Rag Pickers: Engineers for a Cradle-to-Cradle Future
Minar came to New Delhi more than 10 years ago with his family from a small village in rural India to find opportunity in the city. He is one of 3000 people in the Vivekanan Camp, one of 300 million, a quarter of India’s population living in poverty, each with a story. Minar and his family are commonly called "Rag Pickers," self-employed men and women that account for the 47 percent recovery rate for plastic produced in India. I met Minar last month when I first visited his camp to learn about the true life cycle of plastic.
I wanted to cast these men in a different light. Literally, I wanted to cast them, using plaster of paris. They are social entrepreneurs, earning no government pay for their work, doing a service for the whole of the country. Minar is a gold mine of information about what people throw away, what’s worth picking up and what gets washed down the Yamuna River. These three areas describe the plastic pollution problem: Individual beliefs and litter, Industry product design and defense, Government policy and waste management. Often one blames the other, leaving wasted time and resources to join the tangible waste piling up around the world.
I told Minar that I had taken a boat across the Yamuna River, which provides most of the drinking water for 18 million people in Delhi, and drains their waste as well. I spent an afternoon with Sunny Verma from the NGO “SWECHHA: We for Change” in a boat across the lower end of the river, where 80 percent of it is raw sewage, zero dissolved oxygen, and as Sunny put it, “This river is dead.” Putrid black anaerobic muck bubbles methane to the surface with every oar stroke. Before I could finish my description Minar interrupted me and said, "There are no plastic bottles there." I showed him a photo in my camera. “See, there are no plastic bottles. Nobody wants the rest of it.”
Minar is right. There are no bottles here. Plastic films, like plastic bags and food wrappers, pile against the bridge pilings. Minar explained that it takes 350 plastic bags to make 1 kg, whereas only 30 plastic bottles equals the same weight, of which he earns $.30.
"But what if the plastic bags were thicker?" I asked him.
"It depends how thick, then I might collect it," he responded, adding, “But if they are dirty, I must wash them, otherwise the wholesaler will not buy them from me. He’ll remember me and not buy any of my plastic.”
He must constantly weigh the cost/benefit of his work against time, monetary return, personal health, wear and tear on his bicycle, and the needs of his family. His father left long ago, leaving him to care for his mother, grandfather and siblings. “This life is not easy,” he says.
The products that he doesn't pick up are the ones that are not designed for recovery. If we held manufactures to a standard of recovery, by asking the rag-pickers and the recycle centers around the world "what is not recyclable by design," then make those products obsolete, plastic would begin to lose its place as a major polluter. You simply wouldn't see it, or need to bury or burn it. The production-consumption-recovery loop would begin to close.
The loop of plastic waste comes to a semi-closed loop in Mumbai in the Dharavi Slum, where plastic is collected, sorted, melted, pelletized and resold. Rakesh, a guide with Reality Tours, meets us at the bridge that goes over the train tracks and into the Dharavi slum community built on reclaimed landfill. With 540,000 people/km sq., Dharavi boasts of being the heart and industrial center of Mumbai, where $2/day labor beats any other market in the world. Mumbai is one of the major recipients of plastic waste from the U.S. and Europe, and Dharavi is where a poor and eager workforce doesn’t complain. Through a maze of narrow alleys and raw sewage channels, we enter the plastic smelting zone, but we smell it first.
Giant sacks, piled two stories high, are filled with everything plastic, from washing machine parts, to bottle caps and Barbie dolls. There are thousands of them. In damp and dark rooms, men and women squat on piles of mixed plastic and sort it all by hand into separate types. “It’s the feel and smell of it that makes them know what it is,” Rakesh explains. The ear-piercing crush of plastic into penny-size fragments happens in rooms where men stuff larger pieces into giant funnels with rotating blades attached to heavy flywheels.
We meander between sacks of sorted plastic to a place where the rooftop is billowing black smoke. My eyes and throat burn. “Here is where they melt it,” Rakesh explains, adding, “…and they sleep and eat here because the owner, who only comes into the slum once a month, likes the free security.” Inside the long dark room there’s one man on one end pouring shredded HDPE into a hopper, which is then melted inside what looks like a red-hot cannon. I pick up a broken piece that reads “York,” as in NY. On the other end of the cannon the melted plastic is extruded like spaghetti, cooled in a bath of water, and then chopped into tiny pellets.
This plastic may have come from food-grade plastic, but will not return to it, because toxins absorbed into the plastic is not removed in this process. This plastic gets another life as a lesser-quality plastic product, which keeps it out of the environment for now. Two men working here are shirtless, wearing sandals, covered with tiny bits of plastic and soot. Their lifespan here is 50-55. They are the ones that turn the plastic that waste pickers, like Minar in Delhi, collect for 15 Rupees/kg ($.30) into plastic worth 40 Rupees/kg ($.90) in exchange for $2/day minus 20 years of life.
I returned to the Vivenkanan Camp with my molding materials and plaster of paris, just as Minar pulls into camp with 4 giant bundles, the days catch of plastic bottles, strapped to his bicycle. I asked last week if I could cast him. My intention is to acknowledge his important role in society, and the dignity he deserves for his work, as the “Sanitation Engineer” of India. He agreed. I cast his hand first, so he would trust the process. Thirty children gathered around us. Justin Bastien took a dozen photographs of him and everyone, including Minar’s grandfather, who was squatting comfortably next to stuffed sacks of plastic bottles.
Thirty minutes later I had a plaster cast of Minar, his strong jawline, arched neck and closed eyes gave a powerful performance. His grandfather looked over and gave the cast a smile and a ‘thumbs-up.’ In time I will recast his image with some of the plastic he collected for me, so that my original intention will be served—to show that the people that pick up the waste of the world are the best qualified to tell us how to design a cradle-to-cradle future.
By Simon Montlake
For more than a decade, Susan Jane Brown has been battling to stop a natural gas pipeline and export terminal from being built in the backcountry of Oregon. As an attorney at the nonprofit Western Environmental Law Center, she has repeatedly argued that the project's environmental, social, and health costs are too high.
All that was before this month's deadly wildfires in Oregon shrouded the skies above her home office in Portland. "It puts a fine point on it. These fossil fuel projects are contributing to global climate change," she says.
Moderates Feeling the Heat<p>If elected, Mr. Biden has vowed to stop new drilling for oil and gas on federal land and in federal waters and to rejoin the 2015 Paris climate accord that President Donald Trump gave notice of quitting. He would reinstate Obama-era regulations of greenhouse gas emissions, including methane, the largest component of natural gas.</p><p>The Biden climate platform also states that all federal infrastructure investments and federal permits would need to be assessed for their climate impacts. Analysts say such a test could impede future LNG plants and pipelines, though not those that already have federal approval. </p><p>Climate change activists who pushed for that language say much depends on who would have oversight of federal agencies that regulate the industry. Some are wary of Biden's reliance on advice from Obama-era officials, including former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who is now on the board of Southern Company, a utility, and a former Obama environmental aide, Heather Zichal, who has served on the board of Cheniere Energy, an LNG exporter. </p>
The Push for U.S. Fuel Exports<p>As vice president, Biden was part of an administration that pushed hard for global climate action while also promoting U.S. oil and gas exports to its allies and trading partners. As fracking boomed, Obama ended a 40-year ban on crude oil exports. In Europe, LNG was touted both as an alternative to coal and as strategic competition with Russian pipelines.</p><p>That much, at least, continued with President Trump. Under Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the agency referred to liquified U.S. hydrocarbons as "<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/29/us/freedom-gas-energy-department.html" target="_blank">freedom gas</a>."</p><p>Mr. Trump has also championed the interests of coal, oil, and gas while denigrating the findings of government climate scientists. He rejected the Paris accord as unfair to the U.S. and detrimental to its economy, but has offered no alternative path to emissions cuts. </p><p>Still, Trump's foreign policy has not always served the LNG industry: Tariffs on foreign steel drove up pipeline costs, and a trade war with China stayed the hand of Chinese LNG importers wary of reliance on U.S. suppliers. </p><p>Even his regulatory rollbacks could be a double-edged sword. By relaxing curbs last month on methane leaks, the U.S. has ceded ground to European regulators who are drafting emissions standards that LNG producers are watching closely. "That's a precursor of fights that will be fought in all the rest of the developed world," says Mr. Hutchison. </p><p>Indeed, some oil-and-gas exporters had urged the Trump administration not to abandon the tougher rules, since they undercut their claim to offer a cleaner-burning way of producing heat and electricity. "U.S. LNG is not going to be able to compete in a world that's focused on methane emissions and intensity," says Erin Blanton, a senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. </p>
Stepping on the Gas<p>In July, the Department of Energy issued an export license to Jordan Cove's developer, Canada's Pembina Pipeline Corp. In a statement, Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said the project would provide "reliable, affordable, and cleaner-burning natural gas to our allies around the world."</p><p>As a West Coast terminal, Jordan Cove offers a faster route to Asia where its capacity of 7.8 million tons of LNG a year could serve to heat more than 15 million homes. At its peak, its construction would also create 6,000 jobs, the company says, in a stagnant corner of Oregon.</p><p>But the project still lacks multiple local and state permits, and its biggest asset – a Pacific port – has become its biggest handicap, says Ms. Blanton. "They are putting infrastructure in a state where there's no political support for the pipeline or the terminal, unlike in Louisiana or Texas," she says. </p><p>Ms. Brown, the environmental lawyer, says she wants to see Jordan Cove buried, not just mothballed until natural gas prices recover. But she knows that it's only one among many LNG projects and that others will likely get built, even if Biden is elected in November, despite growing evidence of the harm caused by methane emissions. </p>
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