Plastic waste is bad. It is terrible. Period. By now, almost everyone knows how damaging plastic-laden waste is to the environment.
The everyday plastic bags we use take some 500-1,000 years to decompose, while plastic bottles can take 450 years or more.
During its life cycle, plastic waste clogs up drains, swells up in landfills, floats into the oceans and so on. A Threat to Life Numerous studies have associated plastic waste with animal deaths, like cows eating up plastic bags in the garbage bins and dying horribly. And it is not just land animals that are impacted by plastic pollution, marine animals are no better off, like whales ingesting them at sea. In fact, according to a study from Plymouth University, plastic pollution affects at least 700 marine species, while some estimates suggest that at least 100 million marine mammals are killed each year from plastic pollution.
Casting Nelson's Eye to the huge garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean or the Indian; closer to home, things are not any better. Plastic pollution is a big problem confronting us.
According to an assessment report prepared by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) in 2015, Indian cities generate 15,000 tonnes of plastic waste –enough to fill 1,500 trucks, at 10 tonnes per truck–of which 9,000 tonnes are collected and processed/recycled, while the remaining 6,000 tonnes or 600 truckloads, usually litter drains, streets or are dumped in landfills.
Further on, about 66% of plastic waste is mixed waste – polybags and pouches used to pack food, mainly from residential localities, the CPCB report said. We just have to look around us, and we will see plastic bottles and bags in every nook and cranny of this nation, be it the scenic Dal Lake in Kashmir or the seashore at Kochi, plastic waste is pervasive.
Is Plastic ban A Boon Or Bane
Thus in March 2018, when the state government of Maharashtra announced a blanket ban on plastics bags, bottles and thermocol (polystyrene) products, it was indeed a big thing.
The reason for this was not hard to guess, Maharashtra is India’s biggest generator of plastic waste, producing more than 4.6 lakh tonnes of waste every year.
Activists and environmentalists across the board lauded the government on the bold move to do away with plastic. The government announced a timeline of a few months in which the plastic products had to be consumed or disposed of.
The ban was enforced from June 25. Considering the sheer size and spread of Maharashtra, if the ban could be effective here, it could be anywhere. Hoardings across the city were put up congratulating the leadership of the chief minister Devendra Fadavnis and Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the plastic ban.
Meanwhile, heavy fines are imposed on people using these bags — Rs 5,000 for the first-time offenders and Rs 25,000 for the third time. There would be municipal inspectors watching around for offenders and penalising the culprits.
The plastic ban was meant to be a bright new ecological beginning for the denizens of the state. It was supposed to be a panacea or all our eco-ills. Sadly, things did not really play out that way.
You see, the moment the ban was announced, cash-rich industrial forces were lobbying to get the government to change its stance. Stories started to appear in the newspaper on the loss of jobs, and the economic impact of the ban.
Talking in two tones, the industry bodies promised a new approach by launching a slew of recycling initiatives and then highlighting how ecologically harmful the ban would be, as it would lead to more usage of paper and wastage of food.
Buckling under pressure, the government exempted big food companies that use plastic packaging for stuff like wafers or bread. Next, the PET bottles used for mineral drinking water were also exempted.
And now barely a few days into the ban, there has been a further relaxation, wherein retail packaging of not less than 250 gm will be allowed for small-time general and grocery stores.
In general, the comprehensive ban that it was meant to be, has not really materialised. It has been repeatedly diluted in the wake of corporate lobbying and public backlash. With such a weakening resolve, the ban in Maharashtra is bound to fail, as many activists and scholars predict.
Blanket Ban: A Solution?
This brings us to the crucial question. Can a blanket ban be the solution to plastic pollution?
The answer to this is a big no. In fact, the ban on plastic is no novel thing in our country. Already some 18 states in India have announced a complete ban on the manufacture, supply and storage of polythene bags and other plastic items such as cups, plates, spoons and glasses, while five states have a partial ban.
Another five states have a sort of partial ban on plastic, including sales, etc. So, of the 36 states and union territories in the country, 23 have banned plastic.
Yet, plastic pollution keeps on rising with every passing day. Obviously, the ban is not working. The primary reasons for that are; first, there are powerful industry forces that are ever-ready to lobby against such a measure, creating hindrance both at the administrative level and the executive.
Secondly, there is no public buy-in for such a thing. In general, people are being told that plastic pollution is bad, but how calamitous it actually is, no one is sure.
Also, wherever these bans have been implemented, the administration has been found lacking in providing viable alternatives, like how can mothers dump soiled diapers without having to use plastic bags.
An unmistakable fact is a way in which plastic is an intrinsic part of our everyday lives, right from the toothbrush to the chairs, or the cars to the smartphones.
Not only the convenience, plastic also plays an important role in hygiene and health, for instance, food-grade packaging ensures that the food is not spoiled. While disposable plastic injections have been a great boon to the healthcare sector.
In short, plastic has changed our lives immensely. Were we to shift to alternatives, there needs to be a defined path and objective to us, not just a threat of a hefty fine.
An Abrupt Decision by the Government?
The places where such bans have been successful is California (US) and Australian Capital Region. There was a rigorous process that followed over the course of a few years in terms of assessment and education to make them a success.
Compare this with Maharashtra, where the ban was announced overnight and a three-month deadline was given. No measures were undertaken to ensure that the populace is not unduly troubled. Hefty penalties are fine, but alternatives should have come first.Back in 2014, a Delhi-based environmental group Toxics Link had conducted a study on the plastic bans across India. Their report, plastics and environment – assessing the impact of the complete ban on plastic carry bag, studied the impact of a ban on plastic bags in Sikkim, Delhi and Chandigarh. The study revealed that “the notification on product ban has not achieved the desired result”.
"The decision on material or product ban for environmental reasons may at times be easy to arrive at but requires an effective implementation to achieve desired results, especially in countries that have weak environmental governance mechanisms. The issue of restricting or banning the use of such products in limited geographical areas is fraught with serious threats of failure but a national ban on products is more likely to succeed,” stated the report. Need Carrot-Stick Approach
A blanket ban with hefty fines cannot be the only measure to control pollution. You need a carrot-stick approach. For years, there have been numerous judgments passed by various courts across India to implement waste management measures at local municipal levels.
One of the primary ways is segregation of waste at the household level. If we are able to do that, the recycling rate will automatically be much higher than the current levels.
But then, a 2016 report by the CPCB indicated that most Indian states have not yet implemented the Plastic Waste Management Rules of 2011 that mandate proper systems to ensure the segregation and disposal of plastic waste locally.
Could we take the example of the Netherlands, where residents segregate their waste and have to only pay for disposal of trash, and nothing for the recyclable materials. That means you pay more if you waste more, thereby incentivising recycling.
In the end, of all the states in India that have a plastic ban in place, the only place it has been efficacious is in Sikkim. But then, with its small population and limited urbanisation, Sikkim cannot really be an example that said a Maharashtra could be. And that's why it'll be a terrible blow for the environment if the plastic ban fails in Maharashtra.
The western state is the largest industrialised one in India and could have been a shining beacon on how to deal with plastic pollution. But with the faulty approach and constant wishy-washiness on implementation, it is turning out to be a sorry example of how such a ban is not really effective.
Shashwat DC is Features Editor at CNBC-TV18. He is closet-activist for sustainability and CSR, when not pondering over the future of humanity or contemplating the launch of the new Android phone.