Wednesday, May 13, 2020

My City My Responsibility - Future of the Story of Plastic!

Dear All,

PPE made of Plastic

Plastic an ubiquitous thing on earth and is quite indispensable for most of us whether we like it or not. Yet this invention has now become an evil for the environment due to innumerable reasons.  When it comes to sustainability, plastic appears to be one of those materials that can be very efficient, cost effective and user friendly. However plastic waste disposal is a global problem that is choking up our oceans, filling our lands and entering our food chains. These thoughts were triggered after watching the documentary titled Story of Plastic aired on the occasion of this year's Earth Day. 

This documentary not only shows how big is the plastic pollution problem but also shows where does it come from and how it is a systemic problem than just an individual's choice. It captures the entire supply chain right from the use of petroleum to produce plastic to plastic pollution to its implications for climate change. Indeed it is an eye opening documentary when it comes to the life threatening impacts of plastic pollution. It pictures how managing the plastic waste is bigger challenge for developing countries where the plastic wastes are being shipped all the way by the developed nations. But when plastic wastes are no more accepted by the developing countries, how ineffective recycling plants create downgraded plastic products that cause even much more harm. Plastic pollution and its linkages with poverty, cheap labor and women who are involved in the overall process of sorting the wastes, recycling and processing especially in India have been highlighted as well. However packaging material and consumption of single-use plastic products like straws, carry bags and shampoo or food sachets etc pose bigger challenges of disposal, is the ultimate issue that we have been grappling with as per the documentary while the mismanagement of plastic is just an excuse to get away from the hidden agenda of the petroleum companies.

Given all these facts and concerns, the movie fails to effectively showcase the way forward apart from a ban on single use plastic and packaging material. The movie completely disregards the benefits of plastic especially if we consider the current pandemic scenario where PPE's made out of plastic have been the most efficient and easily affordable material for our safety. 

Me @Khamir in Kachchh
learning to weave plastic bags
PC: Dr Priyadarshini Karve
I believe it is important to understand that even if we ban plastic completely today, an existing single waste bottle will take upto 450 years to decompose. From the entire host of plastic products that we consume to the huge plastic products that we use, its quite obvious that plastics are here to stay forever. So definitely banning plastic may not be that helpful, however can we explore and have stringent policies in place in order to phase out the production of virgin plastic along with creating complex recycling techniques that are effective, local and low cost that will ensure upcycling plastic waste into a much better and more durable and eco-friendly product? One such local example that quickly comes to my mind is of Aarohana Ecosocial development a plastic upcycling initiative by Amita Deshpande where plastic carry bags are cleaned and woven into attractive handbags, purses and mats that even generate local livelihoods for women. Inspired by Khamir, a platform in Kachchh that promotes indigenous knowledge on handicrafts and allied cultural practices for creation and preservation of local communities.

From the packaging problem perspective, a global standardization for packaging can be adopted that will improve recycling and ease resource recovery which in turn will enable circular economic models. As per Our World in Data statistics, mismanaged plastic waste is generated highly by the high income groups versus low income groups, but that is mostly due to accessibility, its not that the low income groups are wiser! Also countries having longer coastlines have seen tremendous mismanaged plastic wastes. So the question of managing plastic waste can be tackled only with the help better segregation and effective waste management infrastructure.  

When we talk about segregation another challenge is the segregation within the various plastic items, because some products like transparent PET bottles can be easily recycled or reused, while some products may need complicated processes in order to recycle them. The used PPE's are of hazardous nature and will have to be incinerated right away. For such products we need more effective technologies for incineration that are least polluting. Given the nature of plastic and its versatility, we need to explore for more such processes where a plastic waste turns out to be the raw material for another product.

Now that there is so much plastic in nature, some bacteria and fungi have started evolving the ability to eat it. Apart from recycling, such interesting ways to deal with plastics wastes are upcoming. Another concept of producing bioplastics from startch are already available, however problems with this plastic is about its look and feel which is exactly same like ordinary plastic and hence differentiating it is difficult plus its also a controversial issue when it comes to food security. Hence there's a lot of scope for research in this field to produce sustainable polymers.

In one of my earlier blogs I did mention why plastics were ever invented. A lot of scope lies for sustainable innovation given the technological advances today, industries have a great role to play. Better quality of plastics can be produced that have low carbon footprint and hence can reduce pollution. The idea is to no longer term plastic as WASTES but as a KEY resource and start reusing it at source. Many individuals do come up with innovative ways that ensure their plastics don't end up in a landfill or an ocean. A more systemic approach will help to solve the plastic problem that involves engaging public sector as well as private sector to pitch for effective enforcement of existing policies and strategies. 

In October 2018, UN Environment programme and the Ellen Mcarthur Foundation announced the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment with more than 290 signatories having a common vision to treat plastics at source based on circular economy models. One of the pioneers in circular economy has been the Banyan Nation who are converting collected post consumer and industrial plastic waste into high quality recycled granules which are termed as Better Plastic that has strength as good as virgin plastic. There are several such examples already who are using plastic as a resource for better economic gains. Its time we start valuing plastic as a raw material and use it effectively for the betterment of the environment.

Pournima Agarkar. 

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Monday, May 4, 2020


Over the last few days, various people kept messaging me - have you seen the Michael Moore Documentary 'Planet of the Humans'? It is shocking, depressing, a must-see, etc., etc., etc.

Reading about the documentary, I had got an impression that it is an American documentary about American energy scene. When it was released on the Earth Day, a lot of criticism started appearing from scientists and environmental activists in the USA. It was also quite weird to see that climate denier and white supremacist website and twitter feeds were going all gung ho about Michael Moore! Having read his book 'Stupid White Men', that was the most shocking thing for me! But it was equally surprising to see the documentary being paid a lot of positive attention by Indian environmentalists! I had not expected it to make much of a ripple here at all!

Anyway, the long and short of it is that curiosity finally drove me to watch the documentary, and I would like to share some thoughts on it. 

My recommendation: You would be better off watching the classic 1968 movie 'Planet of The Apes' than this documentary! 

Closing Scene of the Movie 'Planet of The Apes' (1968)

There was not a single thing in the entire documentary that I had not heard before, from various people in various forums. So the whole approach of the narrator - that he is revealing some deep, dark and dirty secrets was laughable.

In the first part of the documentary, the narrator is talking about his own attempts to live off grid, off capitalist market systems, etc., and how hard he tried to embrace renewable energy (may be a decade or more ago? I am not sure that the time line is mentioned, or I may have missed it). He gives a number of examples and quotes a number of people to drive home that:

(a) putting up solar and wind electricity generation systems is costly and material intensive, 

(b) a solar system consumes more energy in its creation than what it will generate over its lifetime, and 

(c) there are inherent limitations to renewables that make it impractical to think of a 100% renewable powered electric grid.

I have been asked about all three things in many of my public talks and here is what I have always answered:

(a) Creating any energy infrastructure is costly and material intensive - coal fired power plants or nuclear power plants do not appear out of thin air! The only way to address this aspect is to reduce our electricity demand, so that less electricity generation infrastructure will serve more people. This can be done in a two-fold manner - one, by actually reducing our energy needs, and two, by improving demand side efficiency. This is and will continue to be work in progress, especially as we transition away from fossil energy. 

(b) Solar systems using more energy to built than they can generate was true till 2010, but not anymore. In fact it is ironical that this documentary has been released in 2020 - the year when it is estimated that the solar industry as a whole will have 'paid back' all the energy that it consumed from its inception, and will from henceforth be net energy positive. Those interested in data can see this publication. Currently it is estimated that a solar photovoltaic cell will pay back its energy cost in about 4 years, and then produce clean and pollution free electricity for about 25 or more years.

(c) Who is insisting that we must have 100% renewable electric grid or nothing?? Even if we have a hybrid grid with a combination of fossil, renewable and nuclear, that is a step in the right direction. Even in fossil fuel based electricity generation, going from a solid fuel like coal to a cleaner burning liquid or gaseous fossil fuel is a step forward. The documentary mentions at several places that in the name of moving away from coal, utilities are going for natural gas, which also is a fossil fuel. But it fails to acknowledge that natural gas is a far cleaner fossil fuel to produce and use than coal. Yes, 100% renewable electric grid is the ultimate goal, and step by step we are approaching it globally, but have not reached it as yet. In the meanwhile, the grid will continue to be a hybrid. I don't see why this is a problem! 

Another aspect which most of us working in the decentralised renewable energy sector have been shouting about for years - renewables give us the unique opportunity of creating decentralised systems customised to local needs. This in itself provides a far better energy service to the end user and is a more environment friendly approach (e.g., roof top solar systems do not have any land footprint) than building a MW or GW scale centralised coal, or natural gas, or nuclear, or solar or wind energy system.

The intermittent nature of renewables can be overcome by using hybrids of multiple decentralised renewable energy systems, and also by creating a mega network of a large number of small smart grids, so that surplus energy generated in one part of a country or a continent or the planet can be passed on to where it is required.

It is ridiculous to expect that nobody should step out and start using any technology unless it is perfected! It is only when people start using a new concept or a product, that its limitations and further potential gets highlighted, and money becomes available for further R&D because someone is already making money from whatever improvements the new concept or product is able to deliver.

And that brings me to another outdated idea pushed throughout the documentary - that it is wrong/unethical/amoral for businesses to make money from renewable energy systems and for environmental movement to take funding from big businesses. My question is why is this wrong?? Projecting businesses and profit making as anti-environment villains is in itself a fallacy, and has kept the green movement out of the mainstream for decades. Yes, do bash any business that is indulging in exploitation and illegal activities, and yes, also bash any activists who are spreading lies to protect their funders. These are unethical practices and can even be challenged in the courts of law. But to consider the entire business community as some evil alien force out to destroy humanity has not solved any problems before, and is not likely to work now or in the future. We have to acknowledge that businesses are human creations, and as human understanding of the world around us grows, so will the businesses evolve! The values and processes followed by today's businesses are far different from the values and processes followed by businesses in the 19th century. People learn and change, and change the way they run businesses. This is what 'progress' is all about!

And finally, I come to the one and only factual segment in the documentary - large scale biomass based energy generation being labelled as 'renewable' is wrong and distructive to the environment. 

But what is new and not known about this?? Everyone working in the sector of decentralised biomass and biogas energy in India and other developing countries has been crying hoarse about this for years! Various organisations working in the sector of waste management have been presenting anti-incineration arguments year after year, to various government agencies, and helplessly seeing more and more 'waste to energy' plants coming up all over India. But most people seem to be more moved by the scenes of waste incineration and wood chip based power generation in rural USA rather than by the pleas that many of us have been making to garner support for decentralised renewables in general, and decentralised biomass energy in particular, for more than a decade! 

Furthermore, the documentary tends to advance a simplistic half-true outlook of "biomass is dirtier than coal" to replace the simplistic half-truth "biomass is renewable and therefore all biomass energy is all good" narrative, which is equally damaging to the sector.

Throwing out the outdated material, and focusing only on the contemporary valid issues, the documentary could have been a great platform to talk about the virtues of decentralisation and the need to overhaul the entire energy supply chain from supply to use, rather than just switching from coal to something else at the point of generation. But it just poses questions that have already been answered by many people many times, and then goes on to present a wrong answer as if it is some profound truth discovered by the narrator after meditating under a bodhi tree!

After 'throwing limelight' on specific challenges of the renewables and environmental movements in the USA, the apparent problem according to the makers of the documentary is global population! Some of the people interviewed do make a passing reference to consumption also, but it is implied that the consumption is high because the population is high. The very name and the opening and closing of the documentary alludes to this focus on global human population. This is totally wrong, misleading, and a typical White American myth from a typical white American standpoint that everything that happens in the USA is shaping the entire world! It is no wonder therefore that White American supremacist climate deniers are promoting the documentary! 

There is now ample quantitative data published through global studies that the driver of climate change and all other global environmental stresses is consumption patterns of the wealthy in the western world than the total number of people on the planet. For example, check out the latest study referred in this report.

Population is basically a solved issue, now we need to urgently focus on consumption of the wealthy. I have addressed the myth about population many times before! Here is one blog entry from five years ago. And those who can read Marathi, here is a relatively recent article written by me on the same topic. 

So there. You want to know what I think about the 'Planet of The Humans'? This is it - the documentary is mostly a Cinematic Planet of Outdated Half Truths. 

Priyadarshini Karve
Samuchit Enviro Tech


Samuchit Enviro Tech. 

Friday, May 1, 2020

Lockdown chronicles and beyond!

Dear All, 

Google Photos - Last year birthday celebration in Mahableshwar 

I know its been more than a month that we all have been under the lockdown and there seems to be no end to it until end of May. Fortunately or unfortunately we are locked up with our loved ones!!!For me, this time has been a roller coaster ride of emotions and I am sure for most us too this must have been a challenging time. 

Right from the day one I was prepared for a locked in house birthday (28th April is my birthdate 😊) I speculated this coming when I heard about the lockdown in March. But was fine since it was my first birthday at home. However I have been literally getting sad and depressed each day due to the overwhelming news about the number of coronavirus led deaths in Italy, US, Spain and then India. Slowly Maharashtra and Pune being the epicenter of this pandemic made me more and more depressed. On learning that these pandemics are going to be there with us even after the lockdown may be a few years later with even more deadlier viruses made me feel like I don't want to see all this happening. I am exaggerating a bit and sorry to sound such a pessimist, but yes this is in short how I had been feeling in the initial days of lockdown. Though I am with my loved ones, I couldn't talk to them about how I feel because I live with my in-laws (aged 60+) for whom this lockdown has created a havoc, they panic with every single news about closures whether it is vehicles, parks, places of buying things like Demart and Big bazaar, or maid not coming, everything. I had to tell them its fine we will manage it but still... they just cannot accept the situation.

Fortunately, Nanded City (where I reside) has been managing the pandemic quite well. We never fell short of anything be it food or electricity or water, the essentials are completely taken care of. Indeed its a privilege for which I am grateful but do empathize with all the migrants, poor and the daily waged labors who are affected and are deprived of their loved ones stranded in some location without food, water and sanitation facility. But couldn't do much for them as I kept on feeling even more grim. My husband and sister-in-law have been busier than before with their work from home schedule. We couldn't match our times and discuss these issues though we managed to converse a few times and I did feel better. However, I have a habit of noting down things, reading and listening to positive thoughts, observing and exercising which kept me somehow going. 

Nevertheless, I started searching for motivation in every small thing around me and STOPPED watching news. A big thank you to Dr Priyadarshini Karve who asked me to post content titled #NotAboutCorona as a daily feed that helped me divert my mind and thinking about different perspectives. I enjoyed watching the videos she shared and we decided to post them daily in order to promote diversity in thoughts. I am sure all of you loved them too.  

Everyday heroes right from the vegetable and other food stuff vendors, milk suppliers, our security guards, domestic helpers, the housekeeping staff and the story of #thelastfishermanofBombay Ganesh Nakhawa (Thanks to Myron Mendes) who is providing fresh fish to all despite the lockdown challenges, all are indeed like a superhero league to me. The way doctors are heroes in the hospital for the affected patients I feel the same way these are our heroes ensuring that we stay home healthy. Observing them do their work relentlessly is a great source of HOPE. 

I am a fitness enthusiast and love everything about my workout regime, closure of the gym was really a bad news for me, however my workout is very much a machine less workout so I was not that much worried. However due to this sadness I could barely get that motivation to move and I realized how much of a role my friends played in making the workout fun and happening. Nevertheless, thanks to social media, videos and zoom calls that ensured we connect virtually and keep ourselves going. Almost after 15 days of lockdown I could gather my wits and start some workout, which gave me a whole lot of strength and confidence to get going. I am now back in action and trying my best to achieve some lockdown workout challenges that I gave to myself. Definitely would like to share about the successes and failures of these challenges. Now I am glad the lockdown extended!!! Not being selfish just being an optimist, I know there are a lot of people who badly want this lockdown to just vanish and want everything to go back to normal. 

Nevermind, finally my birthday was here and this year I received overwhelming wishes from everywhere even friends and unexpected family members and the entire day I was busy replying to messages and answering calls from everywhere. BIG thanks to all. Forgot to click pictures this time but posting a picture from last year's birthday celebrations. I would like to share a conversation I had where a friend of mine literally said that 'Now you must be happy, your environment is all clean and pollution free'. I was shocked, just because I work in this field, all the environment is mine WOW! There's a dearth of right information among people and there's so much of work that needs to happen in the field of education systems and media studies to promote the things that matter in the right context. 

Anyway coming back to normal so what should the NEW NORMAL look like. While pondering over it I thank again to the thought experiments (amazing concept) led by Dr Priyadarshini Karve through her vlogs and some online articles and a lot of self introspection. There are a few very basic things that I think we should have in order to thrive post lockdown and in such recurring future scenarios. 

1. Mindset - Simply accept it, that this is going to be THE new norm where after every 8 to 10 years or less there will be such a event where we need to shift our routine lifestyles and adapt to the new situation. May be a 360 degree shift is required. Just be ready! We need to keep adapting, renovating, re-engineering or even replacing systems and people.Trending concepts like makeshift and DIY things have a lot of scope.  
2. Consumption Pattern - In our climate friendly lifestyle workshops, we stress on the aspect that we need to do everything, either individually, or as society or as a system in optimum ways without compromising on our evolutionary instincts. Being a flexitarian when it comes to consumption is the key I feel which we need to adapt too coupled with an attitude to conserve will help. Not just in case of food, but also in case of material things that we use in our day to day life. For example living without a mobile or living with a robot or some bionic sensors.   
3.Skills - Being an expert in one field wont be enough or may not be required. We got to be JACK, I mean 'Jack of all trades and master of none'. Since you never know, your expertise may not be needed anymore. So again be a life long learner, explorer and achiever rather than an expert in one field! 
4. Health and Fitness - I don't need to say, how much we need to value our health systems now. At an individual level keeping oneself fit is more important than being thin or fat moreover building strength and immunity is essential. Its quite evident that only a vaccine which is scientifically tried and tested is the ultimate solution to eradicate a viral infection, while all the other traditional medicinal systems can act only as supplementary measures. While we take all the necessary precautions if we are hit by a deadlier virus its only science that can help us. We ought to have scientific temperament.  
5. Environment - Again I need not say WE need the Earth, Earth does not need us. If we need it we got to use it in a way that is governed by the laws of nature. Our systems, behaviors and lifestyles need to be tuned into the way nature functions. I have mentioned many a times in my blogs, that there's no such thing as waste in nature. We need to implement such cyclic systems where the 'waste' of one thing becomes the raw material of the other and hence no waste exist. 
6. Coalition - Living with climate change and then such recurring pandemics calls for a coalition between all the nations along with interstate and inter governmental organizations at every level. In order to coordinate in an efficient way we need advances in technology which is happening anyways but continuing in this direction.  

These are just my initial thoughts, you are most welcome to comment, add or deduct, agree or disagree to the list. Also do share your lockdown experiences. Its always good to document!!!

Pournima Agarkar.

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