Opinion

Freeing the mountains of plastic waste

Suresh Narayanan | Updated on December 10, 2020

The road ahead lies in participatory action, enhancing social awareness, and upskilling waste management personnel

This year of the pandemic is a call to all our collective conscience. The Covid-19 pandemic shares similarities with climate crisis: it is systemic, with knock-on effects around the world. Good intentions are no longer enough, organisations need to join hands and work towards the greater cause.

At present, sustainability focusses on meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. However, a lot more can be done in some specific areas. In current times, plastic waste is becoming a big menace, especially in the mountains.

There are concerns around the quantity of plastic waste entering the natural environment and damaging ecosystems. In order to address this concern, we need to have better waste management systems.

The socio-economic development and conservation of the mountain regions is increasingly challenged by the tourism scenario and faces massive climate change related challenges, gaps in environmental compliance and very minimal investments to promote sustainable tourism.

A large contributor of plastic waste in mountains is packaging, which ends up as waste in landfills, rivers, oceans and waterways. This tourist influx coupled with the urban growth in the hill stations puts a huge load on the waste management systems, leading to waste ending up in the open landscapes including forests, water streams and valleys.

This waste is a major threat to the rich flora and fauna of the region. Individual behaviour with respect to source segregation of waste and littering, along with the difficult terrain, become major challenges in managing waste in hill stations. The power to change needs a social movement. Plastic waste management in the mountains is one such critical area requiring urgent attention. Hence, on International Mountain Day, December 11, let us focus on a collective approach to tackle this.

As an organisation, it is important to engage at one level with governments, municipalities and NGOs, and at another, it is working with a group of like-minded corporates to address this problem. Big organisations must act with their strengths of scale, resource and expertise to address the existing challenges.

Some interventions

End-to-end management of waste: Initiatives must be undertaken for bringing together urban local bodies, waste contractors, citizens, waste professionals, hotel owners, tourists, market associations and multiple waste experts together for participatory planning and action with respect to waste management in the cities.

Efforts should be made for developing a holistic plan with a core focus on plastic waste and to develop town cleanliness operations. This can be through a participatory planning approach complementing the Municipal operations in the hill towns, thereby bringing about a visible change and influence the waste behaviour of the local and tourist population.

Concerted efforts are required for streamlining the supply chain of waste from source to sorting, storage and end of life solution. Digital technology can also play a significant role in enabling end to end visibility of waste from source to end of life solution.

Shaping behaviour: Bringing about a behaviour change both among locals and tourists is central to addressing the menace of plastic waste. Any efforts done will only be sustainable if people are aware of their role and they play their part responsibly. Social awareness and education are essential to shape and encourage changes in behaviour, but a gradual, transformational process is necessary. A long-standing change in cultural attitudes towards environmental matters is often not attainable through brief or standalone awareness campaigns.

This should start with promoting sustainable consumption through the 3Rs — reduce, reuse and recycle. Awareness raising should also talk about risks to public health of inappropriate disposal and treatment of solid waste.

Professionalising waste professionals: The last mile waste collectors and pickers, who are currently the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid, are the most essential part of the waste value chain. Upskilling and enabling waste professionals to work in the difficult terrain of the mountains through safety and health modules and training them in financial literacy and digital literacy modules to improve their standard of living is the need of the hour.

There is also a need to improve the working conditions and compensation for these professionals, by providing them with basic amenities and incentivising their performance.

Last but not the least, formalising the work done by the waste professionals through measures such as official identity documents can help unlock access to various beneficial government schemes. The growing accumulation of plastic waste is one of the many factors accelerating climate change and this is true for the mountains as well.

Mountains are among the most sensitive ecosystems to climate change and are being affected at a faster rate than other terrestrial habitats. The key step towards addressing climate change is accepting that we are already facing the negative impacts of it. We need to accelerate our efforts towards integrating environmental considerations into the business planning, be it the product research and development, new manufacturing methods, integrating supply chains etc.

We must implement new ways of doing business and that might mean using more advanced technologies, automation and remote system operations. The challenges faced in plastic management cannot be tackled alone. This is a very important area where viable innovative solutions are required to minimise the impact of plastic packaging on the environment.

It has been demonstrated time and again that no one can prosper alone and business too depends on a thriving society and planet. Instead of acting individually, we all need to combine our efforts with one ultimate end in mind: A sustainable future for the generations to come.

The writer is Chairman and Managing Director, Nestlé India

Published on December 10, 2020

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