Mahatma Gandhi once famously said, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness”. On October 2nd, 2019; when India celebrates the 150th birth anniversary of the Father of the Nation, the Modi Government plans to wage yet another battle against plastic pollution. Many bans on single-use plastic items have been introduced by different states, but a nationwide ban on six single-use plastic items is anticipated on Gandhi Jayanti. The aim is to rid India of such plastics by 2022. Air India has also decided to replace single use plastic items such as cutlery and pouches with paper and wooden alternatives from October 2nd, 2019 in a two-stage process. Indian Railways has also issued a similar directive.
Numerous challenges are at stake such as poor law enforcement that has shown grim results in the past and the never-ending environment versus economy debate that continues to affect developing nations the most.
Miracle turned menace
Plastic was once considered a miracle of science but is now a well-accepted menace, that is eating up our environment. It is a non-biodegradable substance that takes thousands of years to break down. Plastic degrades into microplastics that enter into our water bodies. These are ingested by marine life and this is how microplastics enter our food chain. Hence, plastic pollution harms life; both inside and outside water. As per a study by the World Economic Forum, the scale of plastic pollution is so high that by the year 2050, there will be more plastic in oceans than fish. India’s contribution to this sinful plastic pollution stands at around 60 per cent.
Major roadblocks and ongoing battles
Ireland was the first country to impose a cess on plastic bags in 2002. Its resounding success led to its replication in other places such as South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong, California, Austin and many more. Meanwhile, a small country in the central-eastern part of Africa was waging its own war on plastic. Rwanda has been plastic free since 2008 following a stringent ban on plastic use. Strict law enforcement coupled with heavy fines and penalties ensured the desired results which earned Rwanda international acclaim. Many Indian states have implemented bans on single use plastic like Maharashtra, Himachal Pradesh, Telangana and Tamil Nadu, and plastic bags have been banned in almost all the other states. However, the presence of plastic is hardly missed. It is because of many legal loopholes and poor law and order enforcement, in general, in India.
There are various challenges that come with enforcing a ban on plastic products. The top to bottom approach doesn’t take into account the ground reality and these bans are usually thrust down upon people without providing any alternatives. From starting our day by brushing our teeth with a plastic toothbrush to eating out of plastic plates and cutlery, plastic has become part and parcel of our lives. Its presence is so ubiquitous that finding replacements seems like an impossible task. In addition to this, a proper foundation has not been prepared. Awareness drives are necessary to create a voluntary sense of eradicating plastic out of one’s life. However, it can also be observed that the use of sustainable replacements remains restricted to formal sectors only. For instance, if cafes and restaurants have replaced plastic straws with metallic or paper straws, we still have coconut vendors giving away plastic straws.
Economy versus environment
There are no doubts about the adverse impact of plastic pollution on the environment. Hence, the calls for plastic ban should have been unanimous. However, plastic ban is not welcomed by different sectors in the economy. It results in huge job losses and an increase in taxes and the cost of packaging. It has been estimated that the plastic ban in Maharashtra alone would result in a loss of about three lakh jobs and fifteen thousand crore rupees.
The ban not only directly affects plastic manufacturing industries and its stakeholders but also influences food, retail and e-commerce industries heavily, which use plastic for cheap and effective packaging. The Plastic ban has forced them to look for alternatives and upgrade their machinery; resulting in higher costs. One should also not forget how difficult and time consuming the whole replacement process is. It requires heavy investment. The challenge for the food industry is bigger as the problem of spilling and spoiling cannot be solved easily by other cheap alternatives. Hence, plastic ban comes with its own economic costs.
Plastic recycling: A win-win situation
India’s per capita consumption of plastic is lesser, as compared to developed economies. Where India consumes 11 kgs of plastic per person, USA and Europe consume 109 kgs and 65 kgs respectively. More plastic use indicates more wealth. However, India’s plastic consumption is increasing at a burgeoning compounded annual growth rate of 10 per cent. India currently consumes 13 million tonnes of plastic per year and discards 9 million tonnes per year. Out of this 60 per cent is recycled whereas the rest 40 per cent is neither collected nor recycled. The biggest problem with single-use plastic is that it cannot be recycled. Hence the emphasis on banning this type of plastic.
The plastic recycling industry has massive potential for growth. If tapped judiciously, it has the golden opportunity to create six times more jobs. Around 11.5 million direct and indirect jobs were created by Chinese recycling industry. Formalisation of the plastic scrap sector is a must for the growth of the Indian plastic recycling industry. The ragpickers should be brought under organised labour and provided proper training and incentives. For this, political will is required for institutionalising the sector. Having said this, one should not forget the importance of segregation of waste at the source itself. It is the first and the most important step in the recycling process. Therefore, the success of the recycling industry also depends on the civil society for proper waste segregation as well as on the government for a much-required policy intervention.
Refill over landfill
The youth, which is the inheritor of the world we have created, should consciously start taking steps to eradicate plastic at a personal level and then move on to the city and national levels. Educational institutes, while encouraging a plastic-free campus, mainly focus on plastic bags only. However, they ignore the most pervasive use of plastic in any student’s life which is plastic pens. Gone are the days of fountain pens which were to be refilled using ink bottles. Now, they have been replaced by use-and-throw plastic pens which have a plastic outer body and a plastic refill. There needs to be an urgent shift towards sustainable stationery. We need to step back and use metal roller ball pens and fountain pens with no plastic parts. Refilling ink also reduces waste. In addition to this, cafeterias and canteens should avoid the use of cling wrap for food packaging and students should be encouraged to bring their own metal boxes to pack food. Instead of buying plastic water bottles of 500 ml or 1 litre, steel bottles can be used for refilling water.
Winning the lost cause
The nationwide plastic ban is one of the many actions that has been undertaken by the government with the correct intention. To prevent it from becoming yet another futile battle against the lost cause, many challenges need to be overcome. The bans should be enforced in a phased manner. The first phase should deal with easily replaceable items such as plastic bags and straws which can be replaced by cloth bags and paper/metallic straws. Subsequently, legislations can focus on prohibiting hard plastics by doing a proper ground research and incentivising industries to take up technology that uses alternatives to plastic. Government sponsored awareness drives and wide circulation of pictures depicting the huge amounts of plastic waste on the beach after the Chennai floods, helped Tamil Nadu to prepare the field for plastic ban from January, 2019, whereas in Maharashtra, government’s efficient feedback system followed by prompt actions helped plugging in a few loopholes.
Therefore, a proper ground needs to be prepared before any policy implementation. A well thought out policy backed by research and followed by stringent law enforcement can definitely help us win the battle against this severe plastic problem.
Picture Courtesy- The National