Plastics have become part and parcel of our lives, asserting their presence in almost every sphere ranging from grocery bags to water bottles to sandwich wraps. But our quest for convenient, flexible, and cheaper material for catering to our daily needs has gone a bit too far to the extent that plastics, more particularly single-use plastics, have started taking a toll on the health of humans and the Earth as well.
These days, the news of plastics, more particularly single-use plastics, has been plastered across media avenues like social media, mainstream media, print media, etc. It has become a quite familiar issue that pops up almost every week in one media or the other. The gory scenes of the deleterious effects of single-use plastics become viral on social media every now and then. But what are single-use plastics?
What are single-use plastics?
As the name rightly indicates, they refer to plastic items or products that are used only once before being discarded. The life span of their utility is short, which is limited to a single use. In today’s world, single-use plastics account for more than half of the total plastic production in the world. Due to their litany of inherent advantages like lightweight, flexibility, cheaper production, etc., they are employed in almost every sphere of life, ranging from packaging items to food trays to earbuds, etc.
A material that is manufactured to last a long time and to be reused is discarded and rendered unusable just after a few minutes or hours. The single-use plastic is a global menace, especially in countries where the collection and recycling infrastructure of plastic waste is poor and inadequate.
Plastics in Numbers
Since the dawn of the second half of the 20th century, the production of plastics has outpaced any other material. Recently, as the world was shifting from durable plastics to single-use plastics, here are some of the worrying trends as reported by the United Nations Environment programme.
- So far, since the advent of plastics in the 1950s, roughly 8.3 billion MT of plastic has been produced in the world.
- Nearly about 380 million MT of plastic is produced every year across the globe. The annual production of plastic is approximately the same weight of entire humans on the earth.
- Single-use plastics account for about half of the global plastic
- Humans worldwide use around 1.2 million plastic bottles per minute, and more than 90% of them aren’t recycled.
- Five trillion plastic bags are produced every year, and each bag can take up to 1000 years to disintegrate and decompose totally.
- Nearly 500 billion plastic cups are used annually across the globe.
Further compounding the woes, the mode of production of plastics is highly detrimental to the environment. Most of the global plastic production is reliant on fossil-based fuels, which are non-renewable. If plastic production remains unabashed in the coming future, by 2050 plastic production industry may account for 20% of the global oil consumption and contribute 5%-10% of the global greenhouse gas emissions (UNEP report).
What’s the big deal?
As we have discussed above, since the 1950s, plastic production has outpaced every other product in the world. Unfortunately, much of the plastic that is produced is destined to be discarded or thrown away just after a single use. Consequently, more than half of the plastic produced in the world could be deemed single-use plastic. A majority of this plastic waste is generated from regions in Asia, whereas much of the production happens in America and the EU in terms of per capita.
But what is the big deal? Why so hue and cry over single-use plastics? Is the outcry proportional and justified? And the answer is, “Absolutely justified”. The outcry is much needed as the single-use plastics cast their shadow in many spheres, some of which are,
- Some recent studies have indicated that plastic bags and Styrofoam containers may take up to thousands of years to completely decompose, and this may contaminate the soil, underground water table, and ecological biomes.
- A lot of single use plastics like plastic bags and packaging materials often end up in the gut of animals as they are ingested into their intestines while they feed from the dustbins, which are usually replete with plastic waste. As a result, many animals often die a painful death.
- When disposable plastics decay in the environment, they often emit several greenhouse gases. When plastic is exposed to direct sunlight, it emits methane and ethylene, which are found to be detrimental to humans.
- When disposable plastics degrade in the environment, they emit several greenhouse gases. When plastic is exposed to sunlight, it produces methane and ethylene, which have a detrimental effect. It has been estimated that greenhouse gas emissions from the plastic lifecycle amounts to 3.8 % of the total global greenhouse gas emissions.
- Oceans are one particular biome that has been irreparably hit by plastic litter. Plastic items like plastic bags, coffee cups, packaging materials end up in huge quantities in oceans annually. This litter chokes up the intestines and respiratory tracts of the marine organism, thereby leading to their death. And the plastics also break down into microplastics with time and often end up in the marine food chain and subsequently in the human food chain as we consume marine produce.
- Plastic bags sometimes cast disproportionate impacts on human lives. They often choke the waterways and drainage systems and thereby aggravate natural disasters like floods. In 1988, the choking of drain by plastic litter in Bangladesh resulted in severe floods. It has submerged nearly 2/3rd of the nation.
- Another big environmental concern is the mode of production of such plastics. Today, more than 80% of plastic is manufactured by relying on fossil-based fuels. UNEP estimates that, by 2050, plastic production will account of 20% of fossil fuel consumption.
- One of the most commonly used plastic, Styrofoam, contains toxic chemicals like benzene and styrene which are observed to have been carcinogenic. Apart from being carcinogenic, they are found to have adverse effects on respiratory tracts, reproductive systems, nervous systems, kidneys, and livers, etc. Several studies have observed that toxins in Styrofoam containers can enter the food, and the risk would be aggravated when that food is re-heated.
- In low-income countries and poorer communities, plastics are used to burn for cooking purposes, leaving women prone to such toxicities.
- Unscientific disposal practices like open burning of plastic waste would release toxins like furans and dioxins, which are highly harmful for life forms.
- In countries where drainage systems are not sophisticated, plastic waste would clog the drainage channels and thereby elevate the risk of vector-borne diseases.
- Polyvinylchloride used in food packaging, toiletries, and cosmetics can cause cancer, birth defects, chronic bronchitis, skin diseases, genetic changes, deafness, vision impairment, indigestion, etc.
- Polystyrene, commonly used in meat packaging, can cause eye irritation and can cause dizziness and unconsciousness.
- The latest survey by UNEP estimates that the overall natural cost of plastic use in the world is about US$75 billion, which includes expenditure incurred on pollution caused by the incineration of plastics.
- The lethal effect of plastics on marine organisms and sea landscapes would leave a death blow to the fishing industry and sea-tourism-based countries like Maldives, Mauritius, etc. Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) reckoned a US1.3-billion-dollar economic impact caused due to marine plastics to the tourism, fishing, and shipping industries in that region alone.
- The costs of removing single-use plastic wastes from the environment far outweigh the cost of preventing plastic litter today. In Europe alone, the costs incurred on cleaning its beaches and shores amount to €630 million per year.
The Indian Case
The dual effect of exponential production of plastic, more particularly single-use plastics, and the utter poor waste handling infrastructure have combinedly resulted in the accumulation of plastic waste in India. A recent study found that India produces around 11.8 million MT annually and imports another 2.9 million MT. It is a gigantic problem for India as only 40% of the plastic waste is being collected in India. India’s per capita plastic generation is 4kg.
India’s Ambitious Move
Adhering to the clarion call given by the honourable prime minister to phase out single-use plastics in India, the Ministry of environment and climate change (MoEFFC) has notified Plastic waste management rules in 2021. Under this notification, recently, the government has notified certain single-use plastics to be banned with effect from July 1st, 2022. This notification has banned the manufacturing, import, stocking, distribution, sale, and use of notified single-use plastics from the notified date. For effective enforcement of the policy, national and state-level control rooms will be instituted, and a special enforcement team will be constituted to make sure the ban is effective. The states and union territories have been asked to set up border check posts to prevent inter-state transportation of banned items. Parallelly, the government has been undertaking awareness generation measures by involving various stakes holders like start-ups, entrepreneurs, central, state, and local governments, etc.
The list of single use plastic items to be banned as notified by the Central Pollution Control Board are earbuds; balloon sticks; candy and ice-cream sticks; cutlery items including plates, cups, glasses, forks, spoons, knives, trays; PVC banners measuring under 100 microns; sweet boxes; invitation cards; cigarette packs; and polystyrene for decoration.
Why these items?
The main reason that the officials from the concerned ministry have cited is the “difficulty of collection, and therefore recycling”. As these items are extremely difficult to recollect and recycle, the government has decided to phase them out altogether to minimise the plastic footprint in India and thereby preventing plastic-driven adversities as we have discussed above.
Implementation Riddled with Challenges
The road to rid India of single use plastics and implementation of the ban isn’t a highway. Rather it is laden with many hurdles. Some of which are,
- The list of single-use plastics that are banned doesn’t constitute much of the total single-use plastic production in India. They only constitute a minuscule part. The single-use plastics used in packaging items constitute almost 95% of the total single-use plastics in India, and items from this category haven’t been notified to be banned. So, a large chunk of single-use plastics will still continue to prevail in an unabashed manner.
- Substitution challenges are another headache for all the stakeholders, i.e., government, industry, and the end consumers. The alternative market in India is still in a nascent stage and is mostly limited to urban pockets. As of today, the difference between the price of plastic and its alternatives is significant and dissuading. For example, paper straw costs five times as much as plastic ones. As long as feasible and inexpensive alternatives haven’t been availed, these policies are prone to be violated by the public.
- It would impact small vendors disproportionately as they are highly reliant on single use plastics like spoons and cups. Any rise in costs would severely impact their businesses.
- It comes under “State Subject,” and the implementation is dependent on proactive interest exhibited by the state governments. In the past, we have seen many instances where ambitious policies of the Centre were negated by the haphazard and lackadaisical implementation by the states.
- The biggest menace, i.e., plastic carry bags, has been left out of the ban. Only their thickness prescription has been regulated to be more than 75 microns.
Roadmap for Policymakers
Governments don’t have any magic wand to implement policies with pinpoint perfection. The banned items aren’t going to disappear overnight. But the government shouldn’t lose its zeal and the long-term oversight. It shouldn’t be bogged down by the leakages in the ban. Rather it should strive on strengthening the implementation mechanism and should parallelly work on the following aspects to effectively fight the menace of single-use plastics in India.
Waste management system improvements: The government should build up a state-of-art plastic waste recollection and recycling infrastructure. Scientific waste management systems, along with circular thinking, help us prevent a future plastic catastrophe in India. In this direction, the government should learn and adapt best practices from around the world and develop;
- Segregation of waste at sources: plastics, organic, metals, paper, etc.
- leakproof collection of the segregated waste, transportation and safe storage
- Cost-effective and environment friendly recycling of plastic waste
- Minimizing the landfilling and dumping in the open environment
Promotion of eco-friendly alternatives: To get rid of plastic, first, we need to find alternatives. Industry on its own may not be able to rise up to this challenge. Government has the obligation to provide requisite support to the industry in this regard. Government should establish a synergy between itself, industry, civil societies, and the end consumers to make it a mass mission, for the effective results.
Government should take up initiatives like providing tax incentives, single-window clearances, and seed funding for the start-ups or brownfield establishments in this industry. A fund of funds, dedicated for this purpose would bring an ocean of change. Government can even utilise the academic talent by rewarding the youth that comes up with eco-friendly innovative alternatives.
Social awareness & education: These two are imperative to bring a decisive change in behavioural aspects of the consumer and thereby transformation in the society. A long-lasting change in behavioural attitudes cannot be inculcated through periodic stand-alone awareness campaigns. Rather, the desired culture should be inculcated by packing messages into regular didactic practices and academic curriculums from nascent ages.
Reduction strategies: Rather than totally out-lawing the single-use plastics or other menacing particles, reduction in their utility is another approach towards fighting the menace. This strategy helps in accommodating the concerns of stakeholders who may not be able to come to terms overnight with the changed statutory policies. It would provide the breathing space.
Policy instruments: The government’s policy should be clear and achievable. Apart from formulating policies, the government should also formulate practical pathways to achieve that. It is yet to be seen how the central government manages to implement the ban of said single-use plastics in the absence of feasible alternatives. Also, the policy should establish a synergy between various ministries so as to consolidate and prevent fragmentation of governments efforts.
Foster stakeholder engagement: Before formulating a policy, the policy makers should consult a wide range of stakeholders to factor in the stake holder’s viewpoints. Any policy that doesn’t reflect the public’s acceptance is doomed to fail in the long run. And also, policies would work best when people are engaged and involved in the implementation mechanisms.
What we as citizens can do?
A task like minimizing the role of plastics, which has already intertwined with our daily lives, is a mammoth job whose burden the government cannot shoulder all alone. It needs active engagement from the populace to compliment government’s efforts.
There are some low-hanging fruits for us. These are incredibly feasible things, that we can do to minimise the footprints of single-use plastics. These small behavioural modifications would do wonders in long term. Here are a few.
- Bring your own shopping bag while you are out for shopping. There are many alternatives like bags made of cotton, silk, jute, canvas, etc. Out of these, jute is the best alternative as its production is climate friendly. We can also carry fabric bags which could be folded into pouches and fit in our pockets.
- There is an effective alternative for plastic food wrap which not many are aware of i.e., Reusable beeswax cloth.
- A refillable and reusable water bottle made of steel or thick plastics would greatly reduce water bottle waste
- Plastic cups could be replaced by the paper cups and this isn’t much expensive.
- Similarly, using paper plates in place of plastic plates
Public pressure: Pressure from the public can do wonders and may force the government to go green. The story of what has happened in Bali of Indonesia is a great inspiration to the populace across the globe. In Bali, the “Bye-Bye Plastic Bags’’ initiative is a social awareness campaign/movement led by the youth to convince the locals to go green and exert pressure on their local government to follow the suit. Two, teenagers effectively led the campaign for four years to persuade the government to ban plastic bags on the island. Despite the initial reluctance from the local government, the federal government has yielded to the campaign and banned plastic bags on the island from 2018.
Being responsible: Segregating the waste from domestic sources, avoiding littering in public places, abiding by the CPCB’s rules, etc. People should realise the perils of plastics and how their lives are being affected. Minimizing the usage of plastic shouldn’t be for the sake of abiding by governments’ rules, but for the sake of their own lives and the natural environment. People should also be considerate about the voice-less animals, whose habitats are being infested with plastic waste. People should refrain from using water bodies and public places as dump yards.
Plastic isn’t the problem. The problem is what we do with it. That implies that the onus is upon us to be smarter in using this multifarious material. Fortunately, there is a growing number of governments plunging into action to fight the menace of single-use plastics. Rwanda, a poor African nation, has shown the world that with strong determination and effective policy formulation one can phase out some of the single-use plastic items. When a poor nation can do, definitely others too can and should.
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- The Menace of Single-Use Plastic Bags | EcoMENA
- The Single-Use Plastics Problem – Plastic Soup Foundation
- Single-use plastics: A roadmap for sustainability | UNEP – UN Environment Programme
- Explained: Why is single-use plastic being banned in India from July 1? | Explained News,The Indian Express