Burning plastic waste in large quantities is causing intense pollution in Uttar Pradesh's Muzaffarnagar and adjoining districts.
Rajvir Singh, a local resident, 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 retired government officer who lives near the industrial area said: "Black dust is a normal thing here. Every day, we wake up to a layer of ash on things left outdoors. We have to keep wiping off the dust all the time."
A senior physician, Dr R.K. Tyagi 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."
Muzaffarnagar has over 30 paper mills and receives a whopping 20,000 tonnes of imported waste paper every month.
The paper 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.
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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, sources said, due to lack of screening at the ports, such consignment enters the country under the garb of paper waste.
Pankaj Agarwal, president, UP Paper Mills Association, said: "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."
Sources said that 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.
Since the conventional fuel -- bagasse (dry cane crushing residue from eight local sugar mills) -- does not generate enough heat and wood is costly, mixing plastic to fuel furnaces economises the operation.
Ankit Singh, regional officer, UP Pollution Control Board (Muzaffarnagar) said: "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.
"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."
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