Banning single-use plastic

Last evening, I was strolling down the Vyapar Kendra Market in Sushant Lok I in Gurugram to buy usual home needs items when shop after shop I was distraught to see such unabated use of plastic.  The toy shops had teddy bears hung outside in thick, glossy plastic bags, the dry-cleaning shops displayed readied business suits in lengthy plastic canvases, and the carry bags that were being doled out to customers were the typical multi-coloured polypropylene bags that shopkeepers conveniently believe are non-plastic. As I came outside the busy market, cows were eating off from a large open mixed waste dump, much of which had polythene bags. With so much reliance or rather “addiction” to plastic, the on-the-ground scenario made me think: Are we indeed ready to implement the single-use plastic ban called out by the Prime Minister (PM) starting October 2, 2019?

Single-use plastics basically refers to disposable plastic that finds a one-time use. It is most visible and used plastic; in fact more than 50 per cent of all plastic produced is single-use plastic. To be sure, the ban is on six items – plastic bags, cups, plates, small bottles, straws and certain types of sachets. The national objective, as per the PM, is to wipe off the use of all single use plastic by 2022.  While it is first time that a national wide call on plastics has been made, it will need a herculean effort from all quarters – the government, the manufacturers, the product users and the end consumers – to abolish single use plastics. In the past, most states have declared bans and strict penalties on use and manufacture of certain kinds of plastic. At the national level too, the Plastic Waste (Management and Handling Rules was put into place as early as 2011 for sustainable disposal and management of plastic waste and fine-tune in 2016, but the bans have been flouted, and the national law has had weak enforcement.

Clearly, the fight to make India plastic free is not an easy one. We will have to break away from the convenience cycle and the lure of plastic; the lure that we find ourselves trapped in.  The end consumer has to say a brave no to plastic carry bags and polythenes while shopping, and replace it with cloth bags;  stop buying plastic water bottles when on the move and use own metal bottles instead; stop buying food items in plastic containers, avoiding plastic cutlery and straws when eating outside or while organising events, and say no to products delivered in plastic packaging from online companies. That will, to my mind, reduce the demand and set the virtuous spiral upwards.

This needs a reset in habits and ways, thinking for a moment what to carry when we are leaving our homes, or going for shopping and also using our product choices mindfully while shopping.  It will also take a huge effort from multi-national food companies, supply-chain companies and marketing companies to take a call on reorienting their products, services and packaging to avoid single-use plastics. The role of the government and city administration is paramount, not just in spreading awareness but in enforcing and implementing the plastic bans and laws effectively.     

There are some positive changes already. The Airport Authority of India has banned single-use plastic items at sixteen airports. Some airlines, for instance, have announced that they will not use of plastic products on their flights. Some manufacturers have shifted from using plastics to renewable and biodegradable packing material for their products. A large e-commerce company recently announced that it is replacing poly pouches with recycled paper bags, and replacing bubble wraps and airbags with carton waste shredded material.  Another e-commerce giant has said that it will eliminate single-use plastic from its packaging by June 2020. These companies are also beginning to collect back a part of the plastic as part of the Extended Producers’ Responsibility and recycle it. Besides, more conscious citizens are replacing replaced plastic kitchen jars, plates, lunch boxes and bottles with stainless-steel or metal items.  Cloth bags are now in more supply and have become fashionable too.

In spreading awareness about plastics, two to three messages are paramount. One, that plastics never gets degraded but gets broken down in to smaller. even minute pieces, and these microplastics enters our food chain and humans and animals end up eating and drinking it. Plastic in landfills percolated down and pollutes our ground water, if we burn it instead, it pollutes air. The World Health Organisation has found that 90 per cent of the most popular bottled water brands worldwide including in India, contained tiny pieces of plastics. This is very heart-breaking to know, as in India we commonly buy these bottles to ensure clean and safe water. Two, it is most unhealthy to use low grade plastics for food and beverages. People carrying hot tea from tea shops in thin polythene bags is such a common sight. This needs to be stopped immediately.

Lastly, very little plastic gets recycled; what is largely done is downcycling of plastic to lower grades and reusing it, but the downgraded plastic after reuse anyways stays in the environment. Technology is helping create innovative use of plastics such as in making road building material. While this is helpful in using the plastic already in circulation, efforts must be made to curtail manufacturing and using it in the first place.       

Let Gurugram take a serious note of the nation-wide call for plastic ban, and be among the first few cities to declare it is “single-use” plastic free. 

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