The majestic Himalayas are a place of astounding beauty. But plastic pollution in the Himalayas is a huge concern. Here’s how one organisation making a positive change.

Leaving behind his lucrative international corporate career with the Swedish giant H&M, Anoop Nautiyal founded Gati Foundation in 2017, a Dehradun-based research and policy think-tank, in the stunning Himalayan state of Uttarakhand. Gati focusses upon Environmental Policy & Regulation, Sustainable Urbanization, and Public Health, and is coming up with unique solutions for improving lives and giving back to society.  

Working with Anoop on the critical challenges facing the mountains, here’s our perspective on plastic pollution in the Himalayas, which is a major environmental concern:

Plastic Pollution: not just an urban problem

The use and disposal of plastics, especially the single-use kind, has penetrated most spheres of human life, becoming one of the biggest challenges facing the environment and the planet today. Globally, 500 billion plastic bags are used annually, and a million plastic bottles bought every minute. India alone generates more than 25,000 tons of plastic waste, daily. Plastics constitute 10% of the total waste generated nationally, estimates indicate. Shockingly, half of this waste is single use plastic. The plastic scenario is truly scary and bodes ill for our lives, and our planet’s. Single use plastics are out-and-out ticking time bombs! Therefore, the clarion call issued by the United Nations deserves not only our rapt attention, but a promise of subsequent action.

Plastic pollution touches us more often than we realize. Once plastics enter the environment, they continue to influence ecosystems for decades to come- they clog rivers, choke birds, and make verdant forests uninhabitable dumps.

uttarakhand-villages

The stunning beauty of the Himalayas is being marred by plastic pollution

How plastic pollution is affecting the Himalayas

Glaciers are vulnerable to rising temperatures and changes in precipitation. Mass accumulation of plastic waste is resulting in a rising debris-cover on glaciers and resulting in the formation of more glacial lakes. Extreme rainfall events in the future may cause floods due to the bursting of glacial lakes, posing a threat to downstream mountain communities. No one can forget the havoc caused by the torrential rains and the flash floods of 2013.

In June 2013, heavy rainfall triggered the collapse of the Chorabari glacier lake. This unleashed a torrent of water, along with debris that dammed the lake, which hurtled downstream over the town of Kedarnath, causing deadly floods that killed thousands of people.

shri-hemkunt-sahib uttarakhand

The serene Shri Hemkunt Sahib (a major pilgrimage destination) in Uttarakhand

War on plastic: What you’re likely to find in the Himalayas

Himalayan Brand Audit by Gati Foundation in Rishikesh, Haridwar and Mussoorie

On 27 October 2018, Gati Foundation conducted Uttarakhand’s first ever Twin City Brand Audit in Rishikesh and Haridwar. The audit was supported actively by more than 20 post graduate students of Doon University. Earlier in May, the audit was conducted by Gati at the nearby hill station of Mussoorie with Integrated Mountain Initiative (IMI) and the Forest Department of Uttarakhand.

The audits revealed that more than 50 percent of the litter strewn across the hillside at major tourist spots was primarily single use plastic waste. The major brands whose waste items (wrappers, bottles, tetra packs etc.) were identified in the audit were as follows:

In Rishikesh, top three plastic polluters were:

(a)   Paras Milk tetra packs

(b)  Haldiram wrappers

(c)   PepsiCo’s Lays

In Haridwar, top three plastic polluters were:

(a)   Haldiram wrappers

(b)  PepsiCo’s Lays

(c)   Bikano wrappers

In Mussoorie, top three plastic polluters were:

(a)   PepsiCo’s Lays

(b)  Nestlé’s Maggi noodles

(c)   ParleAgro’s Frooti Drink tetra packs

Some plastic bottles were also found. The low number of bottles can be explained because unlike other plastic refuse, plastic bottles can not only be used by locals, but rag pickers also resell these, for money. Many packets of chewing tobacco, of the local brand Dilbaagh, were found, too. Other waste included diapers and bottles of medicinal syrups. This makes it clear that it is not only the disposal of plastic waste that needs to be dealt with but others as well like solid waste, medical waste, E-waste and other hazardous substances.

It’s time for action in the Himalayas

While action is required on many fronts including waste collection, segregation and recycling, one of the most critical elements is to hold the producers responsible and push for great corporate accountability for the plastic that they send out into the market, for the ultimate consumption by the communities.

Waste management requires financial as well as physical support, and it is vital that the businesses that use single use, multilayer plastics be held responsible for their products and help in establishing the waste management mechanism.

Nainital uttarakhand

Nainital hill station

An important solution

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is a form of product stewardship. Under EPR, manufacturers and brand owners (known as producers) are responsible for the products they make or sell, and any associated packaging, when it becomes waste. This means producers help to pay for the costs of collecting, transporting, recycling and responsibly disposing of these products and materials at the end of their life. EPR is focused on life cycle thinking, as it forces producers to remain accountable for their products past the factory gate – beyond the point of purchase and any warranty period.

By shifting the burden of waste management onto manufacturers, the EPR framework, in theory, creates incentives for more environment-friendly product designs. Since producers are incurring the cost of disposal, their plans will fuse less lethal and effectively recyclable materials. For instance, making items with less toxic materials reduces the cost of processing the toxic products after their useful life. These two aspects – ensuring the internalization of product externalities and incentives for environmentally-friendly product design changes – are often cited as the two most important reasons for adopting EPR.

What the future holds

Many large companies including Hindustan Unilever have pledged to reduce the plastic waste their products generate, and to make them ‘reusable, recyclable and compostable’ by 2025. While this is a right step in the right direction, the need of the hour is for businesses to take responsibility for the waste they generate right now, and not just in the future.

Gati Foundation submitted a legal draft to the top plastic polluting corporates (Nestle, PepsiCo, Parle Agro). The submission was based on the legal concept of EPR enumerated under the Solid Waste (Management & Handling Rules) 2016 and Plastic Waste (Management & Handling) Rules 2016.

Let us as a state, as a nation and as a world, come together to tackle the alarming effects of plastic, and take a step towards making this world a more thriving and livable space. It’s time to become conscious consumers and more importantly, conscious citizens.

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