By Sudha Ramachandran
BANGALORE (IDN) – A 32-year-old Rajeswari Singh launched on a six-week marathon mission on World Earth Day setting out to walk some 1,100 kilometres from Vadodara in western India to reach New Delhi on World Environment Day on June 5, spreading a simple message ‘Stop using plastic’, and accentuating it by forgoing all the way any kind of plastic packaged drinks or food.
In fact, she hasn’t used any kind of plastic over the past decade. Besides, her message echoes the theme of this year’s World Environment Day – ‘Beat plastic pollution’ – with India, among the world’s top ten consumers of plastic, playing global host.
India generates around 5.6 metric tones (Mt) of plastic waste each year, with its capital New Delhi alone producing some 9,600 tons per day. Of the ten rivers that are responsible for nearly 90% of the world’s plastic debris that ends up in the oceans, three flow through India: the Indus, the Ganga and Brahmaputra.
Plastic pollution has assumed crisis proportions worldwide. Since plastic invaded the consumer goods industry in the 1950s, mountains of plastic waste have accumulated in landfills and oceans.
According to an article in Science Advances, of the roughly 8,300 Mt of virgin plastics produced so far, 6,300 Mt of plastic waste has been generated, 9% of which was recycled and 12% incinerated as of 2015. The rest (79%) is accumulating in landfills or the natural environment, with much of it going into rivers and then draining into the oceans. If production of plastic and its waste management continue as per current trends, the world will have around 12,000 Mt of plastic waste lying in landfills and the natural environment by 2050.
Plastic pollution is reason for serious concern. Plastic contains toxic material which has implications for our health. It is also not biodegradable.
When exposed to salt water and ultraviolet light, plastic fragments into ‘microplastics’, which are ingested unintentionally by a variety of organisms and creatures in the ocean. “In India, micro and macro plastics have been observed at all trophic levels starting from sardines to tunas and sea birds,” V Kripa, principal scientist at the Chennai-based Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute said.
Plastic waste in the form of Styrofoam cups, packing material or polythene bags, which lies in rubbish heaps on India’s streets is no less deadly. It is not uncommon to see cows and dogs eating out of rubbish heaps on roads. They unintentionally swallow polythene bags. In February, the impact of such ingestion by animals was underscored by a case in Patna in eastern India where veterinarians removed 80kg of polythene waste from the stomach of a 6-year-old cow.
India recycles around 60% of its plastic waste, which is way above the world average of 22%. “It is working on conversion of plastic to fuel for domestic and industrial use and while it is yet to adopt plastic-to-fuel business models, large plastic conversion plants are being set up in the country,” an official in India’s Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Climate Change told IDN.
Besides, it is also converting plastic waste into tar for road construction. It has laid around 100,000 kilometers of roads constructed with recycled plastic.
However, recycling plastic only partially addresses the plastics problem. Use of plastic goods should be reduced or as Singh has done things made of plastic need to be eliminated from our lives.
It was to reduce the manufacture of plastic goods that the Indian government put in place Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016. These rules envisaged phasing out non-recyclable multi-layered plastics (MLP) by March 2018. The onus of responsibility was put on manufacturers of plastic to manage the waste system as well as buy back the plastic waste generated.
However, under pressure from industry, the government backtracked. The Plastic Waste Management (Amendment) Rules, 2018 favor businesses manufacturing or using plastic. While the 2016 rules allowed the use of only recyclable MLP, the 2018 rules allows MLP that is ‘energy recoverable’ and those that can be put to ‘alternate use’. The new rules allow plastic producers to continue manufacturing plastic by claiming that “their products can be put to some other use, if not recycled.” In effect the 2018 rules revoke “a complete ban” which the 2016 rules implied.
Environmental activists argue that the Pollution Control Boards in India’s 33 states and union territories are not serious about curbing plastic use. In the southern state of Karnataka, the government made it compulsory for plastic to be mixed with bitumen to construct roads. Yet large amounts of plastic continue to be dumped in landfills.
There are varying levels of restrictions on the use of plastic bags in most Indian states. Yet, plastic covers litter streets and choke India’s rivers. Manufacture of plastic bags must be stopped and cheap alternatives provided to customers.
Seema Sharma, a Bengaluru-based activist who works with the Bangalore Eco Team on solid waste management issues, argues that the rules banning plastic bags are “fine” but poorly implemented. The Karnataka State Pollution Control Board itself uses plastic in its office, she points out.
Indian officials may be apathetic but slowly people at the grassroots are beginning to act on plastic pollution. The impact of plastic pollution on their livelihood is driving India’s fishermen to participate in initiatives to rid coastal waters of plastic debris. As part of the ‘Suchitva Sagaram’ (clean ocean) project initiated by the government of the southern state of Kerala, fishermen bring the plastic debris they net along with the fish to collection centres where the debris is retrieved and later recycled. The project’s success at the twin fishing harbors of Shakthikulangara and Neendakara near Kollam has prompted the government to extend it to other fishing villages along Kerala’s coast.
Over the past fortnight, civil society groups across in India have carried out audits on the role of business corporations in the manufacturing, distribution, and proliferation of non-recyclable and single-use plastic packaging that is adding dangerously to the already large amount of plastic accumulating in landfills and rivers. This is aimed at gathering data to call for innovations to ensure that plastic waste is “drastically reduced”, said Pratibha Sharma, India Coordinator of the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) Asia Pacific.
Public awareness about the hazardous impact of plastic use on human health and the environment is low in India. Hopefully, Singh’s campaign to raise awareness about plastic pollution and the efforts of the government and countless civil society groups in the run up to World Environment Day will change the situation in India and other countries grappling with this crisis. [IDN-InDepthNews – 1 June 2018]
Photo: India’s top beach destination Goa commits to #BeatPlasticPollution. Credit: World Environment Day.
IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.
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