Governments across the world seem to be taking note of the challenge posed by plastic, banning the single-use variety. However, a total ban on this revolutionary invention seems impractical unless a cheaper, green alternative is available. Till then recycling seems to be the way forward
What do water bottles, dispensing containers, biscuit trays, shampoo bottles, milk bottles, freezer bags, cling film, potato chip packets, microwave dishes, ice cream tubs, bottle caps, disposable cutlery and tableware have in common? Single use plastic. Ironically, the same property that make plastic so useful — its durability — also makes it nearly impossible for nature to break it down, making the substance one of the biggest menaces threatening the planet.
A United Nations report on environment states that only 9% of all plastic waste ever produced has been recycled. About 12% has gone through incineration, while the rest — 79% — has piled up in landfills, dumps or the natural environment, leading to slow poisoning of the earth.
The curse of the necessary evil that is plastic has gone beyond land. More than 8 million metric tonne of plastic is dumped into the oceans every year — equivalent to a garbage truck every minute — and scientists predict that by 2050 there will be more plastic by weight in the oceans than fish.
A new study in the journal, Environmental Science and Technology, reveals that it’s possible that humans may be consuming anywhere from 39,000 to 52,000 microplastic particles a year through fish alone. Researchers from Johns Hopkins looked at the impact of eating seafood contaminated with microplastics and claimed that accumulated plastic could damage the immune system and upset gut balance. Plastic contributes massively to climate change, too.
If the production, disposal and incineration of plastic continues on its present day growth trajectory, by 2030 these global emissions could reach 1.34 gigatonne per year — equivalent to more than 295 coal-based power plants of 500-MW capacity. By 2050, plastic production and incineration could emit 2.8 gigatonne of CO2 per year, releasing emissions equivalent to 615 coal-based, 500-MW plants.
The ubiquitous plastic seems to be a curse for the third world countries, because poor countries, especially in Asia, not only have their own plastic dump to deal with but also the plastic trash that lands on their shores from developed countries. India has imported 99,545 MT plastic flakes and 21,801 MT plastic lumps from South America, Africa, Middle East, Europe and Asia. Leading world economies like the US, the UK, France and Germany alone have exported 20,832 MT of plastic waste between April 2018 and February 2019 to India.
Western countries have also targeted other Asian countries like China, Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia to dump their plastic.
Several of these countries, fed up of being the wealthy world’s rubbish dump, have turned back container-loads of waste from foreign shores.While China last year closed its doors to almost all foreign plastic waste, as well as many other recyclables, Philippines sent back to Canada tonne of rubbish, held in 69 containers that had been in the Asian country for six years. Malaysia has decided that 450 tonne of contaminated plastic waste would be shipped back to where it came from — Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, China, Japan, Saudi Arabia and the US. That’s the reason why Asian countries, including India, are attempting to impose a ban on plastic.
Bans & penalties
In his independence day speech this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged citizens to get rid of single-use plastic by October 2. In 2009, Himachal Pradesh became the first Indian state to ban plastic and polythene shopping bags. Delhi banned all forms of disposable plastic, including bags, cutlery, cups, plates and other single-use items in 2017, while Karnataka enforced a complete ban on single-use plastic items in 2016.
Maharashtra enforced a plastic ban on June 23, 2018, prohibiting the manufacture, use, sale, distribution and storage of all plastic materials, including single-use plastic and thermocol items. Some states such as Goa and Gujarat have also introduced partial bans in areas surrounding religious, historic or nature sites.
Indian Railways has decided to put a ban on single-use plastic material on its premises, including in trains.India’s neighbours also have joined the fight against the plastic menace. Nepal is banning single-use plastic on and around Mount Everest in a bid to cut down on the region’s trash problem. According to Nepalese authorities, PET soft drink bottles and single-use plastics under 30 microns thickness will be banned in the Khumbu region, home to the Mount Everest. However, the rules will not be enforced before January next year and won’t apply to plastic water bottles.
Bangladesh imposed a plastic bag ban in 2002, thus challenging the argument that bans and taxes hurt poor nations as poor people are heavily dependent on free, cheap and strong plastic to carry goods and store belongings.
Speaking of poor nations, Africa, deemed as the poorest of all continents, now leads the world in plastic bag regulations, with 34 countries imposing taxes or bans on the item. A total of 31 of these are in sub-Saharan Africa, the world’s poorest region. Kenya’s penalties are the world’s harshest, as manufacturers, importers, distributors and users can face up to $38,000 in fine or four years in prison.
States in the US like Maine, Vermont, Connecticut and Oregon joined California and New York in passing bans on single-use plastic bags, requiring retailers and grocers to replace them with reusable or paper bags. Panama is the first central American nation to ban single-use plastic bags to keep its beaches clean. Recently, the San Francisco International Airport (SFO) banned plastic water bottles smaller than one litre from being sold. It’s the first major airport in the US to adopt such a policy, a step toward its goal to be a zero-waste hub by 2021.
Developed countries like Australia, Denmark and the US are taking measures to control the use of plastic. While Australia announced a $20-million grant to accelerate the growth of the domestic plastic recycling industry, Denmark passed the world’s first plastic bag tax in 1993 and its residents use, on an average, four plastic bags per year.
The impending EU-wide ban on single-use plastic, coupled with public pressure over plastic pollution, has forced airlines to make ambitious declarations. Air France has promised to replace 210 million single-use plastic items with sustainable versions on all flights by the end of 2019, as has the Portuguese carrier Hi Fly, which in January boasted of the world’s first plastic-free flight. In 2018, Ireland’s Ryanair pledged to outlaw plastic as part of a five-year plan to become “the greenest airline”.
British multinational groceries and general merchandise retailer Tesco has committed to ban single-use plastic in its supermarkets. The UK is also going ahead with the world’s first plastic tax. The plan is to penalise plastic manufacturers who are unsuccessful in including 30% recycled content and give a significant boost to the recycling industry by heavily increasing demand for recycled plastic.
Furthermore, the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) welcomed the G20 Osaka Blue Ocean Vision to end ocean plastics. The G20 countries adopted a Leaders’ Declaration on June 29 with continued resolve to tackle marine litter, especially microplastics.
Last year, CII and UNEP launched a joint initiative, The Un-plastic Collective, with the vision to minimise externalities of plastics. Several corporates, including Tata, ITC, Big Basket, Hindustan Unilever, Siemens, Volkswagen, Reliance, Essel Propack, ACC, etc., are members of The Un-plastic Collective.
Ban no solution
But is banning plastic the real solution? If we look around us, almost everything is plastic — be it medical equipment, from syringes to MRI machines, office furniture, computers, phones, electronic devices, household equipment, packaging, and a lot more. This is because there is no alternative to plastic yet and sectors like pharmaceuticals, hardware, toys, food processing, food delivery will be in total chaos if plastic is banned overnight.
If plastic sachets made from so-called multi-layered packaging are banned, it could disrupt supplies of key products such as biscuits, salt and milk. Those in favour of plastic use claim that it has given poor people access to so many products that they wouldn’t have previously been able to get, whether that’s food packets or shampoo sachets. It has made life easier for the poor in terms of affordable small packs and convenience.
“Our demand to the government is, give the industry seven years to come up with alternatives,” says Neemit Punamiya, general secretary of the Plastic Bags Manufacturers’ Association of India, adding, “It cannot happen overnight — we have got investments, we have loans to pay and people to manage.”
Moreover, the plastic ban has to have a positive effect on not only manufacturers and industries, but also on customers.
According to Rebecca LC Taylor, a lecturer at University of Sydney in agricultural & resource economics, when shoppers stop receiving free bags from supermarkets and other retailers, they make up for it by buying more plastic trash bags, significantly reducing the environmental effectiveness of bag bans by substituting one form of plastic for another.
American fast food company McDonald’s introduced paper straws as an eco-friendly substitute for plastic, but realised later that paper straws were not easily recyclable. On top of that, customers were unhappy with the new straws as these dissolved before a drink could be finished.
In a story in the Washington Post, writer and disability advocate Karin Hitselberger has been recorded as saying that the plastic straw ban is another movement occurring without considering the viewpoint or needs of the disabled. “If you don’t need a straw to take a sip of water, pain medication to deal with the effects of a chronic illness, or a laptop to take notes in your college class, it can be easy to overlook how policies such as these impact someone else’s everyday life,” she commented.
After Starbucks declared that it will discontinue all single-use plastic straws, a group of rights activist working for the disabled planned a protest outside a New York City Starbucks store. In return, the company released a statement promising to keep plastic straws on hand for those who need them.
Tupperware, a brand synonymous with plastic, acknowledges that plastic in itself isn’t bad. “The cars that we drive, the television that we watch, all require plastic. It’s an integral part of our life,” says Deepak Chhabra, managing director, Tupperware India, adding, “But if it is not disposed properly, it creates a big issue.” Tupperware products are made of high grade virgin plastic which is reusable and recyclable. Chhabra says Tupperware is targeting zero waste to landfills from its manufacturing facilities by 2025.
“We are creating a global product warranty system so that consumers can return the product to us anytime. This will ensure that none of our products ever reach a landfill,” he adds. Plus, in their product line called Recycline, Tupperware re-purposes plastic into non-food use plastic. Tupperware has also partnered with Sabic Corp to create a pioneering material that converts plastic waste into usable food grade plastic. Tupperware India has eliminated single-use plastic in packaging.
Perhaps the biggest source of single-use plastic is water bottles. Bisleri, which sells water in plastic bottles, claims Bisleri’s PET packaging is recyclable multiple times. Anjana Ghosh, director marketing , Bisleri International, says the company has several recycling initiatives, including making benches of recycled plastic.
PepsiCo, which sells snacks and beverages in plastic, aims to make 100% recyclable, compostable or biodegradable packaging by 2025.In 2013, Levi’s launched its WasteLess range jeans composed of a minimum 20% post-consumer recycled content from an average of eight plastic bottles. Even though the WasteLess range is no longer being marketed, Levi’s has continued to offer sustainable fashion with their current Wellthread featuring the first ever commercialised use of cottonised hemp and fully recyclable nylon board shorts.
“In addition, our waterless technologies reduce water usage in the finishing stages. We are well on track to have more than 80% of Levi’s products made with waterless finishing technology by 2020,” says Sanjeev Mohanty, MD and SVP, south Asia, Middle East, North Africa, India, Levi’s.
Raw Pressery, an Indian food and beverage brand, has a recycling initiative that transforms empty plastic juice bottles into apparel.
The brand claims to have collected 1.2 million bottles for recycling and has recently launched the first limited edition of its RawCycle T-shirts that are made of 95% recycled plastic polyester.Then there are brands like Lifafa which are going the extra mile to create modern-day artisans from ragpicker communities of urban slums and skill them in converting plastic into leather. The brand has upcycled over 1,200 kg plastic while increasing the income of ragpickers by 150%.
International home fashion brand The Rug Republic uses recycled bicycle tubes, PET yarns extracted from recycled water bottles, recycled silk yarns, and other multi-fibre textiles, to create unique and vibrant rugs and carpets. Carpet Couture realised their responsibility towards the environment after they saw a demand for sustainable carpets from their foreign clients and introduced outdoor rugs curated with recycled plastic. Clearly, recycling works better than bans. At least till we find suitable alternatives to plastic.