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 Lynne Peeples
Editor's note: This story is part of a nine-month investigation of drinking water contamination across the U.S. The series is supported by funding from the Park Foundation and Water Foundation. Read the launch story, "Thirsting for Solutions," here.
In late September 2020, officials in Wrangell, Alaska, warned residents who were elderly, pregnant or had health problems to avoid drinking the city's tap water — unless they could filter it on their own.
Unintended Consequences<p>Chemists first discovered disinfection by-products in treated drinking water in the 1970s. The trihalomethanes they found, they determined, had resulted from the reaction of chlorine with natural organic matter. Since then, scientists have identified more than 700 additional disinfection by-products. "And those only represent a portion. We still don't know half of them," says Richardson, whose lab has identified hundreds of disinfection by-products. </p>
What’s Regulated and What’s Not?<p>The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently regulates 11 disinfection by-products — including a handful of trihalomethanes (THM) and haloacetic acids (HAA). While these represent only a small fraction of all disinfection by-products, EPA aims to use their presence to indicate the presence of other disinfection by-products. "The general idea is if you control THMs and HAAs, you implicitly or by default control everything else as well," says Korshin.</p><p>EPA also requires drinking water facilities to use techniques to reduce the concentration of organic materials before applying disinfectants, and regulates the quantity of disinfectants that systems use. These rules ultimately can help control levels of disinfection by-products in drinking water.</p>
Click the image for an interactive version of this chart on the Environmental Working Group website.<p>Still, some scientists and advocates argue that current regulations do not go far enough to protect the public. Many question whether the government is regulating the right disinfection by-products, and if water systems are doing enough to reduce disinfection by-products. EPA is now seeking public input as it considers potential revisions to regulations, including the possibility of regulating additional by-products. The agency held a <a href="https://www.epa.gov/dwsixyearreview/potential-revisions-microbial-and-disinfection-byproducts-rules" target="_blank">two-day public meeting</a> in October 2020 and plans to hold additional public meetings throughout 2021.</p><p>When EPA set regulations on disinfection by-products between the 1970s and early 2000s, the agency, as well as the scientific community, was primarily focused on by-products of reactions between organics and chlorine — historically the most common drinking water disinfectant. But the science has become increasingly clear that these chlorinated chemicals represent a fraction of the by-product problem.</p><p>For example, bromide or iodide can get caught up in the reaction, too. This is common where seawater penetrates a drinking water source. By itself, bromide is innocuous, says Korshin. "But it is extremely [reactive] with organics," he says. "As bromide levels increase with normal treatment, then concentrations of brominated disinfection by-products will increase quite rapidly."</p><p><a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15487777/" target="_blank">Emerging</a> <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.7b05440" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">data</a> indicate that brominated and iodinated by-products are potentially more harmful than the regulated by-products.</p><p>Almost half of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of either the Atlantic or Pacific coasts, where saltwater intrusion can be a problem for drinking water supplies. "In the U.S., the rule of thumb is the closer to the sea, the more bromide you have," says Korshin, noting there are also places where bromide naturally leaches out from the soil. Still, some coastal areas tend to be spared. For example, the city of Seattle's water comes from the mountains, never making contact with seawater and tending to pick up minimal organic matter.</p><p>Hazardous disinfection by-products can also be an issue with desalination for drinking water. "As <a href="https://ensia.com/features/can-saltwater-quench-our-growing-thirst/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">desalination</a> practices become more economical, then the issue of controlling bromide becomes quite important," adds Korshin.</p>
Other Hot Spots<p>Coastal areas represent just one type of hot spot for disinfection by-products. Agricultural regions tend to send organic matter — such as fertilizer and animal waste — into waterways. Areas with warmer climates generally have higher levels of natural organic matter. And nearly any urban area can be prone to stormwater runoff or combined sewer overflows, which can contain rainwater as well as untreated human waste, industrial wastewater, hazardous materials and organic debris. These events are especially common along the East Coast, notes Sydney Evans, a science analyst with the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG, a collaborator on <a href="https://ensia.com/ensia-collections/troubled-waters/" target="_blank">this reporting project</a>).</p><p>The only drinking water sources that might be altogether free of disinfection by-products, suggests Richardson, are private wells that are not treated with disinfectants. She used to drink water from her own well. "It was always cold, coming from great depth through clay and granite," she says. "It was fabulous."</p><p>Today, Richardson gets her water from a city system that uses chloramine.</p>
Toxic Treadmill<p>Most community water systems in the U.S. use chlorine for disinfection in their treatment plant. Because disinfectants are needed to prevent bacteria growth as the water travels to the homes at the ends of the distribution lines, sometimes a second round of disinfection is also added in the pipes.</p><p>Here, systems usually opt for either chlorine or chloramine. "Chloramination is more long-lasting and does not form as many disinfection by-products through the system," says Steve Via, director of federal relations at the American Water Works Association. "Some studies show that chloramination may be more protective against organisms that inhabit biofilms such as Legionella."</p>
Alternative Approaches<p>When he moved to the U.S. from Germany, Prasse says he immediately noticed the bad taste of the water. "You can taste the chlorine here. That's not the case in Germany," he says.</p><p>In his home country, water systems use chlorine — if at all — at lower concentrations and at the very end of treatment. In the Netherlands, <a href="https://dwes.copernicus.org/articles/2/1/2009/dwes-2-1-2009.pdf" target="_blank">chlorine isn't used at all</a> as the risks are considered to outweigh the benefits, says Prasse. He notes the challenge in making a convincing connection between exposure to low concentrations of disinfection by-products and health effects, such as cancer, that can occur decades later. In contrast, exposure to a pathogen can make someone sick very quickly.</p><p>But many countries in Europe have not waited for proof and have taken a precautionary approach to reduce potential risk. The emphasis there is on alternative approaches for primary disinfection such as ozone or <a href="https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/eco-friendly-way-disinfect-water-using-light/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ultraviolet light</a>. Reverse osmosis is among the "high-end" options, used to remove organic and inorganics from the water. While expensive, says Prasse, the method of forcing water through a semipermeable membrane is growing in popularity for systems that want to reuse wastewater for drinking water purposes.</p><p>Remucal notes that some treatment technologies may be good at removing a particular type of contaminant while being ineffective at removing another. "We need to think about the whole soup when we think about treatment," she says. What's more, Remucal explains, the mixture of contaminants may impact the body differently than any one chemical on its own. </p><p>Richardson's preferred treatment method is filtering the water with granulated activated carbon, followed by a low dose of chlorine.</p><p>Granulated activated carbon is essentially the same stuff that's in a household filter. (EWG recommends that consumers use a <a href="https://www.ewg.org/tapwater/reviewed-disinfection-byproducts.php#:~:text=EWG%20recommends%20using%20a%20home,as%20trihalomethanes%20and%20haloacetic%20acids." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countertop carbon filter</a> to reduce levels of disinfection by-products.) While such a filter "would remove disinfection by-products after they're formed, in the plant they remove precursors before they form by-products," explains Richardson. She coauthored a <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.9b00023" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019 paper</a> that concluded the treatment method is effective in reducing a wide range of regulated and unregulated disinfection by-products.</p><br>
Greater Cincinnati Water Works installed a granulated activated carbon system in 1992, and is still one of relatively few full-scale plants that uses the technology. Courtesy of Greater Cincinnati Water Works.<p>Despite the technology and its benefits being known for decades, relatively few full-scale plants use granulated active carbon. They often cite its high cost, Richardson says. "They say that, but the city of Cincinnati [Ohio] has not gone bankrupt using it," she says. "So, I'm not buying that argument anymore."</p><p>Greater Cincinnati Water Works installed a granulated activated carbon system in 1992. On a video call in December, Jeff Swertfeger, the superintendent of Greater Cincinnati Water Works, poured grains of what looks like black sand out of a glass tube and into his hand. It was actually crushed coal that has been baked in a furnace. Under a microscope, each grain looks like a sponge, said Swertfeger. When water passes over the carbon grains, he explained, open tunnels and pores provide extensive surface area to absorb contaminants.</p><p>While the granulated activated carbon initially was installed to address chemical spills and other industrial contamination concerns in the Ohio River, Cincinnati's main drinking water source, Swertfeger notes that the substance has turned out to "remove a lot of other stuff, too," including <a href="https://ensia.com/features/drinking-water-contamination-pfas-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">PFAS</a> and disinfection by-product precursors.</p><p>"We use about one-third the amount of chlorine as we did before. It smells and tastes a lot better," he says. "The use of granulated activated carbon has resulted in lower disinfection by-products across the board."</p><p>Richardson is optimistic about being able to reduce risks from disinfection by-products in the future. "If we're smart, we can still kill those pathogens and lower our chemical disinfection by-product exposure at the same time," she says.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://ensia.com/features/drinking-water-disinfection-byproducts-pathogens/" target="_blank">Ensia</a>. </em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649953730#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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