Plastic will choke India in the long run. Tackle it | Analysis
Last week, I spent two days at an “eco-friendly” homestay near Jim Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand. On day one, the owner, a nature enthusiast who has done exemplary work in regenerating large tracts of forests, gave me a list of dos and don’ts. But what alarmed me was the fact that he did not have a plastic waste collection/recycling plan in place. When I asked what they do with their plastic waste, the staff said that they either burn or bury it. Both are terrible practices. Burning plastic in open air releases carcinogenic gases (dioxin and furan), and burying it means it stays in the environment for years. And when it breaks down, plastics release toxic chemicals, polluting the soil and groundwater. This practice of burning/burying plastics is common because of three reasons — the lack of awareness, lax governance and inspection, and non-existent waste collection-and-disposal/recycling systems.
India’s plastic challenge is enormous. The country generates approximately 25,940 tonnes per day (TPD) of plastic waste. Of this, around 15,600 TPD get recycled. Many were hoping that the Centre would announce a blanket ban on single-use plastics (SUP) on October 2. On World Environment Day (June 5), 2018, the then environment minister Harsh Vardhan announced that SUP will be phased out by 2020 — a deadline subsequently revised to 2022. In his August 15 speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked citizens to free the country from SUP and hinted at an announcement on October 2. However, this did not happen. Analysts believe the government is under pressure from industry to refrain from banning plastics because the measure would be too disruptive at a time when India is coping with an economic slowdown and job losses. A representative of the All India Plastic Manufacturers Association told ThePrint that there are over 50,000 plastic manufacturing industrial units, employing four to five million people. This number is compelling, and even in good times, a government would think twice before imposing a ban.
There is another problem too. Despite the burgeoning plastic menace, there is still no clear definition of SUP. Simply put, SUP means products that are used once and then discarded. According to a Reuters report, for now, the Centre will ask states to enforce existing rules against storing, manufacturing, and using some SUP products such as polythene bags and styrofoam. Unfortunately, the track record of states in implementing this has been patchy.
Instead of a no-ban on SUPs, the least the Centre could have done was ban six SUPs — plastic bags, cups, plates, small bottles, straws, and certain types of sachets — and then others in a phased manner. By opting for short-term relief, we have only aggravated our long-term problems. Of the total plastic generated, 19% are of chips and confectionery packets, 12% bottle caps, and lids, 10% are PET bottles and 7% are straws. Around 60 countries have already banned single-use plastic fully or partially.
What is most troubling is not the plastic challenge in cities because they would still have the first access to information, technology, funds, and expertise to tackle the problem. The real challenge lies in smaller towns and kasbahs, especially those tucked away in pristine areas, and ecotourism and adventure tourism destinations, especially when the government is opening up newer areas for tourism.
With a spike in tourists going to these places, who will ensure that plastic poison doesn’t enter the sinews of the ecosystem, pollute the oceans, the streams, and the mountains? Not the tourists or the weak local administrations,
I can assure you.