Why the War Against Plastics Must Be Unforgiving and Brook No Concession

India generates 15,342 tonnes of plastic waste per day, of which 9,205 tonnes are reportedly recycled.

A few days ago, a whale died in southern Thailand after consuming 80 plastic bags. You may have had something to do with it.

Remember the first toothbrush you used? Or the first plastic bag that carried your favourite toy home? Or your first bottle of shampoo, and that pack of chips that aroused your taste buds after a long day at school? What about that straw you used to quench your thirst? When the glass bottles became obsolete, your favourite beverage started coming in an easy-to-carry PET bottle. Do you remember that one?

Chances are these relics from your past may still be around. In your tap water, the sewer, in a heap of garbage on the outskirts of your city, in the ocean, in the intestines of an unfortunate animal.

A study published late last year found that 90% of all plastic waste in the oceans comes from just 10 rivers – all of them in India, China and Africa. Of the 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic produced since the 1950s, 79% lies piled up in landfills and oceans. Single-use plastics, such as plastic bottles, their caps, food wrappers and plastic bags are four of the top five pollutants found in water bodies.

Closer home, in Patna, a cow underwent a three-hour long surgery as doctors removed 80 kg of polythene from her stomach. The whale in Thailand and the cow are not isolated cases; they are grim indicators of how non-biodegradable plastic has become a horrifying form of pollution.

A 2017 report by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) said,

Plastics, being a polymer derived from crude (oil), are made up of long chains of carbon. It takes years for them to decompose completely. Improper disposal of plastics leads to ground-water pollution, disturbance in soil microbial activity along with releasing of carcinogenic chemicals in the atmosphere leading to health issues among people. The other life forms also get affected due to this imbalance in value chain, with stray cattle feeding on thrown-away plastics. These adverse impacts are alarming the society and industry to ensure proper disposal of plastics.

If petroleum minister Dharmendra Pradhan’s plans work out, India’s annual per capita plastic consumption will be (deliberately) increased to 20 kg by 2022.

The ‘ban and dilute policy’

The Central Pollution Control Board has estimated that India generates 15,342 tonnes of plastic waste per day, of which 9,205 tonnes are reportedly recycled. Some 40% (6,137 tonnes) remains uncollected.

On June 5, Edappadi K. Palaniswami, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, announced a ban on disposable plastics to come into effect from January 2019. The move chiefly targets plastic carry bags, plates, cups, flags and small sachets used to package water, among other similar items. It excludes plastic packaging used for milk, curd, oil and medical utilities.

Tamil Nadu will join a league of 25 states that have either announced a blanket ban or a partial ban on plastic bags. However, one hopes it will do a better job of implementing it.

The only state that has seen some success on this front is Sikkim. Maharashtra, another state on the list and the one that generates the most plastic waste, has already come up with a dilution strategy: its government has extended the implementation deadline from one month to three months and has excluded small PET and PETE bottles from the list of banned items. There are also riders: it will be Rs 2 extra for a half-litre bottle of mineral water and Re 1 extra for a one-litre bottle.

The Central has laid out the Plastic Waste Management Rules, notified in March 2016, and they were amended (read: diluted) in April 2018, only two months before India was to host World Environment Day 2018, with the theme ‘Beat plastic pollution’. The amendment included the omission of “explicit pricing of carrying bags”. Earlier, vendors giving out plastic carry bags had to register with their respective local body and pay a minimum fee of Rs 48,000 per annum.

Multi-layered plastics (MLPs), which form a major chunk of single-use plastics, have been given a lease of life. MLPs are the shiny wrappers that house your candy bars and chips. The original plan was: “manufacture and use of non- recyclable multilayered plastic if any should be phased out in two years’ time.”

The amendment attaches new words to the rule, which now reads: “manufacture and use of multi-layered plastic which is non-recyclable or non-energy recoverable or with no alternate use if any should be phased out in two years’ time.” So plastic producers now have a chance to come up with such ‘alternate uses’.

The rules, however, talk about banning plastic carry bags of thickness less than 50 microns. Thicker bags are more expensive and the government expects that this will minimise the use of plastic bags. While one hopes that this scheme works, there is room for doubt. For example, in 2015, India had imposed a ban on imports of plastic scrap. However, it was subsequently relaxed and SEZs were exempt from its terms.

As a part of token World Environment Day programmes, big corporations have committed to managing their plastic waste more responsibly. At the same time, the government heightened its efforts to raise awareness on the issue. Can the momentum be sustained in the coming months?

The packaging industry accounts for 43% of total plastic use in India. In India, the boom in the fast-moving consumer goods sector after globalisation has opened up the economy to several multinational companies, leading to the widespread use of plastics in packaging these goods. However, the responsibility of dealing with the plastic waste has been surreptitiously shifted to the consumer. As such, any efforts to implement bans have been resisted by a strong industrial lobby.

Taking responsibility

Your garbage doesn’t cease to be your problem once you throw it out. It will come back to haunt you sooner or later. Solutions exist but they require us to change our lifestyles and for corporations to take responsibility for the products they make. We need to demand that plastic bans be properly implemented. The government’s ban and dilute policy won’t work if officials are not serious about enforcing them.

The ‘Break Free From Plastic’ movement – representing more than 1,200 groups around the world – has been calling for G7 countries to pass binding reduction targets and bans on single-use plastics, invest in new product-delivery models based on reuse and hold polluting corporations accountable.

Corporations that manufacture or distribute plastic need to take responsibility and drastically reduce their plastic production. Violators among them should be pulled up under Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) laws and governments all over the world will need to see to it that they live up to their promises.

There are success stories about recycling that inspire us. Like Kollam, Kerala, whose people collect plastic waste from the Arabian Sea and send it for recycling. Or the story of Rajagopalan Vasudevan, who found a way to use shredded plastic to make roads. But eventually, what we need is a plastics-free world, and all of us need to pitch in and take responsibility for our trash.

Diya Deb is campaign director, Greenpeace India.