Repulsive sights of plastic waste in landfills, drains, beaches, roads, fields and even large water bodies such as rivers haunt us every day. The pictures of the gritty dystopia we have created are flashed on every conceivable platform, ranging from journals to social media, to prick our conscience.
To undo the mess, obviously herculean efforts are required.
And for a large and populous nation like India, where 25, 940 metric tonnes of plastic waste are generated daily, and basic garbage collection and treatment itself is a big issue, it is even more challenging.
Surveys show that almost 40 percent of the plastic waste remains uncollected. Those litter streets, choke drains often leading to floods in urban centres, or simply lie in landfills. They pose a massive threat to environment since they take almost 1000 years to disintegrate, thus contaminating the ground and water. Land and water animals ingesting toxic plastic waste mistaking those for food also suffer, and sometimes even die.
This is cause for serious concern.
Realising this, and also under pressure from environmental groups, the Indian government, both at the centre and state levels, has framed various strictures pertaining to its usage.
Have those helped? We explore it in this article.
Ban on manufacture and usage
To effectively beat plastic waste, banning its manufacture and usage altogether sounds like a perfect solution. Several states and union territories in India, numbering to almost 20, have already done so. Those include Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Sikkim, Nagaland, and Tripura. From disposable plastic bags and single use plastic bottles to styrofoam and thermocol disposable plates and cutlery, they have banned both production and usage to deal with toxic plastic pollution
There are also states that have a partial ban on plastic such as Goa, Gujarat, Odisha, Kerala and West Bengal. Plastic is either not allowed in certain areas in the states or use of certain plastic products are not allowed.
There are also states where it is not banned at all. Their number is far less compared to others.
Meanwhile, the centre too pledged to outlaw every form of single-use plastics by 2022, in the World Environment Day summit in June.
Such moves, commendable no doubt, are far from achieving their noble goal. There are major difficulties in their implementation. The plastic industry is too big and employs many. A lot of other industries are dependent on plastic products. This has often resulted in long-drawn negotiations with key stakeholders who have often challenged the drastic move.
Apart from large players and industrial bodies, getting small traders, grocery stores and vegetable sellers to follow rules is also fraught with challenges. Especially in the absence of cheap alternatives. Fines imposed of usage of such single use plastics have done little to instil fear in them as patrolling every nook and cranny of large, populated cities is a tough task.
Another option, this is already being done by our informal network of ragpickers. They pick up discarded plastic bottles, containers, toys, gadgets, and furniture for recycling. Even companies that produce those sometimes take them back for recycling. But it is not sufficient to rid the nation of the massive menace. The suggested reverse vending machines that accept bottles are far and few between too.
The biggest hurdle are the tiny bits of plastic such as wrappers and single use plastic bags which are not lucrative enough to collect for ragpickers and companies. And with proliferation of ecommerce and online food and grocery delivery businesses, those have become a mammoth problem. Pieces of plastic make their way to our homes thanks to them, no matter how sweeping the ban on paper.
To address the issue, in Maharashtra, responsible officials are mulling over new rules where retailers are required to print the manufacturers name, type and buy-back price on the plastic used by them to be collected back.
Viable alternatives to plastic
In India’s most populous state of Maharashtra, a complete plastic ban is not just expected to result in massive losses for the plastic industry but also a loss of 30 million jobs. While this cannot be ignored, on the bright side, it also means new avenues for growth by creating innovative, eco-friendly alternatives.
Entrepreneurs are already experimenting with new materials made of bamboo or banana fibre. They are making pouches and bags out of natural starches and vegetable wastes. Reusable cotton and jute bags have also hit the market. But those are expensive and would take time to be as widely accepted as single-use plastic bags.
Statistics show India’s per capita plastic consumption is far less compared with Europe and China. The problem lies with the management of those. Red-tapism is one of the main factors preventing swift framing of rules and of course implementation is a challenge given the nation’s large population.