Plastics are organic polymers of high molecular mass and are often contain other substances. They are synthetic, mainly derived from petrochemicals. Due to their low cost, ease of manufacture, versatility, non-corrosiveness and imperviousness to water, plastics are used for multiple purposes. Worldwide millions of plastic bags and other products are used everyday. About 50% of these plastics items are single use and constitute 10% of total waste generated. Since its discovery more than 9 billion tonnes of plastics has been produced. As per scientists, from 1950’s to 2018 nearly 7 billion tonnes of plastic waste has been generated out of which only mere 9% to 12% was recycled and incinerated respectively leaving behind an alarming 79% accumulated in landfills, oceans or the environment.
Plastics take enormous amount of time to decompose, in most cases decades or even centuries hence it remains in the environment for longer period causing immense damage. Plastic bottles take upto 400 years, plastic bags from 10-1000 years to decompose. Plastics also contain toxic chemicals. Due to these properties of plastic it causes environmental pollution. The following points indicate the reasons why plastic waste causes environmental degradation on a large scale:
- Plastics are ubiquitous- It is found everywhere from clogging street drains to littering camp grounds, parks and roadside or outside town garbage dumps. Oceans also have tonnes of plastic waste. But, more terrible than the problem of plastics floating around in water is plastic waste is found in the more than 90% of world’s sea birds, in the stomach of more than half of the world’s sea turtles. At this rate it is predicted that by 2050, the mass of plastic in the world’s oceans will exceed mass of all fishes that live in there.
- Plastics are one of the main products of fracking. Plastics derived from fracking are usually single use plastics and hence pollute water, soil and air in numerous ways.
- Plastics cause death of animals, birds and fishes due to entangling or due to lodging of plastic inside their digestive tracts of these creatures. Plastic found inside the stomach of animals do not biodegrade rather the larger pieces break into smaller fragments that are easily consumed by other animal species. Deaths due to ingesting plastic have also been seen among microscopic zooplanktons. This is a matter of serious concern for entire marine food web.
- Not all plastics are recyclable and not all recyclable plastics are recycled. A very negligible percentage of plastics are compostable in home compost and a slightly higher percentage can be composed by industrial or municipal facilities but majority remain as non-biodegradable plastic.
- Plastics survive even in harsh conditions like in ocean surfaces and deep ocean trenches, unrelenting sunshine and even in permanently frozen conditions.
- Plastics have caused mass deaths of animals, fishes, birds and micro-organisms to the level of extinction of species.
All nations across the globe are concerned for regulating plastic waste management. In the global scenario developing countries often become dump stations of plastic waste from developed countries. Keeping this in the forefront, recently at the 14th Conference of Parties (COP-14), Geneva, nearly 180 countries adopted the amendments to the convention which include plastic waste in a legally binding framework so as to make global trade in plastic scrap more transparent and better regulated. Like much of the world India is also struggling to dispose its growing quantities of plastic waste- plastic waste to the tune of about 10000 tonnes a day remains uncollected. Numerous laws have been made by the Indian government to curb spread of plastic waste which are mentioned below:
- Recycled Plastics Manufacture and Usage Rules, 1999- to regulate, manufacture, sale, use and recycling of plastic bags. This rule was replaced by,
- Plastic Waste (Management and Handling) Rules 2011- to regulate the use, collection, segregation, transportation and disposal of plastic waste. This was replaced by,
- Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016- A key concept of “extended producer responsibility” or EPR was introduced. EPR is a policy approach in which a producer’s responsibility is extended to post consumer stage of product’s life cycle. This rule increased its extent to rural areas, introduced phase-out of non recyclable, multilayered plastics by 2018.
- Plastic Waste Management (Amendment) Rules, 2018 laid down the phase out of non-recyclable or non-energy recoverable multilayered plastic besides normal multilayered plastic.
Why is EPR Important?
Today, recycling sector in India is extremely informal, which consists of waste pickers and kabadiwalahs. With little help from the municipal bodies they are able to recycle 80% of a type of plastic called Polyethylene Terapthelate (PET). But the system is highly inefficient and almost half the estimated 7-9 million tonnes of plastic does not get recycled by the informal sector.
This includes the multilayered plastic (MLP) which does not fetch waste pickers much money because it cannot be recycled. EPR comes in here because companies can incentivise these workers to recover 100% of wastes including MLP. Companies can also help waste pickers to upgrade technology like baling machines to pack the plastics completely. These bales can be then shipped to waste to energy plants. Such machinery can be provided under EPR. It is imperative to implement the EPR programme with yearly targets and a system of nationwide offsets and credit to ensure effective implementation of rules. So, the EPR has various advantages:
- It leads to reduction of waste in landfills and incinerators.
- It encourages production of environment friendly products as producers are made responsible to dispose their products.]
- It leads to manufacture of easily recyclable products.
- It leads to the reduction of the cost of waste disposal.
- It reduces cost of manufacturing new products as waste products can be reused in manufacturing processes.
Challenges To Plastic Waste Management In India
Even though India has different laws for reducing plastic waste yet the country is unable to cause any significant hindrance to the menace of plastic waste. This is caused due to the following reasons:
- Segregation is the heart of waste management. Segregation helps in efficient collection and processing. Since segregation of plastics at source is poor, plastics usually end up in landfills and not at recycling stations.
- Plastic has multiple uses and has physical and chemical properties of commercial use. Because of the absence of an eco-friendly and a commercially viable product it has been difficult to put a blanket ban which would put a stop to any further plastic pollution.
- Waste to energy incinerators are extremely polluting and pose health hazard. Multi-layered plastic (MLP) which has low value for the waste pickers can be used in waste to energy incinerators and cement kilns. However, there are only two waste to energy plants in India which accept MLP as fuel in the country. Further segregation and transportation of MLP to cement kilns make it unviable economically.
- EPR has not been implemented which puts the onus on the producers, brand-owners and manufacturers to reduce plastic waste from their products.
- Low technology in the waste management systems and lack of will of the state governments and local bodies tom upgrade the same play a major hindrance.
- The Fast Moving Consumer Goods sector (FMCG) uses large volumes of packaging, posing a higher order of challenge.
- There is a serious lack of awareness about the evils of pollution at all levels.
Mitigating Measures That Should Be Taken
Though plastics cannot be completely replaced but certain measures can be taken to neutralise the adverse effects of plastic, such as:
- Use of alternatives like eco-friendly cloth/paper/jute bags, leaves/areca leaf plates, paper straws can be used in place of plastic items.
- Compostable, bio-degradable even edible plastics made from various materials like bagasse, corn starch, grain flour can also be promoted as alternatives.
- Proper implementation of laws and creating mass awareness among people to voluntarily opt out of plastic use can bring about major implementation.
- Giving discounts to customers who bring their own bags will further motivate them to move towards non-plastic alternatives.
- Developing infrastructure for segregation, collection and disposal of plastic waste must be undertaken by government.
- Government and people must together ensure that plastic does not reach soil or water by any means to prevent further death of animals, birds, fishes etc.
- EPR must be made simpler in terms of on-ground applications and producers must be made aware of its benefits.
As discussed earlier plastic has become an indispensible part of our life and it cannot be fully rejected especially if done in a sudden move. Hence, we should opt for more viable alternatives. Contribution and involvement of government, public and producers is equally important as negligence on the part of one can easily damage efforts of others.
The effects of plastic pollution are devastating. The good news is that we can all play a role in reducing plastic pollution. The small choices we make in our everyday life add to making a big difference for the overall environment. As a first step to beating plastic pollution would need one simple step of saying no to single-use plastic in our everyday life, because if 9 billion tonnes of plastic isn’t already too much then how much is too much?