In these times of COVID-19, one of the most common clichés bandied about by op-ed writers and TV anchors is: “Every crisis brings with it an opportunity”. The question is: Opportunity for whom or for what? In this case, the opportunity has been for an inanimate object and hitherto a longstanding enemy — single-use plastic (SUP) — to thrive and proliferate on an unprecedented scale on the back of the global pandemic.
If you were to take stock of the kinds of waste products you attempted to dispose of in the last 24 hours, you would surely recall trying to get rid of, safely or otherwise, an increasing number of COVID-specific, SUP-based products. Central to our new, hyper-hygienic way of life has become the increased dependence on non-recyclable items such as plastic-lined masks, gloves, hand sanitiser bottles and other personal protective equipment. There has also been a steep increase in day-to-day items such as plastic bags and delivery packaging. In 2018, a report by McKinsey estimated that, globally, we generate 350 million tonnes of plastic waste a year of which only 16 per cent is recycled. Today, the WHO estimates that the planet is using about 89 million masks and 16 million gloves each month – the amount of plastic waste it’s generating is much higher than that estimated in the McKinsey report two years ago. To complete the stark picture, The Guardian recently reported that there are possibly more masks than jellyfish in the oceans today.
The plastic-made items we use to protect ourselves against the coronavirus are necessary, no doubt, although cloth masks have increasingly been encouraged for common use. These are essential short-term needs for health, sanitation and other frontline workers as preventive measures against the coronavirus. But what about the long-term environmental impact on the planet? Are we waiting for the pandemic to be over to assess the damage or should we try to deal with the problem now?
In pre-coronavirus times, different nations had their own programmes to handle plastic waste. In countries such as Canada and the US, recycling of plastic is classified as essential, although this is not practised universally. In India, we have the Plastic Waste Management Rules of 2016, which were updated and amended in 2018. In fact, India saw incredible momentum in its fight for effective management of plastic waste in the last year. The Prime Minister made clarion calls for a jan andolan (people’s movement) to curb the use of SUP and to ensure proper disposal of all plastic waste. He led the way by “plogging” — collecting plastic waste while jogging — on the Mamallapuram beach in Tamil Nadu. As recently as September-October 2019, the entire country rallied together under the banner of the Swachhata Hi Seva campaign, and people from all walks of life collected plastic waste from their surroundings and disposed of it suitably with the help of the local authorities.
Today, the national, as well as the global momentum for plastic waste management, has been seriously disrupted. Thailand, which had banned disposable plastic bags at major stores in January and had planned to slash plastic waste completely in 2020, now expects to see such waste rise by as much as 30 per cent. In Indonesia, 63,000 workers were recently laid off in the recycling industry. Even the Bring Your Own (BYO) movement started in Singapore in 2017, where consumers were urged to bring their own utensils to restaurants in the effort to reuse and recycle, has received a blow with global giants such as Starbucks doing away with their “Bring Your Own Cups” policy due to the pandemic.
Plastic is not the problem, our handling of it is. We need plastic, but not SUP, which is difficult to dispose of effectively, and that is where the problem lies. It is important to understand this distinction so we may change our behaviour and our lifestyles, to balance our need for plastic with effectively managing its waste.
To go back to the opening cliché, one way to approach the issue is to treat it not just as an environmental problem but as an economic opportunity. We require new business models which are designed for sustainability. In Uganda, they are melting plastic waste to make face shields which are being sold for just a dollar each. In Singapore, start-ups are using stainless steel cups and bamboo boxes, which can be returned and reused after being washed and sanitised.
But, most of all, we need a tectonic shift in the behaviour of consumers. We need consumers to care about their role in the plastic waste value chain, using their power to change the existing unsustainable approach. This had started in India until the pressing need to confront the coronavirus took precedence over the fight against SUP. Today, in rural India, having declared themselves open defecation free (ODF), village communities across the country are now starting to plan for setting up waste collection and segregation systems, with material recovery facilities at the block- level under phase 2 of the Swachh Bharat Mission (Grameen). The options are all around us, but true change is only possible when each one of us takes responsibility for the environment around us and takes necessary steps to Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and, when all else fails, Remove, or dispose of plastic waste safely and effectively.
I’ll leave you with this gloomy arithmetic I recently came across on an online source. At some point, hopefully, sooner rather than later, we will eradicate the coronavirus. This would possibly be by using a vaccine, which will be administered by using a single-use plastic syringe, each consisting of 0.052 grams of single-use plastic. If each of the 7.8 billion people around the world had to be inoculated, this would amount to an additional plastic consumption of 400 tonnes. Are we going to wait till the end of the pandemic to effectively dispose of plastic waste, or is the time now?
This article first appeared in the print edition on July 4 under the title “In a plastic crisis.” The writer is secretary, Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation. Views are personal.
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