This story was supported by Climate Tracker and Break Free From Plastic
These initiatives incorporate everyone in the circular economy— from ragpickers to informal workers and even residents — in reducing at least 10% of the waste in Guwahati’s landfill
For 12 hours a day with up to two hours of break, Sukla Ghosh sits hunched over a stock of translucent plastic waste, removing labels and discarding wet plastic, metal and glass.
Sorting or segregation is the first step in the four-phase recycling process to produce reinforced plastic sheeting, a commonly-used construction material.
Before working at Shree Guru Plastics, a small recycling unit in Guwahati’s industrial hub of Rolling Mill, Sukla was jobless because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
During the lockdown, her takeout at the Guwahati railway station, where she sold puris, parathas and fresh betel leaves laced with tobacco, was shut for days. When the lockdown was lifted, only the owners who bribed their way out were back in business.
“Me and my husband were too poor to pay a hefty bribe to the railways. Hence, I had to take a daily wage job here to support my family,” Sukla said as she cleaned up the last batch of plastic waste before heading home. She earns a daily wage of Rs 220 to get by.
Another worker, Sangeeta Mondol, operates the recycling unit’s pot-type agglomerator. First, she pours water and then puts the segregated waste before pacing inside to collect the shredded plastic that will be put into a mixture machine.
Sangeeta Mondol operating the recycling unit’s pot-type agglomerator. Photo: Aatreyee Dhar.
As a matter of fact, the task of running the gears of the recycling unit is entrusted to a woman in her late 30s, who was abandoned by her husband, to fend for her two children.
“I have been working here for over 10 years. The owner, Dilip Das, saw that I was a more fast-paced learner than the rest when it comes to handling the machinery in two-three months. In his absence, I take care of operations and my monthly salary is Rs 15,000,” said Malati Das, another worker.
She said she would not leave this job, as the alternative —being a maid or a daily wage worker — would provide her too little to support her daughter’s higher studies.
Improving livelihood, creating construction material
Dilip Das, the owner of Shree Guru Plastics, is training all these women who were either abandoned by their husbands, widowed, or pushed into poverty to make reusable construction material from discarded plastic waste.
In the recycling unit, plastic from landfills, which is wet and contaminated, goes through a rigorous washing and blowing process before being sent to sorting by female staffers.
The sorted plastic is then shredded into smaller flakes, heated and extruded into smaller pellets. Then, it is melted into a thick liquid through a reactor to cast into a mould that cools down to form a thin film.
While raising structures, moisture finds its way into the interior of a building through the wall, floor or roof, which could lead to softening and crumbling of plaster and disintegration of bricks, stones and tiles. Using the thin film made from recycled plastic between the source of dampness and the part of the building adjacent to it prevents the crumbling of structures.
The thin film used for damp-proofing buildings is sold to wholesalers at Rs 5-6 per kilogram.
In 2021, Shree Guru Plastics won Waste Aid’s Zero Waste Cities Challenge for its grassroots circular economy innovations.
‘Power Loop’ initiative
The plastic waste problem in Guwahati, Assam, is neglected by the municipality and the state pollution control board. During the Covid lockdown, residents struggled with waste management, with no one from the municipality picking up their trash and disposing of it properly.
This was when Shirshendu Sekar Das decided to take on the problem and started the Power Loop initiative, initially known as the Power of 300. He asked 300 residents to segregate plastic waste at source, which is sold to the recycling unit of Dilip Das, his uncle. Sekar Das is the co-founder of the Midway Journey, a non-profit working to reduce plastic waste in northeast India.
“The idea of the Power Loop is to open the eyes of the public and show what responsibility we have as citizens to responsibly segregate waste before throwing it away,” said Sekar Das.
Sekar Das’s team works at decentralising the management and disposal of solid waste produced in the city that amounts to at least 600 tonnes daily. After all, segregating waste allows for recycling more items at Dilip Das’s firm and preventing their eventual disposal in landfills.
Such initiatives incorporate everyone in the circular economy — from ragpickers to informal workers and even residents — in reducing at least 10 per cent of the waste in Guwahati’s landfills.
The hilly city of Guwahati is bounded by the Brahmaputra — Asia’s second-largest river in terms of discharge — with many wetlands opening up to the river.
The city’s erstwhile dumping site, Boragaon, was situated close to Deepor Beel — a Ramsar site — before the National Green Tribunal ordered its transfer to a new site considering the harmful impacts of hazardous waste. Today, the dumping site is located in Belartol, less than a kilometre from the erstwhile dumping site.
Sanjay K Gupta, an expert on integrated plastic waste management and an advisor to the Assam government, calls the shutdown of Boragaon a “welcome move.”
However, the transfer cannot get rid of leaching, according to Sekar Das. Much of the plastic in landfills may take up to 1,000 years to degrade, leaking potentially toxic substances into the soil and water, posing long-term negative effects on fragile ecosystems close to landfills.
What’s stifling is the municipality’s lack of intent and will to incorporate a proper waste management system. In 2018, Guwahati generated 37 tonnes of plastic waste daily, according to a study by green group ENVIRON.
Dilip Das’s firm produces 18 tonnes of recycled materials out of the 25 tonnes of plastic scraps brought to him, which, although small, still acts as a silver lining against the city’s burgeoning waste problem.
However, there is only little that the initiatives of Sekar Das and Dilip Das can do.
“Even if my firm is recycling 18 tonnes of plastic in a month, it is not much of a big fight against the city’s plastic pollution until its residents learn to segregate wet waste from dry waste, or the municipality enforces strict measures to clean up plastic,” said Dilip Das.
Authorities need to strictly enforce segregation at source by imposing penalties on people who do not sort waste effectively and regulate their present model of contracting non-profits, according to Shirshendu.
The government should also support recycling units like Dilip Das’s, which are hemmed in by limitations such as engaging staffers, formalising scrap dealers or using sophisticated processing machines because of the lack of funds.
The lack of will still plagues the governing bodies who could start a plastic bank for people to drop off plastic waste and penalise the violators of Plastic Waste Management, 2016 and 2022 — under which any person from a street vendor to restaurants using polluting plastic could be fined, added Gupta, the plastic expert.
There is no denying that solving the plastic crisis in the city is an issue that needs more than a few small independent recycling units to tackle the menace head-on while generating income and dignity for people in the informal sector.
Even then, no one thought that recycling pungent and unsegregated wet waste from landfills — which still remain as rejects for recycling — was possible in the city before Dilip Das’s unit installed a washing unit to gather raw material for his recycled plastic sheet.
“Dilip Das’s firm gives us hope that wet and contaminated waste will not be lying in dumps anymore,” said Sekar Das.