MUZAFFARNAGAR: Home to over 30 paper mills, UP‘s Muzaffarnagar receives a whopping 20,000 tonnes of imported waste paper per month, a crucial raw material for the industry. But the bales are often contaminated with all kinds of plastic, including empty cartons, discarded toys, cans, packages from e-commerce giants and wrapping of famous foreign brands that consumers in US and Canada throw into recycling bins. This is despite the fact that India has banned the import of plastic waste in 2019 to reduce packaging pollution in the country, in line with the Swachh Bharat Mission. However, due to lack of screening at the ports, such consignment enters the country under the garb of paper waste.
The paper industry claims they don’t use any prohibited substances as fuel. “We do procure 20,000 tonnes of paper waste in a month but no paper mill is involved in plastic burning. We have a robust mechanism of segregating plastic from paper waste. It is then sent to Rajasthan where it is burnt in cement manufacturing plants, which is a legal procedure,” said Pankaj Agarwal, president, UP paper mills association.
The segregation process in most mills involves workers who sift through heaps of trash for plastic material such as water bottles which can be recycled. The remaining waste is hauled away by contractors to 21 dumping sites in the outskirts of the city where it is further sorted. The leftover material like soft plastic, which cannot be recycled, ends up in furnaces of paper mills and around 1,600 jaggery units spread across the rural belt close to sugarcane fields, fuelling the illegal market.
Since the conventional fuel — bagasse (dry cane crushing residue from eight local sugar mills) — doesn’t generate enough heat and wood is costly, mixing plastic to fuel furnaces economises the operation. A jaggery manufacturing unit owner in Charthawal area of Muzaffarnagar acknowledged the fact on the condition of anonymity, “Our profit margins aren’t huge, we can’t afford coal or wood. Moreover, plastic burns at a high temperature which is a prerequisite for good quality jaggery. We mix a small quantity of plastic with bagasse.”
Worryingly, all this has been taking place under the nose of the authorities. “Nearly 13 paper mills and dozens of jaggery units were found burning imported plastic instead of permissible fuel sources like sugarcane waste or rice husk and wooden chips. They were penalised,” said Ankit Singh, regional officer, UP Pollution Control Board (Muzaffarnagar).
Nevertheless, officials admit that penal provisions don’t act as a deterrent as burning plastic is a cost effective proposition, even after paying fines. “We have been working on curbing the illegal supply of plastic. Last year, 20 FIRs were filed in such cases. We are now planning to rope in the police to effectively stop the illicit trade,” Singh said.
All said and done, the consequences for public health and the environment are grim. When plastic is burnt in furnaces at paper and sugar mills, microplastic ash perpetually falls on the city, owing to the lack of filtration equipment to capture toxic emissions.
Ravinder Singh, a resident of Chittora village in Muzaffarnagar, said, “I have seen many jaggery units burning plastic that emits thick black smoke. Locals often complain of irritation in the eyes, particularly during winters when the crushing season is on.”
A tea seller in the industrial area said, “Black dust is a normal thing here. Everyday, we wake up to a layer of ash on things left outdoors. We have to keep wiping off the dust all the time.”
Pulmonologist ML Garg said, “Burning plastic releases carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and dioxins which can be deadly, even when inhaled in small quantities, as it tends to arrest the supply of oxygen in the bloodstream. This causes substantial damage to the lungs. At lower levels, plastic smoke can lead to itchy eyes and sore throat. At higher levels, it can cause pulmonary oedema and death.”

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