Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, announced that single use plastic items would banned in the country from October 2019 onwards. Reports suggest the ban will include plastic bags, plastic cups, plates, small bottles, straws and certain types of sachets. For a country which generates more than 26000 tonnes of plastic waste daily (as per the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) of India in 2011-12), this is a much needed step. But having said so, for this ban to translate into reduction of pollution, it has to be meticulously executed. This was evident from the example of Maharashtra, a state in the central part of the country.
The state banned single use plastic in 2018. Besides polythene bags, plastic containers for packing food in restaurants, plastic straws, and disposable plastic plates were amongst some of the items barred by the Maharashtra government. The initial robust implementation subsequently fizzled out and many restaurants started delivering food in single use plastic containers for the lack of a cost- friendly alternative. Streetside vendors selling beverages like milkshakes and lemonades switched back to plastic straws. Black trash bin liner bags made from low quality plastics also managed to find their way back on the market. Though shops stopped stocking them, city traffic lights became the place where hawkers or street children sold these bags to drivers halted at a red light.
Dr Medha Tadpatrikar, from Keshav Sita Trust, which has been working to reduce plastic pollution, says various alternatives were offered but, unfortunately, most substituted plastic with paper. “Though degradable, it takes an enormous amount of energy and wood for manufacturing paper, making it an environmentally unviable solution,” says Dr Tadpatrikar. She further adds the reality of bio-degradable or compostable plastics, mainly bags, is totally different. She cited findings by researchers from the University of Plymouth in the UK, released in April 2019, to prove this point. Their research showed biodegradable plastic bags were still capable of carrying full loads of shopping after being exposed to the natural environment for three years. Thus, Dr Tadpatrikar says, through innovation and science there is a need to find a sustainable solution. “Until then, reducing plastic use is the only option,” she says.
Dr Tadpatrikar, whose venture also consists of converting plastic litter into poly-fuel, says another area which requires intervention is the segregation of plastics and recyclables from other degradable garbage at source. According to CPCB, 40% of plastic waste which can be recycled remains uncollected. Though the technology used by Dr Tadpatrikar’s venture can convert these plastics without release of harmful gas into a domestically usable clean burning fuel, its operations presently cannot be scaled up. “The irony is such, that though we generate a lot of plastic, there isn’t enough to scale up our operations. This is only because people do not segregate garbage at its source,” she says.
The burden of plastic packaging
As soon as the ban was announced in Maharashtra, many commercial groups protested against the move, citing either loss of jobs or stating that plastic guaranteed a seal of safety – especially for packaged snacks. Food grade virgin plastic used for packaging in milk and mineral water bottles, compostable bags used for horticulture and agriculture purposes, plastic used in the manufacturing stage and plastic used for packaging of medicines and drugs were excluded from the ban.
But Lokesh Bapat, founder of the Tellus Organisation, which works in plastic waste, states packaging material also needs to be substituted by eco-friendly options. “Fried snack packs and mineral water bottles is one of the major menaces when it comes to plastic pollution. If alternatives for plastic packaging are not explored, fighting pollution is going to become a challenge,” he says.
On the positive side, such a ban spreads awareness amongst citizens who are voluntarily kicking the plastic habit. “I started carrying my own cloth bag to carry groceries,” said Maithili Godbole, one of the citizens in Maharashtra who kicked the plastic habit.
He went on, “The bin liners I use are made from newspapers and promotional pamphlets which come through the mail. I even carry my own steel water bottle instead of buying bottled water when I travel. However, the government should also make clean and safe drinking water available at public places,” he said. “Especially while on the highways, I am forced to buy mineral water in disposable plastic bottles since there is no such facilities,” Godbole added.
A global call for action against plastic
Plastic pollution today is in every nook and cranny of the world. Marine species are dying, mammals are ingesting plastics in large quantities, which affects their digestive system, and the landfills are unable to carry the burden of this waste anymore. Thus, representatives from various nations met in New York, USA on April 20th last year for a discussion on “Kicking the Plastic Bag Addiction: A Plan for Response to Plastic Pollution” co-hosted by the Government of Quebec (Canada), the NGO Earth Day Network, and New York University. It shed light on efforts by various countries to curb plastic pollution.
Earth Day Network’s website has listed efforts taken by various countries to curb plastic pollution. Of these, Ireland was the first country to place a significant tax on plastic bags, now 22 cents, at checkouts in 2002. “For the few bags that are used, the government has ensured that the revenue from the tax goes into different programmes aimed at environmental protection. The country saw a significant impact almost instantly, with plastic bag consumption dropping by 94%, making the practice of using plastic bags unacceptable by the end of the year. Having inspired other countries to address this issue, Ireland is one of the leading countries tackling plastic bag consumption,” reads an excerpt from an article published on their website.