Plastic ban: Economic vs environmental cost

The arguments against banning plastic are similar to those made in other countries that have introduced bans of some kind on production and use of plastic products.
Plastic use has an environmental cost that is much higher than the economic cost.(HT File Photo)
Plastic use has an environmental cost that is much higher than the economic cost.(HT File Photo)
Updated on Jul 09, 2018 01:52 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | By Manoj Nair, Mumbai

Maharashtra has joined a growing list of countries and regions that have placed restrictions on the use of plastic because of environmental reasons.

One of the debates centred around the ban on a variety of plastic products, including single-use cutlery, bags, thermocol (styrofoam), has been the economic cost of the prohibition. Manufacturers of plastic products said the ban will result in loss of jobs and revenue. They added the ban on plastic will increase the cost of packaging and can endanger food safety, as plastic is the best material to pack and transport food items. The All India Plastic Manufacturers Association estimated that around 1,00,000 people will be rendered jobless and the state will incur a loss of 5,000 crore annually because of the ban.

These arguments are similar to those made in other countries, which have introduced bans of some kind on production and use of plastic products. It is estimated that the world produces nearly 80 million tonnes of plastic packaging worth $200 billion – equivalent to the annual Gross Domestic Product of Greece (International Monetary Fund).

One of the earliest restrictions on plastic was in 1994 when Denmark introduced a tax on paper and plastic bags to reduce their use and subsequent wastage. The country experienced an initial reduction of 60% use of disposable bags though usage picked up by a few points later. In 2002, Ireland levied a nationwide tax, paid by consumers, on plastic shopping bags. Since then, countries and regions like France, Rwanda, California, South Africa and United Kingdom have either banned plastic bags and other products or have placed restrictions on their use.

One of the more recent bans has been in Kenya, which prohibited plastic bags in August 2017 after identifying them as a major environmental scourge. Kenya’s plastic manufacturers and dealers made arguments about the loss of jobs in plastic factories and sought removal of the ban.

Recently, the country’s Environment and Lands Court, which was hearing a plea seeking the quashing of the ban, refused to revoke the restrictions. The judges said there was no evidence to prove that the ban had increased cost of packaging or created health risks.

The court said although some ordinary Kenyans may suffer social and economic losses as a result of the ban, the plastic ban is for the common good of the general public and as such lawful.

In Maharashtra, groups opposing the ban have already squeezed out concessions: retailers can use plastic packing that is more than 50 microns in thickness and more than two grams in weight (this is to make the products more economical to recycle). Other groups, like the association of Ganpati mandals, are lobbying to get the government to lift the ban on thermocol — used to decorate Ganeshotsav pandals.

Plastic use has an environmental cost that is much higher than the economic cost. The world recycles only a fraction of the $200 billion worth of plastic that it produces every year; the rest is discarded carelessly, cluttering every corner of the earth from remote tropical islands and the farthest corners of the oceans to mountain peaks. The trash, which is virtually non-degradable, is endangering aquatic life and entering our water and food in the form of fibres created by the breaking down of larger pieces of plastic.

The problem with plastic is not its use but the way it is discarded. Many environmentalists have argued that using alternatives to plastic, like paper, could damage the environment more. The World Economic Forum has said that finding new ways to reuse and refill can reduce packaging costs by at least $8 billion annually.

Indian plastic manufacturers are experimenting to find out if committed recycling of plastic can be a better and cheaper to protect the environment than replacing it with paper and other organic products. Akhilesh Bhargava, president, All India Plastic Manufacturers Association, said that they are working with the government to create plastic recycling models that can be replicated. “The concessions (in the ban) are important, but have come with caveats (on recycling). We have initiated model projects that can be replicated.”

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