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Battling plastic 

India Today , Jun 05, 2018

From a distance, it looks like a hill and for a moment there is confusion as one is still within city limits. Slowly the hill gets larger and clearer and you realise it is built entirely of garbage, packed tight over the years and getting bigger each day. This is the Gha­zipur landfill on Delhi's outskirts, spread over 70 acres and over 50 metres high. Tiny stick figures make their way up, undertaking a trek of a different sort as they go about their daily work, sorting garbage and wading through piles of plastic and other waste.

The numbers are astounding. In India, plastic production is averaging a growth rate of 10 per cent per year. As per Central Pollution Control Board 2016 estimates, 15,000 tonnes of plastic waste is generated every day, of which 9,000 tonnes is collected and processed, while the remaining 6,000 tonnes is usually left to litter the drains, streets or is dumped in landfills. Every year, at least 8 million tonnes of plastic makes its way to the seas, endangering marine life. Much of this hinders waste management too as segregation is still a big problem. Plastic in landfills also contaminates the surrounding soil, ground and even surface water.

Given the growing crisis, this year the theme for World Env­­­ironment Day is Beat Plastic Pollution with India as host and United Nations Environm­ent leading the way. Erik Solh­eim, chief of United Nations Environment, says, What is alarming is that single-use plastic is becoming even more prevalent, with production and consumption patterns showing, as expected, a two-fold increase or more in the coming decade. So if were swimming in it now, well be drowning in it soon.

ADDICTED TO PLASTIC

All of us use approximate 11 kilos of plastic every year. Not all plastic is bad, but a huge concern in India is that single-use plastic is on the rise. It is almost impossible to recycle as most of it is below 50 microns of thickness and takes over 400 years to break down. More than 50 per cent of the plastic we use, in the form of carry bags, straws, coffee stirrers, aerated drinks, water bottles and most food packaging, is in this category.

If you trace your day from morning to night, you are likely to lose track of the amount of plastic being consumed in some form or the other. From the toothpaste tube you squeeze every morning to the cling film you pack your sandwiches in, the cup of takeaway coffee you grab en route, the car you drive, the water bottle you buy to quench your thirst and a million other things in between, plastic has become an addiction, mostly because it is convenient.

Chitra Mukh­erjee, head of progr­ammes at Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group, says, The waste picker only picks up what can be recycled. So while PET bottles are eas­ily recycled, most plastic (90 per cent) like tetra packs, chips packs and single-use ketchup pouches are not. Cities like Chennai and Delhi have seen floods because we have clogged waterways. Plastic products disposed indiscriminately is mostly responsible.

THE INDIA STORY

While 25 states have banned plastic in some form or the other (mostly single-use plastic with partial or full bans), there are serious problems with implementation as no alternatives have been provided (at a comparable cost) to those vendors using them. Mukherjee says, Bans don't work without awareness. The segregation of waste needs to take place at the household level. Unfortunately, the dangers of plastic are not known. Where does the bag go once you are done with it? We are just adding more and more plastic to the environment as no one is getting educated at a base level.

While the government is pushing the case for reducing and recycling plastic, environment secretary CK Mishra says, The Plastic Waste Management Rules 2016 put in place by the government were forward looking but implementation has been extremely shoddy. We have not been able to offer people an alternative. We don't factor in convenience for the man in the slum who has limited awareness and knows no better than relying on a plastic bag. We need to break this cycle. Most people are unaware about the damage they are causing the environment.

Some states like Maharashtra, which announced a ban on single-use plastic in March this year at all levels, beginning with manufacture, sale, retail use and even storage, are optimistic of success this time round (they failed to enforce the ban in 2005). Understandably, the plastic lobby is up in arms questioning the validity of this kneejerk ban without alternatives in place. Industry body FICCI released a report on the plastics business last year which highlighted how Maharashtra alone employs more than 400,000 people in the plastic sector and produced goods worth Rs 5,000 crore.

With the Maharashtra government urging people to recycle bottles and bags through a buy-back scheme and help clean plastic litter off the beaches (so as to prevent it from entering the sea), there is hope that there will be some change. Since the announcement, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) claims to have collected close to 120,000 kilos of plastic from bins and homes in the city. Experts are closely watching Maharashtra to monitor the success or failure of the ban, but it doesn't take away from the bigger question: is a ban the best solution?

MANUFACTURERS NEED TO TAKE RESPONSIBILITY

While most bans just focus on the end-user, there is clear consensus that there has to be a top-down approach to tackle the problem, and the manufacturer/ plastic producer is the one who must step in and break the cycle. Mishra adds, Extended producer responsibility or EPR is a good concept as the problem in India is how we can put together a unified policy to tackle the problem at hand. Since municipalities are many, everyone works in isolation. Responsibility has to be fixed on the manufacturer as, eventually, whoever produces plastic must recycle or dispose it.

The view that manufacturers need to take responsibility is echoed by Swati Singh Sabyal who heads environmental governance and waste management at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). She says, The EPR concept exists on paper, but where are the targets for reduction, where is the awareness level and how do we proceed? The Plastic Waste Law of 2016, amended earlier, is now more diluted and does not fix the responsibility on the manufacturer. So how will the problem get resolved?

LESSONS FROM OTHER COUNTRIES

While Kenya tried enforcing a ban a few years ago, they were unsuccessful till 2017 when they give citizens a cutoff of six months to make the transition. The laws are very strict and include imprisonment terms up to four years and hefty fines. A latest report states that the ban has been hugely successful and is a model worth emulating.

Similarly, France passed the Plastic Ban law in 2016 giving the country four years to become plastic-free by 2020. The ban also adds that replacement materials for these daily-use items need to be made using material that is compostable.

Sweden believes in recycling and reusing rather than banning plastic since they are, as a nation, ace recyclers. Since they use incinerators, most of their landfills lie empty and have become trash-free. China has also been fighting plastic since 2008 and makes users pay for plastic bag consumption. Many say this is flawed, for as long as bags continue to be produced, the cycle will not be broken.

India is still a long way off from engineering change on the ground and while there are plans to bring all plastic waste related laws under one umbrella, given the diversity and intervention of municipalities and state governments and no lull in manufacture, we are some way off from being able to dispose our plastic or recycle it efficiently.

 

 

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Event:

 World Environment Day 2018