Can’t we simply kill plastic? Why doesn’t government ban it altogether, as it is single-handedly responsible for water and soil pollution, threatening life on Earth? Why are haunting images of hordes of plastic being extracted from the carcass of wild animals, unable to stir policymakers into enacting a law, to limit, if not completely ban plastic from day-to-day use?
Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) has issued rules from time to time, but deadlines after deadline have passed with almost no impact on plastic menace. It first tried to address the problem by issuing Plastic Waste (Management and Handling) Rules in 2011. Having been found toothless, they were replaced by Plastic Waste Management Rules in 2016 – completely banning the use of plastic below 50 microns, phasing out of multi-layered plastic packaging, and introducing extended producers’ responsibility (EPR) to ensure environmentally sound management of plastic waste till the end of its life cycle.
Hardly had the rules been notified that the government brought in amendments reducing it to a toothless tiger again. A complete ban on multi-layered plastic packing was replaced with ‘multi-layered plastic which is non-recyclable or non-energy recoverable or with no alternate use’. This definition gave a leeway to plastic manufacturers who could now claim that their products if not recycled, could be put to another use. This plastic was supposed to be completely banned by 2018 but is nowhere near being phased out.
Plastindia Foundation a confederation of major associations, organisations, and institutions of the plastic industry, claims India consumes around 20 million tonnes of plastic annually. At least 30 percent of plastic waste is multi-layered packaging material which can’t be recycled. Of the remaining 70 percent, we are able to recycle 30-35 percent only.
Nearly 60 percent of fabric in circulation today is made of plastic micro-fibers resulting in 7 lakh microfibres getting into aquatic ecosystems with every wash.
More than 400 million tonnes of plastic is produced every year worldwide, half of which is designed to be used only once. Of that, less than 10 percent is recycled. An estimated 19-23 million tonnes end up in lakes, rivers, and seas annually.
Microplastics find their way into food, water, and air. It is estimated that each person on the planet consumes more than 50,000 plastic particles per year, according to a UN report. Plastic waste flowing in water systems would triple in the next 15 years. In fact, microplastics are reported to be responsible for rapidly increasing cases of cancer in the world.
Sample these statistics issued by the United Nations:
More than 1 million plastic bags are used every minute, with an average "working life" of only 15 minutes. 500 billion plastic bags are used annually—and that's just plastic bags. Of all plastics the world has produced, only 9% of the nine billion tons have been recycled—most end up in landfills, dumps, or in the environment. The ocean is expected to contain 1 ton of plastic for every 3 tons of fish by 2025 and, by 2050, more plastics than fish (by weight). Studies suggest that the total economic damage to the world's marine ecosystem caused by plastic amounts to at least $13 billion every year. If current consumption habits continue, we're on pace to have discarded 12 billion tons of plastic waste into landfills and our environment by 2050.
The scenario is indeed frightening. Plastic now is like artificial intelligence – we can’t live without it despite being aware of the dangers it poses to the world in general and to the human race in particular.
Plastic is a by-product of the petrochemical industry but its prevalence is due to its flexibility – it can take any shape and size, impermeability and sturdiness. Being inexpensive, most of the plastic products are of use and throw kinds.
So, what do we do? There are two ways to tackle plastic. One – recycle it and two – replace it with reusable material in everything from packing to daily use goods. Right now, less than 10 percent of plastic is recycled. The remaining 90 percent goes either into landfills or aquatic ecosystems. Since it takes anywhere from 20 years to 10000 years for plastic to degrade, the danger is increasing rapidly. Being impervious, it stops rainwater from seeping in to the ground while at the same time choking gullible animals – from elephants to whales - feeding on it.
We increase plastic recycling to bring it back in use instead of going into landfills and oceans forever. Waste to Energy (WTE) plants could be a good starting point. More and more recycling plants are needed besides a clear stringent waste segregation policy. Violators need to be fined handsomely. Madhya Pradesh towns like Indore and Chhidwara and faraway places like Arunachal’s Changlang have shown the way to be completely plastic-free, why can’t metro towns like Delhi and Mumbai too emulate a small states like Sikkim which embarked upon a journey back in 1998 to be a plastic-free state way? If the whole of Tamil Nadu can launch a crusade against plastic, why can’t other states follow suit? After all, replicating best practices is the ethos of good governance.
ENFORCING PLASTIC BAN
The government too can contribute its bit by strictly enforcing the plastic ban. Indore won its battle against plastic by enlisting the support of MLAs and corporators who would send their representatives along with garbage collection teams to overcome local resistance. They also issued spot fines from Rs 500 (to individuals) to Rs one lakh (for big business entities) against violators of norms like waste segregation and littering.
The government needs to ban the manufacturing of single-use plastic and impose heavy penalties on violators. Considering that over four million people are employed in plastic manufacturing units, the government should also make alternative livelihood arrangements for them.
REDEEMABLE COVER CHARGE
A small step towards containing plastic waste, could be levying a small redeemable cover charge on all plastic packings. A packet of chips, chocolate or cold drink bottle costing Rs 10 for example, should be sold at Rs 30 by including a Rs 20 returnable cover charge. A person returning the packing to the retailer can redeem the cover charge. Such collected plastic material can be routed back to the manufacturing company through wholesalers and dealers for recycling.
The other solution is to promote substitutes for polythene bags. Over the past 15 years, bio-degradable plastic has been promoted the world over as an alternative. They are classified as oxi-biodegradable plastics, hydro-biodegradable plastics, and just biodegradable plastics made mostly of edible starch and vegetable oils.
Buying lesser, better and more natural products is key to changing the course of today’s hyper-consumerist market. The problem lies more in increasing consumerism than waste management. Every ton of plastic recycled goes to save thousands of lives. So, what are we waiting for? Let us go cracking and launch a crusade against plastic. Millions of individual efforts are bound to culminate in a collective campaign.