Just before world leaders began negotiations at COP26, Break Free From Plastic (BFFP) launched its 2020 brand audit report. Through their citizen science documentation engaging over 55 countries, they recognised the top four global plastic polluters—the Coca Cola Company, Pepsico, Nestle, and Unilever. How does this plastic waste impact those who live close to New Delhi’s Bhalswa landfill and also earn a living from it? How can corporations be held responsible for their waste?
A year and a half ago, Fiza left for work. As she had been doing for the last sixteen years, she walked to New Delhi’s Bhalswa landfill, one of the three waste dumping sites of India’s capital. 52 acres wide and more than half the height of Delhi’s iconic monument Qutub Minar—the landfill was a source of income for Fiza, her husband, and many others who live in Bhalswa.
She was picking up big pieces of plastic, steel, and empty milk pouches, which by early evening she would have sold to buyers for anywhere between Rs 10 to Rs 20 a kilogram. But a cow, foraging for edibles in the landfill, had different plans for Fiza. The cow’s violent kick caused Fiza a fractured leg and two surgeries later, she is now on her last three months of bed rest.
“Now my husband is collecting and selling waste,” she tells me, as she spends the day at her home just metres away from the landfill. “There are a few problems [because of the landfill] but so what, humari roji roti hai ye [it is our daily earning].”
Recent studies confirm some problems that Fiza alludes to. Ground water samples from the site showed that the majority of heavy metals exceeded the WHO permissible limits, causing a serious health risk in near future if the groundwater was being used for long run without proper remedial measures.
While Fiza spoke with Climate Tracker, her husband was at the landfill, collecting sellable material. Miles away, in Glasgow, climate negotiations under COP26 were winding up. As a point of discussion at COP26, plastic was overshadowed by other key issues such as climate finance, loss and damage, and mitigation.
But a few days before world leaders began negotiations, the non-profit Break Free From Plastic (BFFP) launched its 2020 brand audit report, drawing attention to the top four global plastic polluters—the Coca Cola Company, Pepsico, Nestle, and Unilever.
Products of these companies, ranging from plastic bottles, ketchup and shampoo sachets, and chocolate wrappers are well acquainted with Fiza and her husband, who find this material every day at Bhalswa.
“Majority of what we collect is either plastic or steel,” Fiza says. For India in particular, the audit’s dashboard finds Unilever to be 2020’s second largest polluter, which is ironically, one of COP26’s sponsors. So, who does the plastic impact directly, and how can it be managed?
Living with plastic
“Plastic production is corporate driven, and it further threatens vulnerable groups,” Marian Ledesma from Greenpeace-South Asia had said at the release of the report. “This is unbelievably callous and horribly unjust.”
As large companies continue to produce plastic, this non-biodegradable product finds its way to landfills where communities living close to them cannot escape the impacts. “Polyester has become a very common product in landfills.
These cannot be recycled. If landfills catch fire—which they often do—this material acts as fuel and its emissions are highly toxic for those living close to it,” says Bharati Chaturvedi, founder and director of the Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group.
“Moreover, multi-layered plastics [which was also the most found item in BFFP brand audit] have microplastics that can leach into water sources and are not visible to the naked eye,” he added.
Even though there is a lake adjacent to the landfill, everyone in Bhalswa depends on private and government water tanks for washing, bathing, and drinking purposes. “At times when the water tanks can’t come to Bhalswa, we have to buy the Bisleri bottles for drinking water, what else can we do?” Salim*, Fiza’s husband tells me.
Apart from microplastics, there is large plastic which cannot be compacted in the landfill. “This makes landfills an unstable and unsafe place to be working in,” Chaturvedi says.
Incidents of the landfill falling have indeed been common in Bhalswa, where the most recent one occurred in August 2021 where a part of the landfill fell onto shanties, damaging property.
To recycle or not to recycle?
Siddika Sultana, Executive Director of Bangladesh based Environment and Social Development Organization made it very clear in the press conference. “Recycling is not the proper solution to the highly alarming crisis [of plastic],” she said.
“This needs real solutions which require us to find alternatives to plastics for better health and environment.” On ground however, finding solutions is often more complex, where collecting plastic is also a livelihood for many, like Fiza and Salim.
“Equity is an important part of finding a solution to plastic,” Chintan’s Chaturvedi adds. “We have to look at plastic from a broader lens, as a material and a livelihood. Then, as we look for a substitute for plastic that can gain popularity in the market, we focus on recycling of plastic products that many at present cannot get rid of.”
With this objective, Chintan began Pick My Trash, a joint initiative with Delhi’s many waste pickers. This is a doorstep collection service for plastics, paper, carton, metals, e-waste, tetra packs amongst other waste, which the waste pickers reuse and recycle, fighting pollution, but also supporting their livelihoods.
But as Greenpeace’s Marriane reminds, it is important to check the plastic at its source. “The current narrative continues to be that the plastic crisis is placed on the individual, that it’s a problem of litter. It is much bigger, and much complex, and we have to hold companies accountable,” she said at the press conference.
In a move to hold businesses accountable for their plastic generation, India’s central government had introduced the Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016 which had a clear component of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR).
This required brand owners to, amongst other things, submit a plan of collecting back plastic waste generated due to their products to respective State Pollution Control Boards within a year of the rule’s publication, or in the case of a new producer, while applying for consent to establish or consent to operate.
“Despite this, there are very, very few companies who have actually made a system as required by the notification and made submissions,” Sonakshi Yadav, a climate science student and environmental researcher informs. “A big loophole of the Rules is also that it doesn’t clearly define what Extended Producer Responsibility would really consist of.”
Some companies, like Godrej and Boyce, one of India’s leading companies for manufacturing appliances, furniture, locks and security solutions, are attempting to limit their plastic footprint.
“In 2021 alone, we recycled 6500 metric tonnes of plastic,” Tejashree Joshi, Head – Environment Sustainability at Godrej & Boyce says. “But we are also constantly doing life cycle assessments of all our plastic material to see what we can redesign to reduce the plastic we generate,” she added.
Earlier in October, along with its investment targets, the company announced its Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) goals, where one of the goals is to introduce recycled content in upto 25% of their packaging.
Such efforts for businesses to assess their own contribution to the climate crisis also took space at COP26. OECD in partnership with UNEP and UNFCCC is currently developing a suite of tools for businesses to drive climate action, said Allan Jorgensen, Head at OECD’s Centre for Responsible Business Conduct.
“Even investors are being encouraged to keep climate aspects in mind. We get investors to ask the companies to report on their climate action, the governance in place for climate action, and to ask if they align their business strategies to the Paris Agreement,” says Stephanie Pfeiffer, CEO at Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change (IIGCC).
For corporations, managing plastic is not always easy. “For all corporations, the most crucial aspect is traceability,” Joshi adds. “Where is the plastic being collected from, and where is it landing up—this documentation is very important, and yet this is not always easy.”
As dust settles on COP26, Joshi notes that corporations need to play an “anchor role”, by laying out “ambitious targets for climate action.”
“The targets that corporations decide need to be greater than that of the nation, so that they can support national targets. By now we are very sure that Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is not enough, we need to look at our [company’s] entire value chain as well as the larger ecosystem for a better impact,” she adds.
While corporations need to be held accountable, the plastic problem will require simultaneous solutions across policy and waste management, while also acknowledging the social aspect of employment it generates, and communities that live next to it.
“Now, a lot of garbage that arrives at the landfill is already segregated, so we don’t find as many products to sell as we did earlier,” says Salim. “Since we are seeing a falling income from the landfill year after year, we [other waste collectors] think about alternate jobs as well. We also do not mind moving away, as government officials often tell us. But, how do we do that without getting compensated for the land we bought here to live on?”
*Names changed upon request to protect identity