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Managing Plastic Waste

Aarti Aarti
04 Jul 2022
The manufacture, import, stocking, distribution, sale and use of 19 designated single use plastic items stand prohibited.

Effective this July 1, in line with the notification of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change of 12 August 2021, the manufacture, import, stocking, distribution, sale and use of 19 designated single use plastic items stand prohibited.

To ensure compliance with the ban, the Centre has issued an advisory to states for undertaking a range of activities to make the country free of single use plastic (SUP). As news reports indicate, to monitor compliance, national/state level control rooms have been planned. To stop inter-state movement of banned SUP items, border check points are to be in place across states/union territories.

Now, there is bound to be some inconvenience to the vendors and consumers with the prohibition as ear buds with plastic sticks, plastic sticks for balloons, plastic flags, candy sticks, ice-cream sticks, polystyrene [Thermocol] for decoration; plates, cups, glasses, cutlery such as forks, spoons, knives, straw, trays, wrapping or packing films around sweet boxes, invitation cards, and cigarette packets, plastic or PVC banners less than 100 micron and stirrers can no longer be sold, bought or used.

Nearly 8.3 billion tons of plastic waste gets generated globally, of which about 9 percent is recycled, 12 percent incinerated and 79 percent landfilled or disposed of in the environment. Plastic pollution in oceans costs $13 billion per year as economic damage to marine ecosystem. For a moment let us look at the domestic scenario. Recent studies by the Centre for Science and Environment show that plastic waste comprises around 6 per cent of India’s sold waste generation of 55-65 million tonnes.

With a national per capita plastic generation of 7.6 gm per day, the country is estimated to produce 3.3 trillion grams of plastic waste per year. Almost 66 per cent of plastic waste comprising mixed waste like polybags, multilayer pouches used for packing food items sourced mainly from households and residential localities were plastic waste which could not be recycled.

Globally, a plastic bag is used, on average, for 12 minutes before being discarded. Due to its light weight such bags get easily blown in the air, eventually ending up on land and in the ocean. They can take up to several years to decompose, thus contaminating soil and water. Every year tens of thousands of whales, birds, seals and turtles are reportedly killed from plastic bag litter in the marine environment as they often mistake plastic bags for food such as jellyfish.

But why is SUP much preferred?  It has been argued that they are less energy-intensive to produce. Being light weight, items like plastic straws, foam cups, and plastic bags are easy to transport when compared to alternatives like metal straws, ceramic cups, or cloth bags. A Danish government study concluded that organic cotton bags would need to be reused 7100 times, while a ceramic cup, more than 1000 times before they become more energy efficient to use than a plastic foam cup.

What about biodegradable plastic items? Studies seem to suggest that even as biodegradable bags are permitted to be used in several countries, in the absence of an effective waste management system, they do not serve any purpose. More so because, for them to break down completely, they need to be exposed/incinerated to prolonged high temperatures above 50°C. Thus, even bioplastics derived from renewable sources (viz., corn starch, cassava roots, or sugarcane) or from bacterial fermentation of sugar or lipids are incapable of automatic degradation both in the environment and the oceans.

Managing plastic waste is challenging but not impossible. In the early 2000s, the streets and roads of Rwanda, the world’s 149th largest country and the fourth smallest in the African mainland after Gambia, were littered with plastic wastes and its drainage ditches clogged with plastic bags resulting in stagnant water. It took strict measures to protect the environment and banned the manufacture, importation and the use of SUP bags with few exceptions (hospital plastic aprons, plastic bags used in tree nurseries, plastic reservoirs, cellophane for food wrapping in hotels, etc.).  The 2008 plastic bags ban in Rwanda helped in reduction of plastic waste, besides promoting ecotourism, saving government funds that would have been used to pay workers for cleaning up such trashes and an increase in job creation. In 2014, around 1.2 million tourists visited the country, an increase of 4 per cent compared to the previous year. Currently, while biodegradable bags are still used mainly for frozen fish and meat, plastic packages for foods (e.g. potato chips, etc.) are allowed only for approved companies with clear business plan detailing how their bags will be collected and recycled.

What’s the way out. An effective management and control of municipal waste or the Kumbakonam model is worthy of emulation. With a population of around 1.5 lakh, Kumbakonam has emerged the only city in Tamil Nadu among the 28 featured by NITI Aayog and Centre for Science and Environment in a study, for their best practices in municipal solid waste management. With 45 wards and around 36000 households, the city generates 70 tonnes of waste on average every day. Of the total waste generated, 58 per cent is biodegradable and the remaining non-biodegradable. Non-recyclable plastics totalling 20 tonnes are sent daily to nearby cement factories as refuse-derived fuel. Six tonnes of saleable plastic are sold to the waste merchants.

So, with the plastic ban, there is no crisis but there are several options that are available. For instance, coconut frond straws, cutlery and plates made out of eco-friendly areca leaves, disposable tableware from bagasse (sugarcane fibre), re-pulpable paper cups without plastic lining, to name a few are already being sold in many of our cities.

To effectively manage the amount of plastic waste we generate, at a macro level, strict regulation and investment in waste management infrastructures merit consideration. 

While there is an imperative need for businesses to innovate, both at the society and household levels, it is necessary for us as individuals to act in the right earnest. 

As a first step we must refuse to accept the ubiquitous SUP carry bag – be it at the grocer or elsewhere. 

We must change our mindset to eliminate SUP.

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