Mountains of Waste

The setting is idyllic, surrounded by picturesque mountains on all sides. The area is known for its scenic beauty, fertile soil and delicious fruit. But today, the villages of Uttarakhand are reeling under mountains of waste says Ashish Mukherjee.

I am writing this article on a Sunday evening sitting in my house in Meora village in the Reetha cluster of villages in Nainital district of Uttarakhand. The air outside is heavy with acrid smelling smoke. Plastic, food wrappers and almost all kinds of inorganic waste are burned routinely here.

Uttarakhand has always been a vacationer’s delight. Lakes, hills, lush green forests, abundant fruits make this state an ideal spot for tourists. Pilgrims routinely visit the many holy sites in this state. More than 3.6 crore tourists visited Uttarakhand in 2018 and the numbers have been increasing every year.

Garbage collection and disposal has become a burning issue in Uttarakhand. Though places like Nainital have well-maintained garbage collection and disposal systems, there are many off-beat locations which have now become hotspots for tourists who are constantly looking to explore uncharted terrain which is away from the hustle and bustle of places like Nainital and Almora. Most tourists come laden with food packets and plastic water bottles which are dumped either on the to the resort or in the bins in provided in the resort. However, the resorts do not have any way to dispose off the garbage left behind by their guests.

The interesting thing is that the consumption patterns of these tourists have also influenced the local consumption patterns, thus generating more waste. Further, even local produce is sold or exchanged in polythene bags amongst the villagers. Generally the nearest garbage dump is an hour’s drive from these villages which is why the waste is either burnt or thrown into the forest or water bodies. All these methods increase the all ready existing pollution.

Conversations with multiple villagers reveals their helplessness in the matter. Most of them are not aware of the hazards associated with burning waste. They typically burn waste once a week and feel that burning waste in small batches may not impact their health greatly. Further, there is a lack of awareness of environmental impact of throwing non biodegradable wastes into the forest. They are candid in admitting their helplessness as civic officials are absent from the villages and there is no process for waste collection.

Dangerous Side-effects

The burning of plastic is particularly dangerous as it gives rise to dioxin (a class of Chlorine compounds) which are toxic. Chlorine toxicity can lead to pulmonary oedema and consequent heart problems. This is a trend which is already visible in some parts of Uttarakhand. Furthermore, such air pollution has resulted in climate change, as seen by the rising temperature of Almora over the years. Dumping of waste into the forest can affect creatures who may eat it or contaminate the soil with micro-plastic or other hazardous material present in the contents.

Way Forward

The way forward for Uttarakhand, particularly the rural belt is not just to sensitize citizens to practice the 3 Rs – Reduce, Reuse and Recycle but also provide the necessary infrastructure and services for citizens. The following measures would go a long way in addressing the environmental problems arising out of accumulation of solid waste –

Compulsory composting

Compulsory composting of organic waste like fruit and vegetable peels, cuttings for resorts would go a long way in reducing the load of waste generated by resorts in tourist season.

 Promote eco-friendly packaging material

A strict ban on plastic bags while promoting bags made of alternate material like jute or wicker which are both durable yet not ecologically damaging can counter be an effective counter to the volume of plastic waste generated.

Also, incentivizing local manufacturers of food products to use eco-friendly packaging instead of multi-layered packaging would be a great step forward in curtailing the menace of waste generated by food and beverage wrappings.

 Solid Waste Management

Despite the above measures, there would be significant volume of solid waste generated which includes food wrappers of popular commercial food products. The critical step for effective solid waste management is waste segregation and collection. Specific kinds of waste like PET bottles can be sent for recycling.

Since Uttarakhand is a mountainous state with most of the land being either agricultural or forest land, land-filling may pose a challenge and waste-to-energy plants may effectively treat non-recyclable waste and help to meet the growing energy demands of the state as well.

As I sit here thinking about how to address this problem, I wonder about what our government is doing to curtail these mountains of waste. The swacch Bharat abhiyan will hardly be successful if we are left grappling with these piles of non-degradable wastes in one of the most beautiful states in India

The following article of Hindustan Times of March 2018 states that Uttarakhand generates more than 1400 tonne of solid waste daily, most of which goes untreated –

https://www.hindustantimes.com/dehradun/uttarakhand-generates-1-406-tonne-solid-waste-daily-but-processing-is-zero/story-47oR4P7WxHqjpVwYJvWIMJ.html

The following Times of India article of Sep 2018 reaffirms the crisis facing the State –

https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/dehradun/ukhand-among-worst-states-in-terms-of-waste-management/articleshow/65801394.cms

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