Come October 2 and India will join an elite list of countries that ban the usage of single-use plastic. While there are many countries across the globe that have imposed curbs or taxes on plastic, an outright ban is still a rarity. Only a handful of nations have taken measures against the use, manufacture and distribution of single-use plastic or SUP, as it is popularly called. Bangladesh was the first country to impose an outright ban on thin plastic bags. Over the years, many others have followed suit, including China and many African nations. In fact, Kenya is renowned to have enforced the ban on plastic bags quite stringently, with big fines and even imprisonment. There are other countries that have taken the economic way, imposing taxes and fines to disincentivise SUP. Yet, the menace has never been resolved. The question as to what is a good approach, the carrot or the stick to plastic pollution, hasn't been answered.
Globally, awareness has been rising about the negative impact of SUP, how it ends up in landfills, finds its way into the ocean, and causes a plethora of environmental issues, right from turning up in the food chain to killing marine life. Back home, 18 Indian states have introduced a ban on SUP in various forms. Even so, we continue to generate humongous amount of waste on a day-to-day basis. According to a Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) report, 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 or recycled, while the remaining 6,000 tonnes, or 600 truckloads, usually litter drains, streets or are dumped in landfills. According to the report, about 66 percent of plastic waste is mixed waste – polybags and pouches used to pack food, mainly from residential localities.
And while India’s per-capita consumption of plastic at 11 kg per year is among the lowest in the world (as opposed to a global average of 28 kg per year), the total volume generated is a mammoth 26,000 tonnes of plastic waste every day. No wonder it is estimated that India accounts for 60 percent of plastic waste dumped into the world’s oceans every year. Three of the world’s ten rivers that carry 90 percent of plastic to the world’s oceans are in India – the Indus, the Ganga and the Brahmaputra, according to an October 2017 article in Environmental Science & Technology, a global journal.
Companies in a tizzy
So, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that India would be banning SUP to coincide with the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, there was much support for the move, even though it would cause hardship in the short run. Now, as the date is nearing, companies both big and small are in a tizzy, trying to figure out how to deal with the disruption. Going by available reports, if and when the ban is implemented it could affect close to 10,000 plastic manufacturing units. There is a high possibility that almost 300,000-400,000 people working in these units could find themselves unemployed. Estimates suggest that there are about 50,000 plastic manufacturing units in India, about 90 percent of which are medium and small units (MSMEs). Even bigger companies like Pepsi, Coca-Cola and Amazon are all at sea, trying to find alternatives that will not disrupt their business.
While the job loss for the plastic manufacturing sector is disheartening, especially at a time when the economy is showing signs of slowdown, the fact remains that the long-term impact of SUP should always be weighed against short-term gains. Scores and scores of studies have warned against the consequences of SUP and with each passing day the problem only seems to be getting worse. We don't have a margin of time to deal with this issue. The bull needs to be taken on by the horns.
Also, there are quite a few people who talk about the inefficacy of a ban, how it will give impetus to black-marketing and not really provide a solution. Indeed, a blanket ban does encourage some profiteers to break the rules on the sly. But if the administration is determined, these are just teething issues that can be sorted as time flies by. Take the case of prohibition on the sale of
gutka in a few Indian states. Does this mean that the cancerous pouches are not available in these states? They are. However, the cost implications of breaking the law act as a deterrent to a vast majority of individuals who might otherwise have indulged in it.
Till now, different state governments were implementing the plastic ban in their own manner. A comprehensive, nationwide ban on SUP will have a much wider reach and stronger impact. Not many countries (especially the size of India) have enacted such a law. In fact, even first-world countries have set targets for the future for implementing such a ban. India can take a lead and demonstrate to the world how it can be effectively done.
An uphill task
On a personal note, living without plastic can be challenging, but it is not impossible. Back in the ‘80s, plastic bags were something of a rarity. Milk and soft drinks came in glass bottles, we brought back vegetables and fruits from the market in cloth bags, food items were packed in brown paper bags, and ate food in steel utensils. Unlike today, we generated much less non-recyclable waste. Our lifestyle was not lacking in material terms and yet in consonance with the environs. We need to strive for that balance again. Not only should we be conscious of the impact of our lifestyle, but we also need to strive to mitigate it.
In that pursuit, we need to shun plastic in every possible manner from our lives. And hence, Prime Minister Modi's plastic ban will be disruptive and cause pain, but is a bold step in the right direction. And hence, it should be embraced and supported, wholeheartedly.
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. Shashwat's columns