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Chennai’s unregulated, outlawed plastic industry


In the bustling vicinity of the Vadapalani Andavar Temple, a flower vendor, surrounded by vibrant offerings and incense, revealed the persistent challenge of plastic waste in the area. “The police stationed here do not check often, but we keep the stock hidden most of the times. We cannot get rid of this; it won’t leave the face of Earth,” said the vendor as he packed ‘archanai’ materials into single-use plastic covers. This sheds light on the entrenched use of plastic, highlighting the lack of sustainable alternatives.

The flower vendor (name?), emphasising the absence of vending machines for the eco-friendly ‘Manjapai’ (yellow cloth bag), said , “Almost all devotees come empty-handed. They need something handy and, more importantly, something that is free of cost. A set of 30 plastic covers costs just ₹10, so we don’t charge for it, unlike the cloth bags in supermarkets for which people pay.” He attributed his supply chain to random sellers who frequent the area at unspecified times, underscoring the informal and unregulated nature of the plastic trade.

Venturing beyond Vadapalani, the plastic conundrum extends to various neighbourhoods. A vegetable seller in Koyambedu traced her plastic source to Parrys Corner, while a baker shop owner in Triplicane pointed to specific shops in Bharathi Salai, Ellis Puram, Padupakkam, and other locations. The interconnected web of plastic distribution span diverse areas, involving sellers who clandestinely operate.

In Sadayankuppam, Gopalraj, 65, a shopkeeper, admitted receiving plastic bags ranging from ₹10 to ₹150, primarily from unidentified individuals on motorbikes. His uncertainty about the origins hinted at the possibility of involvement from wholesale shops. Mr. Gopalraj alleged that these suppliers not only distribute plastic covers but also provide plastic cups, plates, and cutlery at an incredibly low rates.

As per research conducted by experts in Indian Institute of Technology Madras (IIT-M), microplastics pollution is caused by residences— through washing dishes, doing laundry, taking showers and using toilets — all these produce municipal wastewater. The use of banned plastic and unscientific disposal, constraints in processing them may add to this.

Residents, particularly in flood-prone regions like Burma Nagar, repurpose the larger plastic covers to safeguard their belongings during emergencies. An 18-year-old class XII student claims, “Some discard this along with other wastes close to the banks of the water body running here.” This informal disposal method aggravates the plastic waste issue, impacting both the environment and public health.

Subbulakshmi R., in Ward 122, under Zone 9, claimed that the flower vendor handed over flowers in a banned plastic cover, though she didn’t need it. “Some [people] use it so the flowers stay fresh in the refrigerator. I do not chill them, so once I use them, I store up the plastic covers in a cloth bag and return it to the vendor. Such cheap plastics, specifically those packing food packets, attract cockroaches and are unhealthy. They release toxins when exposed to moisture constantly. It is better to dispose of them.”

A worker in Zone 10 revealed that the efforts to segregate plastics but acknowledged open dumping near markets. She said , “These thin covers are especially tough as they tear easily. The transparent ones are hard to spot sometimes, but we do our best.” Another conservancy worker in Manali alleged that such single-use plastic waste is generally found close to the Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation (Tasmac) outlets, along with empty bottles.

In order to reduce the negative effects of plastic waste, the city has installed baling machines at five different locations. These machines are used to process thin plastics that has been separated from other types of waste. The compacted plastics are then sent to cement factories where they are used as an additional source of fuel. This is a promising example of the city’s efforts towards responsible waste management.

As the plastic predicament persists near the Vadapalani Andavar Temple and resonates across various neighbourhoods, there is an urgent call for comprehensive solutions.

According to Jayaram Venkatesan, who leads the anti-corruption organisation ‘Arappor Iyakkam’, said, “After the ban [on May 23, 2023], a lot of raids were organised in shops, which led to a drastic reduction of the usage in a short time. But, once they stopped this, there was an evident increase. Raising awareness among people and holding random searches has to be a continuous process. One way to mitigate this is by having a dedicated team, constituted by the Tamil Nadu government within the Greater Chennai Corporation, to check on this consistently. The corporation will hold drives for a minimum of 10 days with officials of Solid Waste Management. Yet, garbage management is their main focus, hence they will not be able to do it frequently.”

“Further, 85% of the waste must be processed locally, and only 15% of the inert waste must go to the landfill areas, as per Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016. But 95% is not processed, which adds to the issue,” he added.

Additional Chief Secretary and Greater Chennai Corporation Commissioner J. Radhakrishnan said that the issue of traders zooming around the city, supplying plastic covers in black, has come to the purview of the civic body and plans to stop this are in the fray.

“We also want the public to understand that such covers are non-degradable and a risk to the environment They must avoid using such items and should not dump them openly. There is the ‘Meendum Manjapai’ campaign by the State government to raise awareness on this. Tasmac is also a focus area, where the implementation of a plastic-free environment [ is the need of the hour]. We are intensifying vigil here too,” he said.

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