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Amid a pandemic, phasing out plastic usage

A three-pronged strategy is needed — reduce consumption, recycle, and reuse products, and comprehensively manage plastic waste

August 12, 2020 8:51:46 pm
plastic pollution, coronavirus plastic waste, indian express opinion, neeti aayog,A diver holds plastic gloves and face masks off Antibes, southern France. (Operation Mer Propre via AP)

Saloni Goel

Plastic products and plastic waste are everywhere. While that obviously is a problem, ironically and contrary to popular wisdom, it is also a blessing. Why would that be? The current national and global commitment to phasing out single-use plastics is because no one can deny plastic pollution, perhaps the way one can deny global warming. Initiatives across government and businesses for improving plastic waste management with the help of circularity are attributable largely to the omnipresence of plastics — as product, packaging, or waste. Vivid photographs of turtles entangled in plastic bags and images of plastic fragments in animal intestines are helping generate momentum and urgent citizen-driven call to action.

Having said that, what is to be done? Can we eliminate plastics from our lives as some would have us? Maybe not. We have the current pandemic to support this cynicism. Disposable masks and PPEs, made of plastic (most notably single-use-plastics), have been at the frontline of our fight against COVID-19. China reportedly produced 116 million masks in February alone, 12 times more than the previous month. The US is expected to generate a full year’s worth of medical waste comprising infected plastics in just two months due to the pandemic. A gloomy scenario painted in a recent article projects single-use plastic waste generation to the tune of 400 tonnes, in the form of discarded plastic syringes that may be used if the whole of earth’s 7.8 billion population is to be vaccinated against the virus. Till the pandemic took the world by storm, single-use plastics were the obvious villain; maybe not so anymore.

A three-pronged strategy can bring us closer to pragmatic and effective action — reduce plastic consumption, recycle, and reuse plastic products and waste to the maximum possible extent, and comprehensively manage plastic waste.

Reducing plastic consumption is perhaps the toughest part. Plastics are so deeply entrenched in our lives because of their versatility that only a huge disruptive innovation or event can knock them out. They are light, highly mouldable, waterproof, and can be produced in any colour. But what makes them almost impossible to replace is that they are cheap; more so in market conditions characterised by falling crude prices that enhance their price competitiveness. It will require considerable nudging and support from government to push manufacturers to develop products and packaging with use-for-use alternative materials.

The government may also have to provide support by enabling market access for such products, which if left to their own will face tough competition from cheaper plastic counterparts. Furthermore, retail units will need to pitch in by using price incentives to encourage consumers to reduce demand for plastic packaging. Finally, it will boil down to consumer participation. People will have to adopt more responsible consumption choices even if it entails inconvenience. Surely, this inconvenience will not be greater than that of living on a planet that is asphyxiated because it is covered in layers of plastic.

Recycling and reusing plastic needs to be strengthened to bring back used plastic into the manufacturing cycle. This strategy will achieve the twin goal of reducing entry of virgin plastics into the market, as well as reducing plastic waste burden in waste dumps, landfills, and oceans. The recently published Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) draft notification by the Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change can be leveraged for this. Significantly, EPR places the responsibility of product after-use on the manufacturer.

It’s a responsibility they are advised to share with consumers by empowering them with choices and knowledge, perhaps by investing in improved packaging design and labelling. A recent push by NITI Aayog to make use of 25 per cent recycled materials in large construction projects compulsory comes at an opportune time. Coupled with the recommendation of designating one nodal ministry for the hitherto neglected recycling sector, this promises to be a significant step in the right direction.

Finally, it all boils down to effective management of plastic waste that has escaped circularity. A recent study suggested that the amount of littering in India may be 10–25 per cent of waste generated, far more than the 2 per cent observed in developed nations — a testament and reminder that our waste management, including segregation, collection, transportation, treatment and disposal is just not good enough. Citizens need to help by desisting from littering and diligently segregating waste at source.

But the major onus for this rests with our municipalities who will have to pull up their act and organise comprehensive waste collection and disposal systems. Some cities are already leading the way and grabbing headlines for it. What is stopping others?

India is at a juncture where it harbours grand ambitions to be a world leader. Can we do it if we are a nation where citizens have to be careful while walking on roads lest their feet should land in a pile of garbage? We must urgently address this basic issue if we are to achieve greatness.

Goel is an environment, sustainability and sanitation expert, working as a climate change specialist with NITI Aayog. Views are personal

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