The Earth wrapped in Plastic - Does the Recycling management work?
In mid-2018, the Indian state of Maharashtra decided to ban both the use and sale of thin plastic bags and small plastic drink bottles. The state had every reason to resort to such means, as one of India's heaviest monsoon rains descended on Mumbai on July 26, 2005. But one factor caused extreme damage: the coastal city is so riddled with packaging waste and plastic bags of all shapes and sizes that the masses of water could not drain away properly. The drains and gutters had to give way because they were completely clogged with plastic. Thus, the floods continued for days, and many people lost their lives.
Despite the disaster and the more than ten thousand tons of garbage that land in and around the landfills in Mumbai and Delhi every day, however, the bans are not consistently enforced. There is a lack of meaningful concepts and sustainable strategies. In addition, many countries in the global North and West send their waste to India, where it is recycled, but unofficially many parts of it are simply incinerated.
What is hitting India and other East Asian countries particularly hard here exemplifies a problem that the whole world shares and will get worse without a sustainable solution so far, according to forecasts. According to data from the World Bank, the huge masses of waste produced globally amount to two billion tons annually. A steep upward trend is expected, with the figure rising by up to 70% to about 3.4 billion tons by 2050.
What consequences can a careless disposal cycle cause globally?
Plastic, which is present in almost all types of garbage, is particularly problematic. Since records began in 1950 until today, more than 8.3 billion tons have been produced, 75% of which is garbage for which no disposal route has been found without causing problems. With a global recycling rate for plastic packaging of 14%, we are still not getting there. Additionally, there is also more of a "downcycling" to lower quality products. Furthermore, 40% ends up in large landfills, such as Delhi's garbage mountains in Ghazipur (69 meters high), Bhalswa (56m) or Okhla (55m). The other 14% is burned in designated incinerators, often without proper filters. There are exhaust gas limits, but they are never fully filtered. Thus, highly toxic substances are released into the atmosphere, carcinogenic dioxins, and furans as well as mercury, cadmium, or lead. Of course, there are also a lot of CO2 emissions.
Although methods like burning garbage create new problems and solve little of the old ones, they are glossed over with terms like "thermal recycling" or "waste-to-energy." But the energy generated is limited and must be extracted at a comparatively high cost.
The last 32% of all discarded plastic ends up in the immediate environment, i.e., in landfills, oceans and other bodies of water. In addition, uncontrolled incineration takes place. All this causes great ecological damage. The fact that plastic, because of its material-fossil composition, remains in nature for hundreds or even thousands of years is known well. However, it also breaks down into tiny plastic particles that settle into the biological cycle and can cause even more profound damage. The trash in the ocean is repeatedly eaten by animals or gets caught in their limbs, causing them to die. According to environmentalists, about one million seabirds and hundreds of thousands of marine mammals die each year as a result of plastic waste.
What can be done - by ourselves and united
We must be honest. Waste separation is indeed something good and sensible. But since large parts of the plastic end up in ovens or in the environment, it is not as helpful as it is often retold. Nevertheless, in every country where it is possible, waste should be separated properly. Especially organic waste plays a significant role in this regard. The usefulness of this is in fact not necessarily emphasized in many countries. In Germany alone, where a great deal is separated, over 3.3 million tons end up in residual waste. This amount could supply 165,000 four-person households for an entire year with energy generated in biogas plants.
Before recycling, however, one should start a step earlier by avoiding packaging wherever possible. Don't take the packaged fruits or vegetables you see in the supermarket. Instead of buying meat and cheese in packaged form, many places allow you to put it in containers you bring with you. Dairy products can also be bought in jars, preferably deposit jars. With the soap, one should reach rather times to the curd soap, instead of the liquid, which is in the plastic tube.
Finally, you can also take ad-hoc action by picking up trash. Sounds like Sisyphean work to some, but here you are strong in a group. It took a whole three years to clean Mumbai's Versova Beach. And it all started with one volunteer who motivated thousands more to help. The man gained international attention and volunteers from all over the world cleaned the beach, removing several million kilograms of trash. Together we are strong!
But if you don't want to rely too much on strangers, you can also take advantage of opportunities within your workplace. Speaking out in favor of conscious and sustainable consumer behavior in one's professional environment already helps. In addition, responsible persons or even task forces for recycling can also be created in departments in order to actively integrate necessary processes that create better awareness for the environment and sustainability within the company.