Rural India's exploding plastic problem

The rise of consumerism and rural India's lack of waste management infrastructure should not become yet another noose we tie around our necks

Updated: Jun 5, 2023 11:41:30 AM UTC
Image: Ajay Verma/ Reuters

Simply wander around any idyllic village in rural India, and you can’t help but reel at the sight of community ponds choked up with rubbish, drains that spew litter and mounds of garbage that adorn marketplaces and open grounds. It’s not just unsightly, but hazardous—exacerbating existing chronic issues around public health and hygiene; drinking water scarcity and safety; and the rapid soil degradation in this country. Plastic—and the ‘use and throw’ mentality—has a lot to answer for in rural India.

Yes, the purchasing pattern in villages has morphed, with rural consumption at an all-time high, thanks to increasing incomes and lofty aspirations. It’s a boon for big corporations, with rural markets contributing about 35 percent of the total FMCG sales in the country. But the big-time loser in it all is the environment.

The growth of the packaged and processed food industry—ready-to-eat food items such as instant noodles, biscuits and chips, along with small sachets of shampoos, hair oils and creams—have left no stone unturned, making significant inroads into rural India. The result is an ‘explosion’ of plastic waste in communities that sadly lack even the basics of ‘waste disposal.’

Waste disposal: Village style

The majority of villages in rural India lack the infrastructure to manage the solid and liquid waste generated within their villages. It’s little wonder, given that as recently as a few decades ago, there was no need. Waste generated in rural households was mostly organic and biodegradable—seen and treated as a ‘resource’ used in feeding animals, composting and using as manure in the soil. However, the scales have tipped, and today the amount of non-biodegradable solid waste generated per rural household has exploded. While plastic, glass, and metal can be recycled, without the disposal system, a trash problem of gargantuan proportions is ignited.

After all, India is home to 640,000 rural villages that house 900 million people.

According to a study by Pratham, basic waste management systems such as waste bins and community waste vehicles are present in less than 40 percent of the villages studied. In states like West Bengal, Assam, Punjab and Bihar, the percentage of villages that have mechanisms to manage solid waste are 0.82 percent, 1.08 percent, 1.67 percent and 1.97 percent, respectively. It’s a sorry state of affairs.

What happens to all that trash? The lack of formal infrastructure means that villagers rely on informal arrangements such as kabadiwalas who collect waste to sell. The problem is that not all kinds of waste materials are readily accepted. Single-use plastics such as wrappers, sachets, and plastic packaging that have no value are rejected. Therefore, these low-quality plastics remain within communities and contribute to the growing waste problem in rural India. That’s 35 percent of a $56.8 billion industry going into rural communities and almost zero waste coming out… you do the math.

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Meanwhile, plastic not collected by the kabadiwala is either burnt or thrown away. The incineration of plastic waste in an open field is a major source of air pollution. The Pratham study found that 67 percent of over 8,400 rural households studied preferred to burn plastic waste not bought by kabadiwalas. Nearly 75 percent of the households burning waste were unaware of the toxic, harmful effects on the environment and their health. The burning of plastic releases toxic gases like Dioxins, Furans, Mercury and Polychlorinated Biphenyls into the atmosphere—posing a threat to vegetation, human and animal health and the environment.

Of course, the other option is to simply dump it—contaminating and choking community water bodies; being strewn across common grounds and grazed upon by cattle who suffer painfully, and degrading soil on nearby farmlands.

Scaling solid and liquid waste management solutions

The good news is that under Phase 2 of the Swachh Bharat Mission launched in 2019, the focus shifted to address the issue of solid and liquid waste management in India. Every Gram Panchayat is now required to create a functional waste management system.

Of course, implementation is always the stumbling block in India, and without many successful, sustainable models and units around to provide exposure for others to learn from, rural India has a long way to go to tackle this emerging and grotesque problem.

However, it can and has been done. In the village of Mohi Kalan in Rajpura, Punjab, the community and the panchayat decided to do something radical about it. Uniting and working with an NGO and a corporate foundation, the panchayat developed its very own solid waste management system and facility on the outskirts of town. Today, every household enjoys regular waste collection by a cycle rickshaw, with waste being segregated at the facility for reuse, recycling, recovery or disposal.

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With every household receiving bins for wet and dry waste, they have also received widespread awareness and education on the proper ways to segregate waste for collection. Every household contributes Rs50 per month for the initiative, and the entire village is reaping the rewards. Streets are clean and litter free. Waterways are garbage-free and drinking water uncontaminated. Wet waste is composted to create manure for use in local fields, and plastic and glass are recycled as much as possible.

And word is spreading. Neighbouring villages have admired their work and have approached their panchayats to follow suit and initiate a similar waste disposal initiative in their community.

With over 6 lakh rural villages across India generating 0.3-0.4 million metric tons of waste per day, solid waste management is quickly becoming the need of the hour. Villages like Mohi Kalan are leading the way and shining light on what can be achieved when people come together and work collaboratively with civil society and government.


What was once seen as a phenomenon of the West, the consumerist culture and resultant generation of ‘unmanageable waste’ has now reached the ‘last frontier’ in India—even its remotest of villages. Thanks to unrelenting rural marketers who set out to conquer ‘last mile reach,’ plastic pollution now pockmarks our most sacred and serene villages. From the hills of the Himalayas to the vast open plains of Kutch, FMCG goods and the trail of rubbish they leave in their wake are now, quite literally, everywhere.

And as villagers and gram panchayats grapple with how to successfully implement solid waste management facilities to cope with the problem, we can’t help but wonder what Mahatma Gandhi might have thought of all this. Surely his vision for rural India, and ‘cleanliness for all,’ did not include the sea of shampoo sachets, snack wrappers and plastic milk pouches that currently flood our villages.

The question is, what are we all going to do about it? Governments need to strengthen policies. Corporations need to contribute to generating solutions. And communities need handholding. They need guidance and advice. They need education and awareness. It’s finally up to civil society to step to the fore and bridge the gap between policy and practice. Ensuring that the rise of consumerism, and rural India’s lack of waste management infrastructure, does not become yet another noose we tie around our necks.

The writer is director and CEO of Ambuja Foundation.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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