recent report, titled Plastic STORI: Study of Rural India, which was released in September 2022 by non-profit Pratham Education Foundation, found that public waste bins were available in only 36 per cent of the 700 villages across 15 states that were covered in the study.

Just 29 per cent had a community waste collection vehicle, while less than half the villages had access to a sanitation worker or safai karamchari.

Due to the lack of formal infrastructure, 90 per cent of the villages primarily depended on informal waste collectors or kabadiwalas, noted the study, and single-use, low-quality plastics were contributing to the growing waste problem in rural India.

Also Read: Researchers develop a plant that converts waste plastic into diesel

The Pratham study found that some 67 per cent of over 8,400 rural households preferred to burn plastic waste not bought by kabadiwalas. Nearly three-fourths of the households burning waste were unaware about the ill-effects of doing that on the environment, and their own health.

The September 2022 study warns that unless action is taken, over 0.6 million villages in the country will become distributed islands of trash.

"The biggest issue with plastic waste generation in rural areas is the failure to collect it. That's the first and the most important step of treating this waste. The villagers have no idea what to do with it," Mewa Lal, founder of Muskan Jyoti Samiti, told Gaon Connection. His non-profit based in Lucknow was founded in 1994 and works with solid waste management.

Mewa Lal, founder of Muskan Jyoti Samiti

According to Arora, a professor at Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University, discarded single-use plastics, when they get into the topsoil, have a direct impact on the crop yields and quality.

"The plastic in the soil also makes it harder for probiotic organisms to thrive. The loss of fertility in the soil is then compensated by the use of chemical fertilisers which not only adds to the input costs of the farmers but also adversely impacts the soil," he pointed out.

"Only a negligible nine percent of the recyclable plastic is actually recycled in India," said Arora. Without being able to collect the waste efficiently, there is no question of recycling it," he said.


Tackling plastic wastes in the villages

Lal of Muskan Jyoti Samiti suggested that the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) should be used to collect the plastic waste from the entire village.

"A cluster of 10-15 villages can be created. A mobile van should then be tasked to collect the waste from the village every 10 days or so. This can ensure that the waste doesn't pollute the ecosystem in the rural areas," he said.

According to Lal, up to 20 per cent of the waste can be used as a component in the tar which is used to build rural roads.

The state of Tamil Nadu has done so. More than 1,031 kilometres of rural roads have been laid using plastic wastes by District Rural Development Agency (DRDA), Tamil Nadu. These roads have been laid in all the 29 districts (approx 40 kms each) of the state.

Recently, Gaon Connection reported on a cluster of women in Madhya Pradesh who use plastic waste to make products that are not only friendly to the environment but are also in great demand in the market.

Also Read: Women at work: Self reliance from eco-friendly use of plastic waste

Mahashakti Seva Kendra, a women-led non-profit, recycles multilayer plastic waste, such as wafer and biscuit wrappers, into laptop bags, baskets, curtains and carpets, Puja Iyenger, the director of Bhopal-based Mahashakti Seva Kendra, told Gaon Connection.

In the absence of a proper waste management system, when people just dump polythene bags and wrappers and it rains, the wastes travel down to the pond.

Every month, the non-profit collects about 60 kilogrammes of multilayer plastic waste, and in the past six months, it has utilised almost 300 kilogrammes of the collection in the making of the products, which are sold and are a source of income to the women.

There are other noteworthy initiatives to tackle plastic wastes too. Operation Blue Mountain campaign in the Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu, was led by Supriya Sahu, the then district collector in 2001 to ban the use of plastic in the district. The campaign was crucial to unclog the river sources and springs in the popular hill station of Nilgiris.

In the northeast, the Sikkim government has banned the use of plastic water bottles in all government meetings and programmes. It has also banned the use of disposable styrofoam products across the state.

The Government of Himachal Pradesh introduced the Sustainable Plastic Waste Management Plan in 2009. The Plan focuses on controlling the use of plastic and developing a systematic disposal mechanism. In order to achieve the objectives of its Clean Himachal and Healthy Himachal drive, the Government has also prohibited the use of plastic cups and plates in 2011.

Meanwhile, a petro-chemical company has taken the initiative to collect the PET bottle waste from all over India and convert it into textile products. It has tied up with 150 vendors in India to provide PET bottle bales for processing into textile products.

According to Lal of Muskan Jyoti Samiti, companies that manufacture snacks packaged in plastic bags should be charged Rs 20 per kilogramme of the bags. The revenue thus generated should be used to build a waste treatment facility, which can then convert the plastic waste into usable products.

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