Single use plastics are also known as disposable plastics. They are used only once are carry bags, drinking bottles, straws, bottle caps, food wrappers, grocery bags, wrappers for consumer goods, multi-layer packaging used for food and takeaway containers
The convenience and cost-effectiveness of plastic has made it popular in daily use. When food or other products are packaged in plastic, they are protected from spoilage or other environmental damage. In the case of fresh goods, they remain fresh for longer, keeping food from spoiling reduces food waste, which helps reduce the strain on our resources and keeps costs down. In healthcare, single use plastics such as blood bags and syringes help modein healthcare remain affordable for all and helps to provide a safe and hygienic environment in hospitals.
Even though, single use plastic has a comparatively low production cost, its disposal cost is high. Collecting all the pieces of discarded single use plastic each year, separating, cleaning and then treating them incurs a very high cost. Most of the discarded plastic that is collected gets either burnt or disposed of in some landfill of garbage. The world produces about 300 million tonnes of plastic every year, however, only half of it is disposable. The remaining plastic finally ends up in the oceans. Since, plastic takes quite considerable span of time to get decomposed, there is another serious concern of microscopic particles or microplastics, which causes problems for sustainable environment.
When the plastic breaks down, it releases many toxic chemicals which were used in its manufacturing. As a result, the soil in the landfills, as well as the groundwater and ocean water gets polluted. These harmful chemicals enter the human food chain. Various studies have linked the presence of such toxic chemicals to occurence of cancer, disruption of hormonal activities, affecting endocrine and immune system, etc. So, we should wage a war against usage of single use plastic.
The size and intensity of the problem justifies this war against plastic use. From 1950 onwards, about 9 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced globally, about 79% of which is still in the environment. Out of this, 44% was produced after the year 2000. About 8 million tonnes of plastic waste flows into the oceans worldwide every year from coastal regions. Half of the world’s plastics are made in Asia.
Global Production of Single Use Plastic
China alone produces 29% of the world’s plastic. Less than 20% of all plastic is recycled globally. Plastic recycling rates are highest in Europe at 30% and China at 25%. However, the USA recycles only 9% of its plastic trash. Nearly, a million plastic beverage bottles are sold every minute around the world. In 2015, Americans purchased 111 billion plastic beverage bottles, which is almost one bottle per person per day. In India, according to a report by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), we generated about 26,000 tonnes of plastic waste everyday in 2011-12. It is also likely that plastic waste generation will further increase in subsequent years. According to experts, 94,% of plastics are recyclable.
However, India recycles only about 60% and the rest is dumped in landfills, in the sea and other water bodies. Experts also believe that plastic products have an end life and cannot be recycled more than three or four times. The CPCB has warned that recycled products are at times more harmful to the environment because of added chemicals and colours.
Measures Taken Against Plastic Pollution
After environmentalists raised the issues about plastic pollution, various nations have taken measures to limit the usage of single use plastics. Bangladesh was the first country to ban plastic bags, which it did in 2002. In 2008, Rwanda imposed a blanket ban on the sale, use and production of plastic bags. Even though, it led to illegal smuggling of plastic from neighbouring nations and Rwanda was compelled to increase penalties, eventually people switched to greener alternatives. Various other countries have imposed bans on various forms of plastic. The European Union plans to ban single use plastic items such as straws, forks, knives and cotton buds by 2021.
Measures Taken by India
To minimise use of single use plastic, some of the state governments in India have taken stringent measures. The state of Sikkim banned use of plastic bags as far back as in 1998. People living in Sikkim say that major education campaigns and enforcement measures made citizens accept the plastic bag ban. Maharashtra has banned all kinds of single use plastic products such as spoons, cups, straws, plates, glasses, etc in June, 2018.
The Odisha government announced a phase-wise ban on single use plastic items on 2nd October, 2018, in the six cities of Bhubaneswar, Cuttack, Berhampur, Sambalpur, Puri and Rourkela. In July 2018, the Uttar Pradesh government imposed a ban on polythene bags of less than 50 microns, followed by a ban on single use plastic items on 15th August and a total ban on non-biodegradable polythene on 2nd October. Bihar also banned all kinds of polythene and plastic bags from 24th December 2018 in urban and rural areas of the state. Tamil Nadu became the fourth state in India to ban single use plastic in 2019.
Assessment of the Current Situation
Many of the bans on use of single use plastic in Indian states are not universally effective. Lack of alternatives to plastic is a major problem that needs to be overcome if plastic ban is to be implemented successfully. The eco-friendly options may not be very expensive, but if it is compared with the price range of plastic, the eco-friendly options are 50% costlier. The availability of alternative options also stands in the way, as the demand is less, thus, forming a vicious cycle.
Another problem regarding recycling of plastic waste is that most of the states and their local urban bodies (ie. municipal corporations) have not established an organised system to segregate the plastic waste from other waste. This is resulting in widespread littering in landfills of towns and cities. Only a few states such as Goa, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Odisha and Tamil Nadu are transporting their plastic waste to cement plants for being used as fuel. Nagaland, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal are also using some plastic waste for polymer bitumen road construction.
It is worth mentioning here that all these efforts are only a single drop in the ocean. Changing the mindset of people is required, which takes a long period of sustained campaigning so as to make people aware of the health hazards of plastic. So, far the plastic bans in India have been marred by poor enforcement and failure to provide viable, eco-friendly alternatives.
Plastic pollution, particularly micro-plastic is a key issue to be addressed by India as the uncontrolled waste continues to damage the environment for several years. First and foremost, the government needs to come up with a broad and extensive National Action Plan or guideline for the implementation of single use plastic ban in a phase-wise manner. Only then we can hope for a plastic free environment.
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