Plastic pollution is causing great harm to all forms of life. Sufficient statistics establish its intensity and magnitude around the world, and need not be discussed time and again. What is required is a solution that has been eluding us so far, for ending this menace. The ban on manufacturing, storage, selling and use of plastic items has not worked as we have seen in 17 states/UTs; now the 18th state of Maharashtra is experimenting with such a ban, also being enforced in 19th and 20th states of Odisha and UP.
Have we thought why these bans haven’t succeeded? It’s just that our policy-makers, administrators haven’t looked into the concerns of the stakeholders—manufacturers and users of plastic. This comprises industry, commerce/trade and citizens. The solution to fight plastic pollution lies in providing an alternative material that has similar characteristics—lightweight, cost-effective (affordable), durable—while being ecofriendly. Has any researcher come out with such a wonder alternative material yet? The answer is ‘no’.
So, we need to make concerted, cooperative efforts in this direction at the international level to carry out this type of research. Only then we’ll be able to find an ingenuous inventor like Alexander Parkes (a metallurgist from Birmingham, England) who invented the man-made plastic ‘Parkesine’ in 1855 by dissolving cellulose nitrate in alcohol and camphor containing ether. The author draws his optimism from the two well-known examples of scientific advancements in the last 2-3 decades. The first is revolution in mobile phone technology, resulting in huge cost and time savings, and providing great convenience in day-to-day communication. The second concerns harnessing ‘sun’ and ‘wind’ to meet our clean energy requirements, and that too at an unimaginable low cost. The history of science is replete with miraculous discoveries, the fruits of which the humanity is enjoying. So inventing a substitute to plastic is certainly possible.
Having said that, it must be stressed that eliminating plastic with a commercially-viable alternative can’t be achieved in a short time. In the interim, the author suggests the following measures:
*The consumption of single-use plastic—wrappers, sachets, etc—should be drastically reduced. Instead, these items should only be available in paper and cardboard packets. Moreover, to increase sales among the poor, mini packets of daily-use items are sold by manufacturers, which usually don’t get picked up for recycling.
*Hotels, restaurants and eateries use plastic plates, spoons, bowls. This should be stopped. Instead, stainless steel utensils must be used. Why can’t it be done? Is it for saving cleaning costs, at the huge cost of polluting the environment? Anyway, cleaning costs are less than what is spent on single-use plastics. Railways and airlines must discard single-use plastics, too. No-frills airlines are unknowingly helping the cause of fighting plastic menace and more airlines should adopt this policy for short travels. It’s good that hotel chains like Hilton, Hyatt and ITC are at different stages of reducing plastic use—they are opting for cloth laundry bags, paper straws, glass bottles, and restricting food takeaway packaging to cardboard, besides using cutlery made of corn starch. ITC, in fact, has claimed it’ll save plastic waste amounting to 24 tonnes per year by 2030. Domino’s Pizza and Dunkin’ Donuts have stopped using plastic glasses, carry bags and cutlery in their restaurants in Karnataka, Maharashtra and Chandigarh, and are using biodegradable alternatives.
*It is a no-brainer that people carry cloth or jute bags, or those made of biodegradable materials.
*A tiny percentage of plastic waste is recycled due to reasons such as insufficient and inefficient recycling infrastructure, complexity of sorting and processing, confusion over which plastic can actually be recycled and unfavourable economics of plastic processing. While newspaper and corrugated fibreboard are recycled to the tune of 75%, plastic waste recycling is less than 20%. So, we need to ensure that we recycle greater quantities of plastic waste by resolving technical, non-technical and financial issues.
To sum up, the elimination or substantial reduction in plastic use requires great involvement of world community, to discover an alternative. At the same time, we should work towards adopting the four measures suggested above without waiting for any legislation. Here, it is necessary that the government, with full involvement of municipal bodies, organises camps to educate the masses.
The writer is a former ISS and a UN consultant.