Plastic, Pollution and Politics

 

Many of my readers know about my friend who lives on the 104th floor in a Tower in Mumbai. He is the richest person in the world today. He is undoubtedly one of the most influential personalities and yet not known due to his sheer humility and discreteness.


I went to see my friend on 104th floor on this Sunday morning. He was having a breakfast.

“I am just returning from China” he said – while picking an Arabian date from a silver bowl.

“I made a deal to start a plastic manufacturing facility near Aurangabad in Maharashtra with Chi Mei Corporation in Tainan City.  This facility will be the largest in the world and will meet India’s plastic products related demand till 2030. We will produce plastic bags, plastic cutlery and plastic bottles”. He said.

He continued

“Do you know that plastic processing is the pillar of economy in most of the advanced nation? Per capita consumption of the world is 28 kg whereas India’s 11 kg and China 38 kg and Brazil 32 kgs. In USA, Germany, UK, Italy, Spain, Australia, Japan, Korea, Taiwan it is more than 100 kg.  This means India has big potential to grow, improve quality of life of its citizens and seize many opportunities.

Plastic helps to reduce weight of products (and so the GHG emissions), increases durability of the product and hence results into lower impacts and reduces food loss during distribution. These are only few benefits of plastic to cite. India’s per capita consumption is one of the lowest in Asia so there is so much opportunity to grow.”

I was surprised with his argument. Probably, my friend did not see the “down side” of plastic.

India generates around 5.6 million tons of plastic waste annually, where Delhi alone accounts for 9,600 metric tons per day. The uncollected plastic chokes our drains causing flooding and fills our landfills forever as the plastic does not readily degrade.

We need to reduce consumption of plastic in our daily lives and increase the recycling rate. This will require use of alternatives to plastic, segregation of plastic at source, collection/reverse logistics for used plastic, discovering/using new materials and practicing innovative business models. In India, we haven’t done much on all these fronts.

So, I kept quiet. My friend continued.

“My new facility alone will create 5000 direct jobs and 50000 indirect jobs in its supply and distribution systems” He added

I said “Oh, then the PM must be happy”

“He indeed is”, my friend beamed while taking a gulp of pomegranate juice from an intricately carved Putter mug.

I don’t think my friend knew that Government of Maharashtra just banned plastic flags, banners, flex material, disposable containers, non-woven polypropylene bags along with all kinds of plastic bags irrespective of thickness. The ban list included disposable utensils made of plastic and thermocol, plastic plates, bowls, cups, straws, cutlery, glass, bowls, forks, spoons, straw, non-woven polypropylene bags, plastic sheets and plastic pouches — and all kinds of plastic films. Use, sale, production, stock and distribution of these plastic products is now prohibited.

Some say that this plastic ban was a political move as most plastic manufacturers belonged to the opposition party.  Of course, who would believe such a hoax “breaking news”?

I explained this new development to my friend.

He showed some surprise while applying marmite, imported from London, on a well toasted wheat grain bread.

I continued

“The only plastic items exempt from the ban are milk pouches, wrappers for processed food, dustbin liners, packs for medicines, solid waste and agricultural products, and polyethylene terephthalate or PET bottles of certain capacities. Plantation bags made up of compostable plastic are not banned”

I knew that this plastic ban will be affecting financial viability of my Friend’s mega project.

“Well Dr Modak, I will make what Government wants, will allow and support” He said calmly. He did not seem to be perturbed.

Perhaps my friend could sense that decision taken by the Government of Maharashtra on plastic ban was not on rational grounds. There was least preparedness on monitoring and enforcement of the ban and alternatives were not provided or facilitated that were feasible and acceptable.  And the ban was not well orchestrated with regard to economic instruments. There wasn’t any concerted effort on raising public awareness either.

Maharashtra is now the 18th state in India to enforce a complete ban on plastic bags. The experience on the ban in other States has not been satisfactory. “When you cannot ban a corrupt Politician to stand for elections, how can you be successful in banning a plastic bag. Both cause equal menace, don’t they?” I said to myself while sipping a Java coffee.

I thought of giving my friend more information.

“All these details are dynamic and evolving – including list of plastic items banned. There is utter confusion. Plastic manufactures have appealed to the High Court protesting this unilateral decision. Office of the Chief Minister is looking for advisers who can help the Government to wriggle out of the mess”

Just then my Professor Friend walked in. He got on the breakfast table and asked for two egg whites tossed with herbs.

Professor told us that several countries and cities have attempted plastic ban in the past. Ireland was one of the pioneering countries in banning plastic.  In 2002, the country passed a plastic bag tax under which consumers would have to purchase bags. The law was tremendously successful as within weeks of its implementation there was a reduction of 94 percent in plastic bag use. Recently, in Africa, Rwanda and Kenya went ahead and placed plastic bans. France was the first country to pass a law banning all kinds of plastic – plates, cups, and utensils (in addition to the plastic bags). As per the Plastic Ban law passed in 2016, replacements made with the plastic items must be bio-degradable that can be further composted. Figure below gives a global picture on plastic bans.

  

Plastic ban- global highlights 

“So, what’s your view Professor on this Maharashtra Plastic Ban”, my friend asked

Professor said “Well, it is great move. To me the era of circular economy has begun. Banning of various forms of plastic is going to change the material and energy flows, spur innovation for alternatives, attract green investments and create green jobs.”

Professor had this style of speaking as if he is reading a PowerPoint slide –something he was most used to do. And I knew that Professor was both theatrical and theoretical in many occasions.

To me circularity in India was more known in the party politics – where you see politicians changing there stand and keep moving in circles.

But I thought that this time Professor was right. Globally, an average of eight million tons of plastic escapes collection systems, winding up in the environment and eventually the ocean. According to a study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, five trillion pieces of plastic already exist in the world’s oceans. We don’t realize seriousness of the situation as we live on the land mass.

Recycling alone is not going to be a solution and besides recycling is not cheap. Producers need to invest in new material designs, drastically reduce and substitute use of plastic packaging and take physical and/or financial responsibility for needed infrastructure, collection and recycling of essential materials.

Professor spoke about alternatives such as biodegradable and oxy-degradable plastic, edible cutlery, “leash-the-lid” technology that allows recycling of both bottle and cap and then elaborated on plastic to fuel projects and use of plastic in asphalting of roads. He gave several examples.

Wow, I exclaimed. I wish Niti Ayog in India had thought of launching a Plastic Nirmulan Mission to support these bans. Certainly, you need a mission approach.

My friend was surprised with this information. He however had questions. He asked whether the edible cutlery was gluten free. He also wondered whether the term biodegradability was defined in India.  He further asked whether there were quality, safety and health standards with the BIS for plastic recycled products – be it fuel or a recycled plastic bag.  We did not have answers.

“All this must be looked into” He said in a serious tone.

Just then, he received a call on his phone from TOMRA. TOMRA is the world leader in the field of reverse vending, with over 82,000 installations across more than 60 markets across the world. TOMRA provides best machines for collecting and recycling aluminum cans and glass and plastic bottles. Around 35 billion used beverage containers are captured every year by TOMRAs reverse vending machines.

After a brief conversation, my friend put the phone down and said

“Well I have changed my business plan. Instead of working with Chi Mei, I will now invest in making low cost reverse vending machines to gobble up plastic bottles, bags and even cutlery and pay a handsome amount. These machines will be give me cheap source of plastic that I can use to make products what market needs and what Government will allow. I will install these machines in malls, movie theaters, airports, gardens, railway platforms etc.”

Oh, what a shift of business I exclaimed

Professor nodded. He then said in a friendly tone  “One piece of advice. Why don’t you let these Machines play videos to make people understand the menace of plastic and how returning banned or used plastic will make them a responsible citizen and at the same time make money?”

“Good idea Professor” My friend said. “This will certainly enhance my company image and help raise awareness”

He then paused for a while and looked outside the window.

“Maybe I will also put a small clip showing the PM and the CM in between”. He said as if an afterthought.

I saw that was a smart move given the election times connecting plastic, pollution and politics. These vending machines will surely enjoy substantial subsidies with clips of PM and CM shown.

No wonder my friend was the richest man in the world living on the 104th floor.

 


Cover image sourced from

https://egyptinnovate.com/en/%D8%A8%D9%86%D9%83-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A3%D9%81%D9%83%D8%A7%D8%B1/recycling-vending-machine


You may like to read my post in 2014 on Plastic, Paper or Reusable Shopping Bag.

If you like this post then follow me by clicking on the icon on top right left or forward the post to your colleagues

 

Advertisements

Up in the Air

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), airline passengers generated 5.2 million tonnes of waste in 2016, most of which went to landfill or incineration. This figure is expected to double over the next 15 years.

Once a plane has landed, huge volumes of disposable items are thrown away. Apart from plastic waste (including cutlery), toilet waste is included in the waste stream –  so are the miniature wine bottles, half-eaten lunch trays, unused toothbrushes, empty plastic water bottles, napkins, discarded packaging. Airline waste management is now an area of great concern.

Iberia Airlines in partnership with Ferrovial Services prepared a scheme that could recover 80% of cabin waste coming into Madrid’s Barajas airport by mid-2020. The scheme will explore low-packaging meals and reusable cutlery. Designing cabin products with waste minimization will be another strategy. Qantas, for example, is combining its charity donation envelope with its headset package, cutting one polythene bag per passenger per flight. America’s United Airlines has switched to compostable paper cups and last year began donating unused amenity kits to homeless and women’s shelters. Virgin Airlines has set up a system for recycling all parts of its headsets, including ear sponges, that are now used as flooring for equestrian centers.

IATA’s head of environment feels that unrealistic and unreasonable waste related regulation is a major challenge. The EU animal health legislation, drawn up as a reaction to diseases like foot and mouth, dictates that all catering waste arriving from outside EU borders be treated as high-risk and incinerated or buried in deep landfill. A coffee cup from the US, for example, will be treated as hazardous waste because it might have had milk in it. Donating uneaten food to charity is impossible. A more rational approach is needed, one which identifies elements of cabin waste that pose a risk to health and considers the stringent hygiene standards airlines are already subject to.

Another challenge is getting cabin crew’s buy-in for waste segregation right in the aircraft. Iberia Airlines has introduced recycling bins attached to service trolleys — so that in-flight waste can be easily sorted. About 2,500 cabin crew members will be trained in the basics of waste separation as part of the push. Emirates has also introduced segregation facilities on board, for easy sorting of glass, plastic, aluminum, and paper products.

But environment is not the only concern. According to IATA, cabin waste costs the airline industry $500 million plus each and the costs will rise steeply thanks to growing fees to be paid to landfills for disposal. The airlines are therefore focusing on a product’s full life cost, rather than unit price, and invest in more durable headsets or blankets and ditching disposable products. This can be a game changer.

Flexible catering is one-way airlines could curb waste.  Airlines are now “predicting” likely meal preference of the passenger based on the frequent flyer and other behavioral data such as spending habits and consumption. This is the future where big data analytics and artificial intelligence will be used.

Another solution is the pay-as-you-go approach, where travelers order meals before a flight as followed in most low-cost carriers (LCCs) around the world. By providing this system — where passengers buy meals using an app or website — airlines can simultaneously meet demand and minimize waste. This approach is now followed by full-service international airlines as well, with the likes of SAS, Japan Airlines, Singapore Airlines and Qantas.

Reliance on plastic and paper also contribute to the issue, but some airlines are experimenting with recycling solutions and packaging alternatives to minimize waste. Qantas has begun to use recycled materials for its packaging as well as plastic-free headsets. Emirates has introduced eco-friendly blankets, made from recycled plastic bottles. The airline expects this amenity to rescue more than 12,000 tons of bottles from landfills by 2019. There is a huge benefit of such upcycling.

Back on the ground, several airports have installed waste management systems that are innovative and effective.  Waste Management Best Practice in the Global Aviation Sector Leading international airports are now targeting and achieving diversion rates as high as 80%. This is achieved through on-Site Materials Recovery Facilities (MRF) and Waste to Energy Plants.  Uptake of MRFs is high where the prohibitive cost of landfill supports commercial viability. To reduce transportation and landfill space and harness energy, Gatwick airport in London opened an on-site waste-to-energy plant.  Bengaluru’s Kempegowda International Airport (KIA) is in the process of installing an in-house integrated solid waste management facility based on biomethanation to deal with the 20 tonnes of organic and inorganic waste generated every day. KIA also plans to reach out to stakeholders such as concessionaries, F&B and retail outlets and persuade them to use recycled products made out of the inorganic waste. The airport will sell the recyclable material such as glass and plates to other manufacturers as raw material. This will make KIA the first airport in Asia to initiate in-house integrated solid waste management.


I took a flight to New Delhi today on economy class. When food was served, there was no option – Veg or Non-Veg. “All food is Veg Sir”, said the air-hostess – We want to minimize the waste generation sir”. I was anyway going to opt for a veg meal.

My co-passengers tray had a Gulab jamun, but my tray didn’t. When asked, she smiled and said, “Sir, we use big data analytics and expertise of companies like Cambridge with backing (or hacking?) of databases like Facebook. This helps us to diagnose passenger food preference before boarding the flight”. I was surprised to learn that these sophisticated techniques were not anymore limited to politics and elections. The air hostess continued.

“We found out that you are diabetic type II person with H1bAC of 7.5 around, so there is no point to serve you the Gulab jamun”. She gave a sweet smile that did not raise my blood sugar but only the heart beats raced!

I thought she was right. If served, I wouldn’t have had the Gulab jamun and hence it could have been a waste. The airline was clearly waste-wise.

I noticed that the cutlery provided was not of plastic but looked very different. Just then the flight supervisor made an announcement

Edible Cutlery from Bakeys 

“Ladies and Gentlemen, you may be aware that the Government of Maharashtra has banned plastic disposable utensils made of plastic and thermocol, plastic plates, bowls, cups, straws etc. with effect from March 18, 2018. In order to be compliant, our Airline has introduced edible cutlery that is sorghum based. Once you finish your meal, we encourage you to eat the cutlery as it is nutritionally good as well as delicious.  And if you don’t eat, please don’t worry. This cutlery easily biodegrades in any outside environment within 10 days. In any case, we use this cutlery as animal feed”

I thought that this was impressive.

I took a good bite of the edible spoon after relishing the idli Sambhar.

What a transformation! I said to myself. “I must tell my wife about this edible substitute. This will eliminate the work of cleaning plates, spoons and forks.”

We had another hour to go to reach Delhi.

“Will this transformation sustain?” I wondered.

But I decided not to think about the ground realities while 30000 ft up in the air.


Cover image and statistics sourced from Watch your waste: The problem with airline food and packaging

Read The ridiculous story of airline food and why so much ends up in landfill

 


If you like this Post then Follow me or forward the post to your colleagues

Who “Drives” India’s Agenda on Sustainability?

Other day, I took a good review of all economic, environmental and social initiatives (and in that priority) of the ruling NDA Government. I was pleasantly surprised to see that a significant progress was made in terms of launching missions, signing of (vibrant or “vibrating”) MOUs and reforms on identity (Aadhar), demonetization and the GST, just to cite a few.

I was in full praise of the Government when I met the Professor, right outside the Parliament house. It was Monday morning. The Air Quality Index was moderate, and we could do conversations without wearing masks.

I asked “Professor, the Government, I mean the Ministers of this Government, are real visionary and are contributing so much to the progress of the country. Without saying anything explicitly, the Government seems to be moving towards Sustainability.  For example. Make in India mission is going to increase the productivity and the jobs, National Skill Development Corporation will do the skilling, Programs like Smart Cities and Nanami Gange programs will bring in investment flows, innovation and partnerships.  The PMO has asked Niti Ayog (earlier Planning Commission) to take charge of reporting on the Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs). I know that Niti Ayog has all the expertise and the might to roll out numbers that the PMO would want to see on the attainment of the SDGs. Everything is so perfect”

Professor smiled. He said “I presume you are not sarcastic as usual and for a change you are accepting the good performance or at least good intentions of this Government.  But do you know the secret? Its not the Ministers who are driving India’s agenda on Sustainability. The car drivers who take the Ministers around are the real visionaries. They discuss between each other and give suggestions to the Ministers when they drive them and when alone. The Ministers simply steal these ideas and present to the PMO and get them endorsed for implementation”

“You mean, the car drivers run this Government?” I was simply astonished.

“Of course, Dr Modak, and don’t treat these drivers as people who know only how to drive. These drivers are MBAs from Harvard and London School of Economics, or D Sc from institutions like MIT and Berkeley and few come from some of the world famous liberal arts schools from Finland and France. Some come from the Ibaraki prefecture of Japan and Hello Berlin that are hubs of innovation. So even if PM shuffles the Ministers, the strategy of the Ministry does not change. Selecting these drivers is one of my important functions designated by the PM himself. China did this long ago and President Trump is following this model of modern governance”. Professor said in a proud voice and as a matter of fact.

I was astonished to learn about this top secret. I knew the importance of car driver from the epic Mahabharata. Arjuna’s driver or sarathi of the chariot was none but Lord Krishna. While Arjuna sent the arrows, it was Lord Krishna who did brilliant advisory and stole the show.

“Now let me walk you to the parking lot of the Parliament House where you would meet the real drivers to India’s growth” Professor made me walk a few hundred meters.

The drivers of the Ministers cars had assembled under a tree. They were busy chatting.

Driver of the Minister of Power. Piyush Goel was explaining the scheme for promotion of electric vehicles. It seems he was the real architect and the brain. But he was not happy as Mr. Goel himself was not using an electric vehicle. “Oh, I have been telling him again and again, that he should be the first one to shift from petrol to electric. These Ministers don’t set an example”.

“One day I am sure he will, said the driver to Mr. Nitin Gadkari, Minister of Road Transport and Highways.  “My Minister checks every day the kilometers completed at the highways against the promise made and compares them with the kilometers we drive. We always win. Minister is informed about the “meta data” such as the number of trees felled, and number of people displaced etc. I have advised him not to bother about this statistic however as it does not affect the sustainability that much at least for the next 2 years. Access to voters in rural areas is perhaps more important as it will improve sustainability of the government in the coming up elections”.

I thought the driver was smart and made a valid point. He came from the London School of Economics.

The driver of Arun Jaitley’s car had something important to share. “Well, I just advised and convinced Mr. Jaitley to waive income tax for annual incomes less than 10 lakhs. In any case only 1% of India’s population pays the income tax. Raising the slab of income tax from 3 lakhs to 10 lakhs will increase the popularity of this Government only at a marginal “loss”. He was not wrong.

The driver of the Minister of Environment, Forests and Climate Change wasn’t speaking. When asked why he is keeping quiet, he said that there was no use in speaking. “Nothing changes in this Ministry”. He sighed. He was a PhD from Yale University.

There were lighter conversations as well. A news was exchanged that Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Aditya Nath’s driver was fined Rs 500 for chewing tobacco on government duty. The joke was this very driver had convinced the CM to institute a ban on chewing tobacco! Driver of the Minister of Communication Manoj Sinha said.

As the drivers  were telling us how they were driving the agenda of various Ministries, a stiff, aloof but impressive driver walked in. He was one of the highly trained elite official who looked like a SPG commando!

“Who is this?” I asked the Professor. Oh, he is the driver of our PM. PM has made sure that he is not as educated like others; knows only how to drive and he will protect him in case of emergency. He has knowledge of many languages, knows using arms in case of emergency and is equipped with latest communication gadgets and is well trained for their use. He is “muted” i.e. not allowed to speak.

I said “I understand. This PM does not need a drivers advice like the other Ministers. PM clearly knows how to drive India’s (political) sustainability agenda – all by himself”

“Are you sarcastic this time again Dr Modak” Professor retorted closing the conversion. I kept shut.

When we reached his car, I noticed that Professor’s driver was wearing a cap with an emblem of the Stanford University!

Wow. now I understand! – I said to myself.


If you like this post then Follow me or pass across to your network

 

Robots with Green Artificial Intelligence

Professor asked me to attend the inauguration of Wadhwani AI, India’s first research institute dedicated to developing Artificial Intelligence (AI) solutions for the social good. Wadhwani AI will focus on researching ways to harness the power of AI to solve deep rooted problems in healthcare, education, agriculture, and infrastructure to accelerate social development.

“What about environmental management and sustainability?” I whispered to the Professor. Professor didn’t pay much attention to my whisper as he was busy listening to the opening remarks from the PM.

The PM said “Wadhwani AI is a prime example of how the public sector and the private sector can come together with good intentions to build a world-class institute, aimed at benefiting the poor”

I couldn’t disagree with PM’s emphasis on the Poor. Benefiting poor was rarely the focus of research in AI. I also realized that the PM was using technology like AI for positioning him (and his party) in the forthcoming elections. Very clever.

Founded by Indian-American tech entrepreneurs Dr. Romesh Wadhwani and Sunil Wadhwani, the institute will be led by AI pioneer and founding MD of Microsoft Research India, Dr. P. Anandan. “We will apply AI in all key domains such as education, public health, agriculture, infrastructure and financial inclusion. These efforts will bring innovative solutions that achieve large-scale positive social impact. We hope this will transform how AI research is conducted and applied to help” Dr Romesh Wadhwani spoke after the inauguration by the PM.

On our way back, Professor said that we should stop by the office of the Pollution Control Board (PCB) near Sion. “We will say hello to the Member Secretary and you would see some of the little work I have done” He said. I protested saying that the coffee at the PCB is no good, but Professor didn’t pay any heed.

When we stepped in the office of the PCB, we saw in the reception four machines that were blinking and making “gurrr… gurr…” sounds resembling robots. In front of these machines, folks from industries had queued asking for the Consents to Establish (CoE). Each person was getting interrogated by the “robot” using arficial intelligence.

One man wearing a black suit and red tie was asked to indicate the location of the proposed manufacturing plant on the map of Maharashtra. He pointed his finger. Next,  details about the manufacturing activity, scale, usage of raw materials, products and processing technology were asked.  Aftter receiving few such details, “gurr… gurr” became “GURR… GURR” (I mean louder) for a little while (looked like some “thinking” was going on) and the robot displayed on the screen results of information processing. The screen displayed that “CoE was approved but with following conditions…..” . A technical guidance was offered on how to embed environmental and social considerations in every activity. A list of useful contacts of “approved” environmental consultants, monitoring agencies etc was sent on email including pointers to potential investors/sponsors.”  The robot ended the “transaction” (similar to a ATM) saying “Thank you for visiting Us and best wishes for your endeavours” in a humanoid voice but in American accent as the Robot found out that the person in black suit and red tie was educated in the United States of America.  I found the entire transaction to be intelligent, responsible and customer friendly.

“Well Dr Modak, this is not as simple as you may perhaps think. A lot has gone behind the “GURR… GURR”. Professor said.

“We have essentially emulated the Consent Evaluation Committee of the PCB by tapping knowledge and experience of a top team of multidisciplinary experts and using data-based decision-making process. The Consent Evaluation Committee is now abolished. The AI based algorithms planted in the robots ensure that the decisions are made on objective basis, considering future sustainability of the region and paying attention to the interest of poor and vulnerable. The problems of present human based committees are well-known to you Dr Modak” Professor said

“You mean, poor knowledge in taking decisions, political interest, inconsistent and impractical recommendations?” I spoke like reading bullet points on a PowerPoint slide. Professor smiled.

“Well even much more happens here. After the transaction is over, the robot will update the database and maps and re-establish the available carrying capacity for next decision making and send emails to local representatives in the project area that a project of this kind has been given a consent to establish”

I was extremely impressed with this feature of immediate upkeep and adaptation as well as transparency with the stakeholders. Wow! I said to myself. India is truly reforming,

Member Secretary was not in the office. He was on a vacation as most of the decision making was now done by the Robots. So, we headed towards our usual coffee shop that served the Ethiopian coffee. We took seats in the veranda on the cane chairs and Professor lighted his cigar.

In the next half hour of his discourse, I learnt that the Professor had developed, and installed AI based Robots in all situations wherever “committees” were used to come up with so called “collective decisions” on the subject of environmental management and sustainability.

“Today, the way we constitute and operate our environmental committees is no good. Abolishing them and replacing with robots with “green intelligence” will address the issues we face.” Professor said this summarily.

“Why dont we train the members of the existing committees?” I made a suggestion.

“Well Dr Modak, most committee members feel that they are the best experts so how can you dare to train them? But in reality they cannot be salvaged by any amount of training. This is where AI comes in for the interest of social good” Said the Professor

I thought Professor was absolutely right. But I also realized that abolishing these (useless and ineffective) committees would certainly need a political support.

“And the lacunae are not just limited to the Government sector. For instance, I have provided all the major corporates in India to use my machines as a “substitute” to their CSR committees as a Pilot. My experience is that the CSR committees at most corporates are skewed and come up with basket of arbitrary projects without a strategy to innovate and achieve region-wide sustained impact. Besides, very few corporates factor what’s been already done by the Government and remain in sync with other CSR players in the region, mainly because of competition. The AI algorithms we have developed provide much rounded decisions on CSR projects with guidance to ensure both effectiveness and long-term sustainability of the proposed interventions”

“This is very nice Professor – but what about the Investment Committees (IC) at the Bankers?” I asked. “Of course, we are addressing this need as we want ICs to be sensitive to the sustainability perspectives of the proposed investments. I am working on AI algorithms that will look at environmental and social dimensions and monetize both risks and opportunities during credit appraisals. Bankers in India are most insensitive, blind folded and do not have trained staff in this arena. So, the robots will help. The foreign direct investments will increase”.

Professor extinguished his cigar, hinting that the discussion was now over. He whispered. “ Dr Modak, I have been entrusted a very secretive project to develop a Sustainability MicroChip (SMC) that can be planted in the human brain. This chip will ensure that all the thought processes will factor sustainability both in perception,  decision making and evaluation. We will program this chip and provide the SMC implant at no cost under newly proposed Health Insurance scheme. The chip will get updated daily via a massive cloud server”. I was shocked with this radical idea. Truly transformational and simply unbelievable – I said to myself

“But Professor, this SMC needs to be piloted and tested carefully” I couldn’t resist asking.

“Well Dr Modak, not to worry. Our PM has himself volunteered for the pilot” Professor said

I then become confident that the PM will certainly win the next election!


Cognitive technology, enabled by artificial intelligence is uniquely adapted to helping with sustainability challenges. See https://www.greenbiz.com/article/4-ways-ai-helps-business-protect-environment where you would see examples on Better conservation of natural resources, Earlier pollution detection, Accelerating sustainable options, Proactive environmental regulation compliance and Learning from nature’s ecosystems. I would like that students from computer science and environmental management work together to explore these areas.


Cover image sourced from http://www.humanengineers.com/hr_library/from-robotic-process-automation-rpa-to-artificial-intelligence-ai-the-intelligent-automation-journey/


If you like this post then Follow me or forward to your colleagues

India’s (Green?) Union Budget

“The 2018 budget of Government of India has been silent on environment and climate change”

I gave my initial reaction to my Professor friend. We were sitting in his study having a masala chai and samosas for a change.

Professor heard me but didn’t react immediately as he was on the phone – (perhaps with the FM?). I knew that Professor was close to the FM and he must have had a hand in shaping the 2018 budget. I was therefore surprised that despite his proximity and influence on the FM, there was not much green in the budget that we all wanted to see.

I had a reason to expect this time a Green Union Budget. We know that economic indicators alone are no longer representative of the growth. How long can we continue to cheat? While India may claim a growth rate of 7 to 8%, its true GDP growth could be just about 5% due to poor management of our natural assets and payment to be made for the liabilities (e.g. contaminated lands) we have created. India is ranked today third from the bottom on the Environmental Performance Index, lower than nations such as Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

The Economic Survey has projected loss of up to 25% in farm income highlighting the risks posed to due to climate change. Unfortunately, there has been no change in the allocations under the Climate Change Action Plan or the National CC Adaptation Fund. Its strange that at the same time, the government is expecting to double farmers’ income by 2022. And there is no place in the budget on the Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) as communicated in COP 21 in Paris.

Poor air quality in New Delhi has drawn international attention. The situation is however no different across most Indian cities.  The Government has been steadily “diluting” the environmental governance. For instance, the old emission norms for thermal plants are allowed to continue for the next five years. Provisions like Environmental Supplement Plan (ESP) have legitimized non-compliance. Several conditions have been relaxed while obtaining Environmental Clearance (EC). Two crucial economic instruments – the National Clean Energy and Environment Fund (reportedly over Rs 56,700 crore) and the Water Cess — have already been dissolved for the sake of accommodating the concerns of the States on GST.

Professor had put the phone down. He looked at my agitated face and smiled. He said “You haven’t really understood the budget Dr Modak. There is a lot of green there – but you need a lens if you want to see. Let me explain”. He lit his cigar.

“The Centre has announced a ₹1.4 lakh-crore scheme for promoting decentralized solar power production of up to 28,250 MW to help farmers. We will spend ₹48,000 crore on the ten-year scheme called Kisan Urja Suraksha evam Utthaan Mahaabhiyan or KUSUM. KUSUM would provide extra income to farmers, by giving them an option to sell additional power to the grid through solar power projects set up on their barren lands. Farmers will thus be empowered and become entrepreneurs.

Now see the environmental perspective. KUSUM will de-dieselise the energy sector as also the DISCOMS. India had about 30 million farm pumps that include 10 million pumps running on diesel. Just think about the massive reduction in the GHG emissions. As solar pumps will operate for only 8 hours, excess withdrawal of the groundwater will be curbed and thus the groundwater table will improve and provide water security to farmers”

I thought the Professor was right. You need to think more to understand the green perspective and massive implication of KUSUM to the environment, empowerment and social development.

“What about the Operation Greens?” I asked Professor.

“I told FM to build Operations Greens in line with the Operation Flood and allocate 500 crores. But to me Operations Green is a climate adaptation strategy” Professor said.

“Operation Greens aims to promote farmer producers’ organisations, agri-logistics, processing facilities and professional management. Operation Greens will work to increase demand in the economy. As many as 470 Agriculture Promotion Market Committee promoted markets will now be connected to the e-nam platform while the government will help in development of 22,000 agricultural markets.

The Operation aims to aid farmers and help control and limit the erratic fluctuations in the prices of commodities like onions, potatoes and tomatoes. Operation Greens has a price fixation scheme that aims to ensure farmers are given the right price for their produce. The Minimum Support Price (MSP) regulation has a key role to play here. The announcement to set MSP of all kharif crops at 1.5 times the cost of production will increase the farmers’ income. In addition, the Budget’s rural sops such as MNREGA allocation being increased from Rs 38,500 crore to 48,000 crore, the coverage of ‘Fasal Bima Yojna‘ being increased from 30 per cent to 40 per cent etc, will definitely serve to address climate change related risks. Operations Greens is thus essentially an adaptation strategy to address the risks of climate change and make our agriculture sector climate resilient.”

“Oh, how clever of the FM” I thought. I was sure that our MoEFCC must have crafted this strategy in partnership with the Niti Ayog. No wonder the Ministry was christened as MoEF and Climate Change.

Professor continued. “Yes, we sacrificed the National Clean Energy and Environment Fund to accommodate disadvantage to the State on account of GST, but we have now set up a special scheme to address air pollution in Delhi- NCR region. You are aware, due to burning of paddy fields after harvesting by farmers mainly from north India, the resultant smoke gets carried by winds to Delhi and beyond, adding to the existing Suspended Particulate Matter (SPM) and other noxious substances that affect the lungs.

To combat this problem, a special scheme will be executed with Delhi government and adjoining states where steps will be taken to subsidize the machinery required for management of crop residue. Instead of heavy penalties for burning agricultural waste, we are providing incentives to the farmers to make them more productive, albeit limited to the NCR.  And remember Dr Modak, I don’t need to explain that stopping burning of crop residues in this innovative manner will greatly reduce emissions of GHG.

Professor had another example to cite

“In an effort to make the villages open defecation free and improving the lives of villagers, the FM has announced the launch of the Gobar Dhan scheme. The Gobar Dhan scheme will manage and convert cattle dung and solid waste in farms to compost, biogas and bio-CNG. Understand the massive reduction in GHG emissions expected due to this project through waste utilization, fossil fuel substitution while promoting clean energy. We are confident that we will be able to achieve targets set in the INDC just by implementing the Gobar Dhan scheme.

I was now impressed. I wished that FM had spoken about these environmental benefits explicitly and silenced the environmental NGOs and critiques.

But I still had questions to ask.

“What about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Professor? There is no mention on the SDGs in the Union Budget.”

Professor was perhaps expecting my question

“You would notice in the budget that the government had identified 115 districts taking various indices of development into consideration, aiming at improving the quality of life in these districts by investing in social services like health, education, nutrition, skill up-gradation, financial inclusion and infrastructure like irrigation, rural electrification, potable drinking water and access to toilets at an accelerated pace and in a time bound manner. All these indicators can be mapped to the 17 SDGs. These 115 districts are expected to become models of sustainable development and help track the progress towards SDGs”

I liked this pilot approach of working with 115 districts out of the 600+ that we have and test progress towards the SDGs.

Professor extinguished his cigar.

“Sorry, Dr Modak, I have to now rush to the North block. FM has called. He wants me to rewrite his Budget speech – now in Green script – giving all the environmental implications of the economic measures he is proposing.  He feels this communication is needed to make people understand that this Government is deeply concerned about environment and sustainable development. I had warned him before, but he did not get my point then”

Now I understood why the FM quoted Swami Vivekananda in his budget speech and had said, “You merge yourself in the void and disappear and let a new India arise.” What a deep and loaded quote!

On my way home however, I realized that I wasn’t fully convinced. I wasn’t very comfortable about Professors impressive green interpretation of the budget. Was the green interpreted budget going to be a usual marketing green-wash, full of voids, less of substance and not a true commitment.

Well, I leave to you to decide. Professor could well be right! And a new India may arise!!


You may like to create an assignment for graduate students to study India’s Union Budget and rewrite its “green version” with application of some metrics. Students may examine to what extent the budget reflects (of course “untentionaly”) the INDC and the SDGs and do a discussion.


If you like this post then Follow me or circulate this post across your colleagues

 

Is it worth recycling?

It was a Sunday morning.  We were sitting in my Professor friends study. I was enjoying my coffee.

Professor lit his cigar and said “Dr Modak, I feel that today benefits of waste recycling are simply overrated. We should stop much of the kind of recycling we do and I mean it”

I was shocked to hear Professor’s views. I did not understand why he was so much critical about recycling. I decided to protest.

I said “Professor. Recycling has many benefits. Firstly, it conserves natural resources as extraction of virgin materials is reduced. Further, recycling diverts waste that is to be sent to incinerators and landfill. Landfills take up valuable space and emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas; and although incinerators are not as polluting as they once were, they still produce noxious emissions. Unless you segregate waste at source you cannot do effective recycling. So, segregation of waste at source and recycling must go hand in hand”

Professor smiled. He said. “You have not updated enough Dr Modak. What you are saying is a rhetoric and well said in the national and international seminars”

“In the western world, recycling was introduced through the kerbside programmes that asked people to put paper, glass and cans into separate bins. In India, we are asking this to happen at the household level following three bins approach as per the Municipal Waste (Management & Handling) Rules. But we both know that this is simply not happening. It is frustrating to see that the waste-picker mixes your carefully segregated bins into one big bin and dumps the mixed waste into the collection vehicle every day”

I couldn’t disagree.  Most citizens have been complaining about this dichotomy and hence don’t feel like segregating waste at source.

Professor continued.

“The trend now is back again to the co-mingled or “single stream” collection. The switch towards single-stream collection is being driven by emergence of new separation technologies that can identify and sort the various materials with little or no human intervention”

I thought that good waste segregation and recycling was everybody’s moral responsibility.

Professor added “San Francisco, which changed from multi bin to single-stream collection a few years ago, now boasts a recycling rate of 69%—one of the highest in America. Systems like TiTech—more than 1,000 of which are now installed worldwide—are able to sort numerous types of paper, plastic or combinations thereof up to 98% accuracy. The Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) are now set up with business models between the private sector with the local bodies.”

It was hard for me to believe that the mindset of the local governments in the west was slowly moving towards single stream collection and in India we are pressing for three bin-based waste segregation and collection system!

Professor was reading out from a handout. It said that notable benefits of single stream recycling were increased recycling rates, lesser requirement of space to store collection containers and reduced costs of hauling as separate pickups for different recycling streams were avoided.

However, I had three major concerns – one about the safety of the waste-pickers when they segregate the “single streams” as these would be contaminated. Second was about the safety of “waste processors” who process the waste to extract materials or make secondary products. My third concern was about the quality and safety of the recycled products. The recycled products while boasting their “greenness” and “creating green jobs” did not assure the quality and safety and hence were putting the consumers at risk.

Professor heard me alright but summed up saying that battle was between quality, reality (that nobody wants to segregate) and the convenience. For India at this point in time, single stream collection seems the most practical solution. I pointed out however, that we do not currently have indigenous machinery that can do this “magic of separation”.

Well, I have asked PMO to put this as a priority item in the Make in India program, said Professor.

I thought that we need to educate the citizens on the consumption itself and guide them to make “green choices” i.e. avoiding use of products to the extent possible that use harmful chemicals and non-biodegradable materials in the first instance. This will ensure “circularity”. The production patterns should be influenced by responsible consumption. The manufacturers will need to extend their involvement beyond the factory gates and across the life cycle.

When I expressed my view on this dual responsibility, Professor said that under pressure from environmental groups, such as the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, computer-makers have established rules to ensure that their products are recycled in a responsible way. Hewlett-Packard has been a leader in this and even operates its own recycling factories in California and Tennessee. Dell, which was once criticized for using prison labor to recycle its machines, now takes back its old computers for no charge. And Apple is executing plans to eliminate the use of toxic substances in its products.

Oddly, these very companies and other product makers in India are rather silent when it comes to the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). Reports by Toxic Link on EPR on E-waste show the double standards. The Government and Environmental NGOs need to “arm twist” these companies.

The solution therefore, according to economists, activists and many in the design community, is to get smarter about both the design and disposal of materials, and shift responsibility away from local governments and into the hands of manufacturers. Products as well as packaging need to be designed with recycling in mind. Waste generation should be considered as a design flaw. Remedying this problem may require a complete rethinking of industrial manufacturing. This may sound like wishful thinking. The key question is can we design the product to make recycling easier?

Professor had more to say.

“Dr Modak, it is also important to understand recycling everything is not good. Economics of recycling is volatile, complex and contextual subject, You cannot generalize”

He said that the secondary materials market of recyclables is hard to control and speculate. The waste supply (in both quantity and characteristics) is highly variable and unless you stock, you cannot ensure getting decent economic returns from recycling business. To top, in countries like India, you have to manage with the informal sector that is not easy. This situation discourages the investors to deploy smart technologies of separation and processing – especially on extraction.

Further, not all recycled materials are created equal. Each material has a unique value, determined by the rarity of the virgin resource and the price the recycled material fetches on the commodity market. The recycling process for each also requires a different amount of water and energy and comes with a unique (and sometimes hefty) carbon footprint. All of this suggests it makes more sense to recycle only select materials than others from an economic and environmental standpoint.

Professor made this important point and ended the conversation by passing a study made by Kinnaman and his colleagues of 2014 called Socially optimal recycling rate: Evidence from Japan.

In this paper, using Japan as his test case Kinnaman evaluates the cost of recycling each material and the energy and emissions involved in recycling. Benefits are also assessed including simply feeling good about doing something for environment. He and his colleagues come to a controversial conclusion that an optimal recycling rate in most countries would probably be around 10 percent of the used goods.

To get the most benefit with the least cost, Kinnaman argues that we should be recycling more of some goods and less — or even none — of others. The composition of 10% should contain primarily aluminum, other metals and some forms of paper, notably cardboard and other source[s] of fiber. He wrote in a follow-up piece that “Optimal recycling rates for these materials may be near 100% while optimal rates of recycling plastic and glass might be zero.” I would add to his list the electronic goods.

Although several disagreed with Kinnaman’s 10% conclusion, his point that we need to be selective about what we recycle —resonated well with environmentalists and waste management experts alike.

I thought Kinnaman had an important point to make. He was asking two basic questions about recycling: Is it good for the environment? And does it make economic sense? The answers need a good study. But again, you can ask – isn’t recycling a moral responsibility? Or aren’t these computations reflecting our short term thinking?

I wonder whether we have conducted such studies on recycling practices in India. I thought of asking Professor to float a research project in partnership with Kinnaman and his colleagues. Indeed we need to revisit recycling to know its worth!


Cover image sourced from http://fortworthtexas.gov/kfwb/school-green-teams/


If you like this post then please follow me or circulate to your colleagues

Data and Diagnostics – Two Interesting Conversations

My Professor Friend and I went to meet the Chairman of Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) in India. The Chairman was busy conducting a meeting with the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC), Professors from reputed Academic institutions such as IIT Delhi, Environmental NGOs like the Centre for Science and Environment, Medical Professionals etc.

Although we had barged in without prior appointment, Chairman welcomed us and requested to join the meeting. We were offered seats at the long elliptic table in the conference room. Tea with sugar and cashew nuts were served.  Around 20 experts were present on that cold and smoggy day.

The Senior Environmental Engineer at CPCB was making a presentation about the air pollution in Delhi.

“We have today real-time air quality monitoring at 10 automated stations that generate data on 8 parameters every 15 min. This data is transmitted to the server of CPCB for visualization and analysis”

He showed us pictures of the stations, some “data flow” diagrams that had steps of data quality control and assurance. The stations seemed to work.

I whispered to the Professor “Very impressive – this means in a year there will be nearly 3 million digits of “information” available on Delhi’s air quality. This should be really useful for the “diagnosis” of the “problem””.

Professor did not seem to be impressed. He said, “Do you think that we ever link data with diagnosis and decisions when it comes to  managing environment? Decisions are often ad-hoc and an exercise so rhetoric”. He had a smirk on his face.

” All we get from this online data is information on mean, max, min, extent of violations over standards etc. and the plots. Next, this data is crunched into an Air Quality Index (AQI). The AQI essentially adds up the “effect” of each pollutant independently or in “isolation” without considering any “interaction” between pollutants. When air pollution hits your health, both particulates and gaseous pollutants act “simultaneously”. The formula for AQI does not recognize this complexity. So, this AQI is really a bit of “fooling around”.”

I thought Professor was becoming overly critical. “But can we ever address this limitation? If we start dissecting the crudeness of the AQI and disclose its various limitations, then what will the National Green Tribunal (NGT) do? And AQI is so sensational today in the media as “breaking news””

Air Quality Index

A Professor from a reputed academic institution was the next presenter.

“We just completed a source apportionment study sponsored by CPCB using a Chemical Balance Model (CMB). In this project, we collected nearly 1000 samples of Particulate Matter (PM) and for each sample 12 constituents were analyzed. Now we have a fair idea on which group of emissions influence Delhi’s ambient air quality and where to prioritize. In this process, the conventional CMB model was modified. Our work will soon be published in an international research journal”

I was really impressed when I saw the graphs, pie charts and outputs of the modified CMB that was called CMB-Plus. Indeed, there were considerable assumptions made in reaching to the final conclusions but isn’t this usual? Unfortunately, the outcomes of the work appeared a bit trivial and sometimes a bit far-fetched. I thought that many of the actions could have been taken without waiting for the results of the CMB. It was now Professor’s turn to whisper

“Dr Modak, I am glad to see that in the process of generating such huge data, at least a research publication could be made”. Once again, I saw that he had a smirk on his face.

A Professor from a Research Unit of a famous Medical Hospital in Delhi presented results of “long term” (2 years) survey on air pollution and health. This survey was carried out over 2000 patients who were tracked over a period of 2 years and an extensive data was collected on the symptoms, respiratory illness, loss in working days and costs paid for medical treatment and consultation. This data was correlated with the ambient air quality data reported at the monitoring stations of CPCB and DPCC. The results concluded that air pollution affects human health, and more so to children and aged people. The economic costs are also significant. (We could not disagree with these important conclusions). The study however provided new statistics on morbidity and disability-adjusted life year (DALY) and some of these numbers were rather alarming.

While we all were appreciative of the painstaking work that was done, one gentleman asked (I think he was a retired bureaucrat as a bureaucrat generally speaks sense only after retirement!)

“Professor Doctor, did you consider indoor air quality at all in your attempt to correlate respiratory illness with air pollution? You are aware that we spent more than 70% of the time indoors. And to draw conclusions on DALY, don’t you think that 2 years data is rather short”

We left the meeting a bit earlier as we had another event to attend.


I was facing a problem of stomach acidity for a while. Antacids worked but I did not want to take them overly long. My GP (General Physician) was on leave and so I went to Hinduja Hospital and sought an appointment with a Senior doctor in the department of Gastroenterology. The doctor examined me and wrote down on a paper a number of tests that he wanted me to get done.

“Dr Modak, we must first build data around your “problem” and “diagnose” accordingly. Come with your reports in a week and I will see you then”. I liked his style of building data for diagnosis. As I was about to leave, he said “now that you are going to do these tests, we might as well get some more tests done – perhaps a good idea to do a MRI and a 2-D Echo cardiogram too as you mentioned about frequent heart burn you get due to acid reflux. Let us not take any chances”. He smiled and took back the note he had given and scribbled some more tests.

I spent the next week making visits to a Path clinic and a MRI Centre. I got the 2-D echo done too. I walked to the room of Gastroenterologist with a large “paper bag” that had all the reports/plates and a CD. The doctor looked through all the “outputs”.

He removed his spectacles and said “Dr Modak, I was checking for the disorders like inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, peptic ulcer and reflux disease. These appear to be absent with a minor case of acid reflux. However, I need to check now possibilities like chronic liver disease and bilio-pancreatic disorder. And I also want to rule out malignancies”. He said this in a caring tone.

I thought this data collection exercise was now getting rather too much with no diagnosis for timely action. I left the Hospital.

My GP had just returned then from his vacation. I went to meet him with all the data that was generated – thanks to the Gastroenterologist.

“Oh, Dr Modak, I don’t need all this stuff. I will see this later but let me examine you first”

He asked me to show my tongue. He then put a stethoscope on my back. Checked my pulse and asked some simple questions like what I eat, do I take a walk every day or exercise, am I constipated and how well do I sleep. I thought these questions were rather basic and appeared “traditional” and not so much “data driven”.

“Nothing to worry Dr Modak. I will solve your problem” He yelled at his assistant or the “compounder” and instructed him for my medicines.

I was given a paper sachet of colorful tablets with 2 x 1 x 2 written on it. The assistant explained the numbers. I listened obediently. “This dose is for 3 days” he said.

“Come back after 3 days and see me. And don’t eat too much spicy food now – at least for the next 2 weeks” He said this patting on my back.

I realized that I would have to miss the wada-pav (bread with a spicy patty) that I used to relish every other day at the street food stall next to my office. Oh, was that the reason?


We sometimes collect too much data just because we have the technology. We rarely connect with the nature to make observations and use our traditional knowledge on “bio-indicators”. They often offer inexpensive, instinctive, participatory and communicative ways to get forewarned and interpret the situation. How many of us for instance observe the movement of frogs around a lake that message about the status of the lake ecosystem? Tribals do not need data from Automated Weather Stations (AWS) to estimate the onset of rain. They watch the movement of insects instead.

Doctors have no time today to converse with patients to understand the “symptoms” or the burgeoning “problem” to diagnose the “root cause” and “hit on the spot”. They talk about possibilities. A lot of expensive data is collected in the process but it often lands into poor diagnostic.

These types of doctors and the “modern” environmental scientists and engineers are no different.

Striking a balance is the key. The stress and disruptions to the environment and our disconnect with nature & traditional knowledge – are making the diagnostic rather difficult.

We seem to be data rich but with a “foggy” understanding – unable to face the world of tomorrow.


Cover image based on

https://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photo-diagnostics-data-numbers-ball-measure-problem-find-solution-image38259320


If you like this post then Follow me or forward this post to your colleagues