ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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A Plastic Calamity

Banning single-use plastics is inadequate without enforcing the law and creating consumer awareness.

Edicts and pronouncements do not bring about change; they need to be backed by detailed, realistic, and implementable plans. Although Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement on 5 June, World Environment Day, that India would eliminate single-use plastics by 2022 is a dramatic statement of intent, it is not yet evident that the deadline is based on a considered plan to make this actually happen.

Discovered in 1898, polyethylene, or what we call plastic, became available for mass production only in 1939. Since then, the material has invaded our lives—from single-use plastic bags and packaging to many other utilitarian uses. It is cheap, light and flexible. Replacing it is not an easy task. It is also a symbol of a kind of economic development model, which we in India have imported and embraced from the older industrialised countries, that is premised on the principle of discard and replace. Nothing is supposed to last. Only then can the engines of industry continue to grow. Replacing this model now appears unthinkable. Yet, this is the source of our cavalier approach in accepting a throwaway culture that has led to what the United Nations Environment Programme calls a “plastic calamity.”

Today we have evidence that our oceans contain an estimated 150 million tonnes of plastic waste; sea life, birds and plants are literally choking because of it; vast tracts of land are overwhelmed with landfills that cannot biodegrade because of virtually indestructible plastic waste; and it is most worrying that micro-plastics from this waste are now making their way into water sources and the food chain. A recent study of tap water samples from several countries revealed that India was third after the United States and Lebanon in water contaminated by microplastics; 82.4% of the samples tested contained plastic. While the health impacts of ingesting plastic, either through water or food, are still being assessed, the very fact that plastic waste is affecting water supply is a cause for serious concern. Since the 1950s, 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced worldwide, but only around 20% of it has been recycled or incinerated. The rest is in the sea, on mountain slopes, in rivers and springs, in wells, in landfills, and in piles of garbage that are now the symbol of urban blight, especially in India. The challenge of dealing with this seems so enormous that it requires virtually the reverse engineering of our approach towards production and consumption.

The steps taken so far in India are essentially what could be termed “tail-end” solutions, much like the early efforts to deal with automobile pollution by making pollution checks mandatory for vehicles without addressing the quality of the fuel used. So far, 18 states have banned the use of single-use plastics in specific cities or demarcated areas. Nowhere has this been successful. The state that has achieved the most success in reducing the use of single-use plastics is Sikkim. Yet, despite a ban in 1998, till today it has not been successful in eliminating single-use plastic bags entirely. It has, however, managed to create awareness among its population of the environmental fallout of plastic waste and has tried to introduce cost-effective alternatives. On the other hand, in Delhi and Chandigarh, which along with Sikkim were part of a 2014 study by Toxics Link, “Toxics and the Environment,” a ban on plastic carry bags has failed to stop their use or to create consumer awareness. If this is the experience in small states of the size of Delhi and Chandigarh, what chance is there of such bans working in larger states like Maharashtra, which has recently notified a fairly drastic ban.

The problem, as the Toxics Link study emphasises, is twofold: first, the easy availability and cost-effectiveness of plastic carry bags for vendors, particularly those dealing with perishables like vegetables and meat; and, second, the low level of consumer awareness of the environmental problems created by plastic waste. Add to this the generally poor implementation of all manner of environmental regulations in India and you have, what the report calls, “the classic tragedy of the commons” where “individual consumers benefit from the use of plastic bags because of their convenience, while the whole society bears the collective cost of their disposal.”

While regulation, deterrence, and incentives can be one part of the solution, the larger challenge is stopping production of single-use plastics. In India, for instance, 85%–90% of plastic production is in the small and medium sector that remains largely unregulated. Yet, stopping single-use plastic carry bags is not enough. We should not forget that 48% of the plastic waste is the packaging of branded edible items and it is the bigger industries, including multinationals, that are responsible for this. Clearly, we need to enforce extended producer responsibility so that those using non-recyclable plastic in their packaging take responsibility and pay for its disposal. Furthermore, the alternatives to plastic bags, such as those made of biodegradable material, or of paper, jute, and cloth, need to be cost-effective. Finally, the consumer has to make a choice between convenience and an environmental disaster.

Updated On : 27th Jun, 2018


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