Will Maharashtra’s plastic ban reduce monsoon flooding?
In July 2005, when record rains and floods killed over a thousand people in the city, environmentalists and urban planners said plastic bags that choked drains were one of the reasons for the disaster.
Last week, the Maharashtra government issued, as it had promised, a notification that places restrictions on the manufacture, sale and use of a wide range of plastic products.
After weeks of speculations on what could be banned, there is now more clarity: disposable single-use plastic cups, plates, drinking straws, cutlery, pouches and wraps cannot be used. A ban on some of these items were urgent – hopefully, the horrific sight of white thermocol food plates and cups littering landscapes will be a thing of past, at least in Maharashtra. Thermocol, the common name for polystyrene foam, can be recycled, but the cost of the process is so high that most users just throw it away. It is dangerous to the environment – it can block water channels and break into beads that resemble fish eggs, with marine life ingesting it.
Plastic contamination is now universal. A study by Orb Media said that plastic fibres, produced by plastic waste breaking down, were found in a majority of tap water samples tested from across the world, including India. A recent study by the same organisation found plastic fibres in bottled water, including some popular brands. While the health impact of the fibres or micro pieces on human health is not known, plastic residues have found in fish, sea birds and marine mammals.
A flood prone city like Mumbai has another reason to welcome the ban on plastic bags. In July 2005, when record rains and floods killed over a thousand people in the city, environmentalists and urban planners said plastic bags that choked drains were one of the reasons for the disaster. Maharasthra decided to ban the sale and use of plastic bags and the then chief minister Vilasrao Deskmukh told the state assembly that the plastic bags were choking Mumbai’s drainage and sewage systems. The state banned plastic bags, but the ban was never strictly implemented.
So, will the ban on plastic bags make Mumbai less flood prone this monsoon? Experts are not sure. Vinod Kumar Sharma, senior professor in disaster management at Indian Institute of Public Administration and vice chairman of the Disaster Management Authority of Sikkim, said that Maharashtra’s decision to ban plastic bags has come late.
“There were many reasons for the floods in 2005; the nearly 100 cm of rain (in a day) was unprecedented, but unplanned urban development, diversion of the Mithi river (the main drainage channel for suburbs like Kurla, Santacruz, Andheri) were also responsible,” said Sharma. “All drains were choked and plastic waste was one of the causes; there was no option but to ban plastic.”
Sharma said that Sikkim banned plastic bags 22 years ago and the benefits of the decision are just becoming visible. “When I go to Gangtok (Sikkim’s capital), I have seen that during any cloud burst the drain system is working perfectly,” said Sharma. He said that with changes in climate, extreme weather events are likely to be more frequent. “We will adapt to the change (the ban). The impact of the plastic ban will not be seen immediately but it will become apparent very soon.”
But experts said that it was worrying that there is no mention about the multi-layer material used to pack crisps, tea and other foods. This packaging material, which comprises of a metal film sandwiched between recyclable plastic, is unwanted by recyclers. Almitra Patel, member, Supreme Court Committee for Solid Waste Management, had told this newspaper that this material which is not recyclable, poses a bigger threat to the environment and water drainage.
The Plastic Waste Management Rules 2016 n Rule 9 (3) says that manufacture and use of non-recyclable multilayered plastic shall be phased out by March 2018, but a ban seems nowhere in sight.
“This kind of packaging is a problem, even in Sikkim,” said Sharma. “The centre has to take a decision on this. States cannot say that we will now allow this kind of packaging.”