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Your Space: Pune needs a better strategy to deal with plastic carry bags

Banning plastics is not the solution. There should be a multi-pronged strategy to tackle the issue of environmental damage due to plastics, says Vasu Ramanujam.

pune Updated: Dec 09, 2017 22:14 IST
Vasu Ramanujam
A ministry of plastics substitution should be formed and garbage tax should be enforced to check excessive use of plastic.
A ministry of plastics substitution should be formed and garbage tax should be enforced to check excessive use of plastic.(HT PHOTO)

This is with reference to your detailed reportage on the nuisance and environmental hazard posed by plastic carry bags in Pune (Can we do without plastic bags?, Hindustan Times, December 6)

As we were checking out of Residence Panorama Villars in the Alpine ski resort of Villars-sur-Ollon near Geneva late November 2017, I noticed an extra charge of 2 CHF (Swiss franc) on the invoice. Being unable to understand the description of the extra charge written in French, I asked Pascal, the manager of the resort, what I was paying the extra 2 CHF for. In his polite and charming way, Pascal told me this was the “Garbage Tax”. Switzerland requires people to pay for the garbage they create! No wonder, then, that the place is squeaky clean all the time!

Nearer home, Awas is a village of about 4,000 people in the Raigad district of Maharashtra. It is about 17 km from Alibag, the district headquarters. It is almost the same distance away from Colaba in Mumbai across the Arabian Sea. And that is the tragedy for Awas, since a part of the plastic and thermocol garbage that gets thrown into the sea washes up in Awas because of the tides. A relatively unknown beach in a sleepy little coastal village in a rich state has a garbage problem that it literally imports, duty free, every day.

In fact, there are quite a few beaches in this part of the country that are affected by garbage flotsam from Mumbai. And if we look hard enough, we will find similar stories from all along India’s vast coastline.

Let’s be clear. The problem is not that we use plastic bags or bottles. The problem is that we throw them in the garbage, with no immediate visible consequences to us while throwing them.

The article “Can we do without plastic bags?” rightly points out why any government move to ban plastics fails – the lack of proper implementation, and the lack of an alternative.

In my opinion, banning plastics is not the solution. There should be a multi-pronged strategy to tackle the issue of environmental damage due to plastics.

One is to start working on alternatives, as Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis has rightly said. This can be a combination of solutions that are already in the market – such as edible straws, paper bags, cloth bags made out of refurbished waste cloth, paperboard straws, etc. And research. Pune’s own National Chemical Laboratory (NCL) has been doing some work in this area, and can be assigned the task of leading the effort to find alternatives.

The second is to work with the associations of traders and shopkeepers to encourage them to use the alternatives that already exist, and those that will become available in the course of time.

The third is to work with the association of manufacturers of plastic bags and bottles to start mass producing the alternatives so that scale brings down the costs. That way, the manufacturers are not affected by the ban all of a sudden.

The fourth is to work on recycling. In 1975, 38 per cent of household waste was recycled in Sweden. Today, more than 99 per cent of household waste is recycled. Today, recycling stations are as a rule no more than 300 metres from any residential area in Sweden. There should be PET bottle collection centres within walkable distance from all inhabited areas. These collected PET bottles can be ether decomposed to fibre and used in synthetic textiles or used to build stuff — houses as in Serbia, Nigeria and yes, in India too; boats as in Kenya and the US.

The fifth is to use waste to generate power. In 2015, 2.3 million tonnes of household waste was burnt to produce energy in Sweden. In order to keep the incineration plants running efficiently, Sweden had to import 1.3 million tonnes of household waste from the UK, Norway and Ireland in 2015.

In other words, do not ban. Just make the demand go away.

There are two more things to address: Who should do this, and who will pay for the effort.

As for who should do it, the answer is simple. The chief minister has already said the government will work on the alternatives. So, a ministry of plastics substitution may not be a bad idea. They can have teams working on each of the efforts listed in this article and the extra ideas that come to the table.

Lastly, there is the question of who should be paying for all this. On this, we should be guided by the charming Pascal and his country – Garbage Tax. Every time we hand over garbage to the garbage collectors, there should be a charge. That will form the corpus we need for the enormous task of substituting plastics. It will also help us as citizens to reduce the waste we generate.

Maybe in future, we can have a Swiss person visit Sinhagad for every Indian that visits Jungfrau.

Vasu Ramanujan