“If all the insects were to disappear from the earth, within 50 years all life on earth would end. If all human beings disappeared from the earth, within 50 years all forms of life would flourish.” – Jonas Salk.
I heard these words at school from a biology teacher at the age of 17. These words kept ringing in my ears while I was on my way back home. I looked around and surveyed the pathetic scenario of my home-town, the gutters and vacant spaces were filled with coke cans and other debris; even the roads were littered with sandwich wrappers, plastic bags and cups; and every empty plot had heaps of battered old suitcases and broken chairs, all made of plastic, all jammed together and forming a solid mass that no amount of scraping and segregating could clean.
People enjoy the use of advanced electrical gadgets and plastic articles of different types, while they dump their plastic wrappings anywhere alongside the roads. Despite the public campaigns like the swacch bharat abhiyaan and beti bachao beti padhao, people are very careless in disposing off the outdated gadgets and old plastics. Few are even aware of the potential hazards of E-waste and plastics dumped nonchalantly any and everywhere. It has been reported that every year approximately 55 million tonnes of municipal solid waste (MSW) and 38 million liters of sewage are collected in the urban areas of India. At the world level, it is estimated that 1.3 billion tons of E-waste is generated yearly according to a survey done by Hoornweg and Bhada-Tata. This is expected to increase to an amount of 4.3 billion per year by 2025. In addition, enormous quantities of solid and liquid wastes are generated by industries and spilled into our rivers. Waste generation in India is expected to increase rapidly in the future.
Plastic and E-waste possess valuable as well as dangerous materials. Environmentally, solid waste dumping and burning have polluted the minerals in the soil, polluted the purity of the water, polluted the air we breathe, and have cause the flora to wither. Furthermore, they have an impact on the animals and micro-organisms and on the health conditions of the people – especially on the human respiratory system, causing different kinds of cancer and birthing problems.
Solid waste dumping on or along the roads can also lead to various socio-economic problems. It obstructs the smooth movement of traffic and pedestrians, causing delays for various public services that can often be costly both to individuals and to companies. In some extreme cases, these dumps of waste on the road result in accidents. Solid waste blocking the drainages has often resulted in flooding of some areas in my home town. Thus, Plastic Waste and Electronic Waste (E-Waste) constitute one of the major problems in today’s world. They contain different types of toxic substances. These can pollute the environment and even threaten human life if they are not properly disposed of or buried. A study conducted by Empa ( Swiss Federal Laboratories for materials testing and research) reveals that e-waste contains: Metals – 60.2%, Plastics – 15.2%, Metal-plastic mixture – 5%, Printed Circuit Boards – 1.7%, other pollutants – 2.7%.
Coming back to my walk back home after that biology class as a boy of 17 years old, as I walked along this road where all these dangerous materials had been polluting the air for the past fourteen years. I used to walk fast with my nose covered against the stink. But I was completely oblivious to what was happening to the surroundings and was always thinking that “people” should do something about it. It took some time before I became aware of how egoistic and stupid I was to think that way. I then realized how a small effort on my part could change the plastic and E-waste scenario of my town, and could influence my community as well as the society at large. The day came when I went to school with a set mind and met the Principal with a clear strategy: I proposed that anyone who would bring a basket of plastic bottles would receive a free ticket to a famous museum in our town. A few days passed, it seemed no one was interested; but after a week, I started receiving loads of plastic bottles, tin cans and glass bottles as well. This meant that so many less plastic bottles and tin cans were being disposed of all over the place. I was really excited about the change in the outlook of the students towards the environment.
The day came when I found myself giving a speech at the school-assembly, at the request of the Principal. I started to proclaim aloud: Recycling of E-waste, re-use of plastic materials, disciplined disposal of electronic gadgets and plastic materials, can protect our Environment as well as improve human health; or else, human life itself on this earth will be at grave risk.
Dear fellow-students (I continued), all of you use electronic products and plastic goods. There is “value plastic”, which can be re-cycled and re-used in different modes. Remember, we tend to dispose the plastic and E-waste in the wrong places and to wrong sources. We as consumers, you and I, must take the responsibility of handling and disposing of the waste plastic and outdated electronic gadgets to the right sources so that they can be re-cycled and re-used again. People at large consider that one of the methods of disposing of plastic and E-waste is by burying it. But the burying method has negative effects on the soil, the environment, as well as on human health. Moreover, E-waste buried under the ground will pollute groundwater and soil. Even burning out plastic and E-waste cannot be considered as a proper method since it releases toxics into the atmosphere and the Environment. After hearing the speech, the school Principal started placing various segregated dust bins in the schoolyard with a label on each dust bin — for Paper, for Plastic and for E-waste.
Thus, as a boy of 15, I began this campaign in my school and gradually extended it into the area where I lived. With the cooperation of my father, who was a former officer in the postal service, we launched a door to door waste collection of plastics and E-waste. Suddenly, one could sense the change in the area: there was no bad smell from pits, the roadside was cleaner, and people could walk on roads without holding their noses. I continued my campaign to create a better society.
In general, E-waste management can be divided into two categories, i.e. reduction and disposal. Disposal methods, like recycling and landfill disposal methods have already been mentioned in the above section. Under the category of reduction, we must have certain measures of reduction in the production of these Electronic gadgets, and restrictions on the use of plastic bags and packaging.
The production of E-waste can be reduced by a strategy called Life Cycle Assessment, according to which a tool is used to design environment-friendly electronic devices and to minimize E-waste problems. Multi-Criteria Analysis (MCA) is also a tool used to know and identify strategy and production methods for a particular product. Recently, Material Flow Analysis (MFA) has been developed as a tool for E-waste Management, which tries to assess the product in terms of environmental, economic and social values.
Finally, there ought to be instilled a sense of responsibility in the producer. A producer’s responsibility is not just to create the product, but he must also bear responsibility for the post-consumer stage of the product’s life, including its final disposal. The producer must design the product in such a way that it can be reused again in the later outdated stage of its life. The goals of the product creator should be, among others: reducing toxicity, reducing energy consumption, streamlining product weight and materials, identifying opportunities for easier re-use.
To conclude, every citizen of every country must be aware of the existential risks involved in the increase of plastic and E-waste usage. Awareness of the problem should then lead us to respond to the problem personally by little acts of caring towards the earth, by segregating the plastic waste and handing it over to the proper source center for recycling and safe disposal. And, most essentially, consumers must make use of other Eco-friendly alternatives instead of too easily using plastic shopping bags and plastic picnic throw-a-ways. Otherwise, human beings will continue to pollute and cause harm to the environment as well as to their own health.
Let us begin by making a difference on the personal micro-cosmic level. But we should not stop there: we must continue to act upon these issues of our society at the local community and national levels, by sponsoring practical steps to protect and heal ourselves from the evils of throwing waste any and everywhere.