The government has retracted its plan of imposing a blanket ban on single-use plastics. The measure seemed too disruptive for various industries. The use of single use plastic has become one of the biggest sources of pollution, adding to landfills, contaminating food chains and filling up ocean beds. The government has not defined single use plastic in clear terms though experts say anything below 50 microns is included in this category.
On World Environment Day 2018, then Union Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan had announced that single use plastics would be phased out by 2020. Later, that deadline was revised to 2022. The plan to ban six items - plastic bags, cups, plates, small bottles, straws and certain types of sachets - was part of this campaign. Now, following the retraction of its plan to ban single use plastic, the government intends to strictly enforce the existing rules pertaining to plastic use.
The government has been toying with the idea of banning single use plastic for a long time. However, it always seems to stop short of imposing a complete ban. Industry bodies like the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) had raised major concerns over the proposed ban. A recent study by FICCI noted, “A ban on single use plastics would have multifactoral effects on industry.”
Economics of plastic industry
Estimates suggest that India uses about 14 million tonnes of plastic annually. Plastic consumption is increasing every year. According to a FICCI study, the plastic processing industry is estimated to grow to 22 million tonnes (MT) a year by 2020 from 13.4 MT in 2015 and nearly half of this is single use plastic. According to a report by the All India Plastic Manufacturers’ Association (AIPMA), the country’s plastic-processing industry comprises more than 50,000 units with recorded annual revenue of around Rs. 3.5 lakh crore in FY19.
According to a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)-supported report, over 30% of the natural capital costs of plastic are due to greenhouse gas emissions from raw material extraction and processing. This represents estimated annual losses of $80-120 billion to the world economy. The report has also estimated the overall natural capital cost of plastic use in the consumer goods sector annually to be at $75 billion, due to financial fallout resulting from pollution of the marine environment or air pollution caused by incinerating plastic.
In India, plastic waste management and segregation needs better approach and execution. Andrew Almack, CEO, Plastics For Change, told BE, “I chose to move to India because it has the greatest number of people living in poverty and the most amount of uncollected plastic. India operates under an informal recycling and scrap picking economy. 90% of this industry is informal. They are generally not registered companies. There’s a lot of varying forms of exploitation that happens in the informal, unregulated sector, including child labour. Almost everything is down cycled into lower value products. There is no quality control.”
Impact of plastic on the environment
According to a conservative estimate provided by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) in 2012, almost 26,000 tonnes of plastic waste was generated across India every day, of which more than 10,000 tonnes stayed uncollected. It takes up to 500 years for plastic to decompose.
According to a report by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), humans end up consuming almost five grams of ‘micro plastic’ every week, most of it through water. Nearly 15 million tonnes of plastic end up in oceans every year. The report warns that unless there is a dramatic change of approach to the global plastic crisis, an additional 104 million metric tonnes of plastic pollution could enter our ecosystem by 2030.
Single use plastics have been adversely impacting the already frail ecological balance. Subhajit Naskar, Assistant Professor, Jadavpur University and an environmentalist, told BE, “Eighty-percent of the oceanic pollution enters the ocean from land. It largely comprises of single use plastic. The havoc it has caused is manifold. 100,000 marine animals are killed because of plastic and 267 rare species have been affected by plastic pollution.”
As a result of unchecked plastic pollution, not only aquatic creatures but animals and even birds suffer, after consuming the plastic that gets integrated into the food chain. Single use plastics block gutters and storm drains, creating many civic problems. In fact, one of the main reasons for repeated flooding and water logging in various parts of the country is plastic choking up the sewage networks.
Dr. Tapas Kumar Gupta, Chief Engineer, West Bengal Pollution Control Board, informed BE, “We have been working on plastic waste management diligently. In West Bengal, especially in hilly regions like Darjeeling, up to 50 microns plastic is banned. For effective results, the government and municipalities along with police authorities will have to work collectively. Phasing out of plastic needs better planning and serious regulations. Environment has to be the bigger priority.”
The delay in blanket ban on the use of single use plastic reflects a lack of resolve. Development cannot be at the expense of the environment.