The much-expected blanket ban on single use plastics, which was to have been announced on October 2 this year, has been shelved. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted a video of himself plogging along a Chennai beach recently, he was declaring his intention to phase out single use plastics by 2022. Given the level of penetration of plastic products and challenges to recycling used plastics, is it a realistic target?
Defining the plastic problem
According to UN Environment Programme (UNEP), almost half of the world’s plastics are single use plastics. But what constitutes single-use plastics is not clear. “The definition of single use plastics should be expanded because plastic bags are not the only single use plastic we use,” says Satyarupa Shekhar, Director – Urban Governance, Citizen Consumer and Civic Action Group (CAG). “There is not much awareness that many branded packaging items like food packets, packaging material used in the food delivery industry, sanitary napkins, diapers and condoms are all single use plastics.”
More than 20 States and union territories in India have banned single use plastic. Sikkim was the first to impose a ban in 1998. Tamil Nadu imposed a ban in 2019 on certain items, but exempted many others (see graphic).
“A plastic ban in Tamil Nadu cannot be enforced easily because there is no nationwide blanket ban on single use plastics. Plastic items are illegally brought into Tamil Nadu from other States. A nationwide ban is necessary to solve the problem of single use plastics,” she says.
“It’s easier to sell batter in a plastic cover. People can take it away easily,” says a shopkeeper. Another insists on putting the flowers in a plastic bag.
Both were clueless about the ban or about the ill-effects of using plastics. At a meat shop, the shopkeeper neatly wraps the meat in eco-friendly leaves, but the customer places it in his own plastic cover.
Satyarupa says, “The current narrative on the plastic problem puts the blame and responsibility for plastic waste entirely on the consumer.” The Swachh Bharat initiative should focus on plastic production rather than on the consumers. Plastic producers should also be responsible for managing waste.
Although alternatives such as plantain leaves, arecanut plates, paper rolls, lotus leaves, glass and metal tumblers, bamboo and wooden products, paper straws, cloth and jute bags, ceramic ware, edible cutlery and earthen pots are available, they tend to be more expensive than plastic products that are made from petrochemical industrial wastes.
Says a Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) report, India’s plastic processing industry is projected to reach 22 million tonnes per annum by 2020. The per capita consumption of plastic in India is 11 kg.
Dangers of disposing plastic
A 2019 report on plastic waste by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) says, till date, 8.3 billion tonnes of virgin plastic has been produced around the world and if current production trends and waste management continue, an estimated 12 billion tonnes of plastic waste will be in landfills or in the natural environment.
The UNEP says 79 per cent of plastics produced in the world have ended up in landfills or somewhere in the environment. Only nine per cent has been recycled and 12 per cent incinerated. The PlastIndia Foundation estimates that over six lakh people are directly involved in the recycling sector and over 10 lakh (including waste pickers) indirectly involved. The quantum of plastic recycled in India is only around 5.5 million tonnes.
A Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs report says that recycling of virgin plastic can be done only 2-3 times because the plastic deteriorates after each recycling process and its life span decreases. The process also impacts the health of waste pickers in the informal recycling sector, leading to skin infections and other illnesses.
Incineration of plastics releases harmful chemicals which are known to cause health problems like cancer, neurological damage, endocrine disruption and birth defects. Majority of plastic waste is disposed in landfills where it breaks down into microplastics and toxic chemicals, which seep into the land.
A 2019 report on the hidden costs of plastics by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) says micro plastics enters the human body through air, water and food.
Two-thirds of plastics ever to be produced remain in the environment as ocean debris, as micro or nanoparticles in air and soil, as microfibers in water bodies, or as microparticles in the human body.
Plastic waste is being used for construction purposes in many areas around the world including Tamil Nadu, but CIEL says plastic polymers release highly toxic substances when heated and if they are used in road construction, microplastics will be released into the atmosphere due to weathering and abrasion by vehicles.
Without a nationwide ban on single use plastic, stopping production of all kinds of single use plastic products and developing technologies and markets to help people move away from plastics, phasing them out by 2022 is unlikely.