Plastics are an integral part of our daily life; human beings are associated with plastics in each and every moment of their life in many forms such as gadgets, furniture, packaging items, textile, and many more. Recently, it has become a trend among various local bodies to ban various plastics, especially packaging plastics to get scores in the ‘Swachh Bharat Mission’. Here a moot question that arises is, ‘Is plastics ban a right solution; are we moving in the right direction for sustainable development?’
Vehicles are contributing approximately15% of the total air pollution in India. Vehicles’ fuel (petrol or diesel) and plastics are the products of crude oil. But there are no discussions about the ban on vehicles because we know it is not possible. So, to curb this vehicle pollution menace, there is the focus to promote e-vehicles running on electricity and this is an excellent example of going in the right direction for sustainable development.
The clothes which we wear contain polyester contents, in more or less percentage, and this polyester is also derived from crude oil. On account of washing clothes, microparticles of the polyester fabric go into the drainage system. From the drainage system, it goes into water bodies like rivers, ponds, and sea. These microbes in water bodies harm the life of animals and by way of seafood, finally, human beings are also affected. As this kind of pollution is not noticeable, no one ever thought of banning polyester clothes.
We are using many more plastic items like mobiles, household items, etc. but there is not the slightest buzz for banning them. So why is there so much hype only to ban plastics and, that too, mainly packaging items?
Did our policymakers give it a thought that if they ban plastic packaging items, then what are the alternatives to the various packaging purposes that plastics fulfill? Is there a material that is as economical as plastics, or is as easy to transport and carry as plastics? Age-old alternatives to plastics packaging like glass, wood, paper, cork, and aluminum are much more expensive to produce, and not only that, emission from the processing of these items is much more than plastics, and it is proven by various studies.
Substituting plastics with other old age items is like inviting another problem. And suppose packaging plastics are banned, then will it be easy to implement this ban unless and until the manufacturing of plastic packaging items itself is stopped and manufacturing of other alternatives is again started. In the past also, there were efforts to ban plastic packaging by local bodies. But those were not successful. At present, some local bodies have notified a minimum thickness of polythene packaging items; but by doing the same, they have increased the volume of plastics in the system.
The PET Example
In the packaging industry, PET packaging’s one of the main constituents. PET’s widely used in water and cold drink packaging as well as in sheet packaging. PET is the most widely used plastics and the most littered plastics; but, the PET recycling industry in India is very well organized with an installed capacity of 70,000 tonnes per month – which is equivalent to 420 crores of PET bottles per month and giving direct employment to 2 lakh uneducated and unskilled rag pickers whom we usually call sadak se kachara uthane vala. India is far better placed in PET recycling than developed nations.
Like the PET recycling industry, there are many other recycling industries also in India. Other recycling industries are unorganized and at a small level. Any other plastics recycling industry is not able to scale up to the level of the PET recycling industry due to poor collection of other used plastic items. Other plastic items are very lightweight and are not easy to segregate from mixed waste.
It takes a lot of effort and the segregator is not getting enough incentive for the same. Similarly, the rag pickers are not getting the desired amount of money vis-à-vis their efforts. The main problem is the segregation and collection of plastics waste. The solution to the problem can be only segregation at the source itself, or better collection and segregation of mixed waste.
Communication is the Key
The general public, the end-user of plastic items, is the source of used plastics waste. To segregate plastics waste at its source, there should be awareness in the general public. Developed nations have done very well in terms of collection and almost all of the wastage is segregated at the source itself.
General public awareness can be in any form like a mass movement similar to ‘Swacch Bharat’ or ‘Total Sanitation’ movement for toilets by the Indian government or some policy framework by the government regarding segregation at source. The general public should be aware of the harmful effects of plastics packaging waste and should be encouraged to discard waste in segregated form.
The collection of used plastics waste is only due to rag pickers or the unorganized sector. If incentives to the unorganized sectors are increased for the collection and segregation of plastic waste, more and more people in the unorganized sector will be attracted to this field. With more people in the unorganized sector, there will be more collection and hence, there will be an increment in the recycling rate. Incentives can be by various means as a direct subsidy or via recyclers or by any other means.
There are a lot of ifs and buts about the plastics packaging ban; but, one thing is sure that the ban on plastic packaging is not a sustainable solution. Instead of a ban, there is a need to find a sustainable solution like an increase in the collection rate of used plastic packaging items, which will ultimately increase the recycling rate.