Mission Plastic

Government may be under pressure from industry to refrain from ban on plastic but we as citizens should stop using single-use plastic to make Prime Minister Modi’s dream of making India plastic-free by 2022

Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) was launched to make India open-defecation free (ODF) country by October 2, 2019, with a toilet for every household. That mission accomplished, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has embarked on another mission: the eliminate use of single-use plastic (SUP) by 2022.

For the ODF mission, Modi swept the streets in New Delhi to drive home the message that sanitation was very important. Now as we talk about ridding the country of plastic, at least the SUP, Modi’s photo of plogging at a beach in Mamallapuram is on the front pages of newspapers and in prime time of news channels.

This has drawn skepticism from those who don’t like the way the PM operates. This is a photo-op, most people said, questioning how the special protection group (SPG) allowed a dirty place for the PM to roam. That point taken, but what PM did it an important messaging. When the PM does something, it drives people to follow. The PM’s photo-ops with garbage during the SBM motivated people to keep their cities and villages clean. There was awareness—even children would stop their parents from littering.

The Mamallapuram photo-op—granting the naysayers their point—will create awareness about not using plastic that chokes our seas and rivers.

For its campaign against SUP, the government will deploy the same set of strategies adopted for the ODF drive, according to a report in Hindustan Times. Under Swachh Bharat, every village panchayat and local bodies will have access to solid and liquid waste management facilities, just like toilets. The government will launch a high-octane public campaign, aimed at behavioural change. A ground-up approach to recycle and segregate waste, such as organic matter and used plastics, will be part of Swachh Bharat’s renewed goals, the HT report said.

In his August 15 speech, Modi asked citizens to free the country from SUP and hinted at an announcement on October 2. However, this did not happen. Earlier, on World Environment Day (June 5) last year, the then environment minister Harsh Vardhan announced that SUP will be phased out by 2020, a deadline subsequently revised to 2022.

Many believe the ban was not announced under pressure from industry because the measure would be too disruptive at a time when India is coping with an economic slowdown and job losses. According to the All India Plastic Manufacturers Association, there are more than 50,000 plastic manufacturing industrial units, which provide employment to about four million people. A ban would mean loss of job to at least as many people. This discounts the number of people who would be affected indirectly. Any government would think twice before imposing a ban.

But apart from the industrial pressure, there’s another problem: there is no clear definition of SUP. Simply put, SUP means products that are used once and then discarded.

Sixty-five countries have defined SUP. Around 60 countries have already banned single-use plastic fully or partially.

India is in the process of doing that. A committee led by the Union chemicals and fertilizers ministry has completed a draft report on what ought to fall under the category of single-use plastic. The report, which goes beyond items of daily use to arrive at a technical definition which also incorporates articles of industrial use, will be publicised for suggestions and review by stakeholders.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, single-use plastics, often also referred to as disposable plastics, are commonly used for plastic packaging, and include, items intended to be used only once before, they are thrown away or recycled. These include, among other items, grocery bags, food packaging, bottles, straws, containers, cups and cutlery.

Some experts said that instead of a no-ban on SUPs, the least the Centre could have done was ban six SUPs — plastic bags, cups, plates, small bottles, straws, and certain types of sachets — and then others in a phased manner. Of the total plastic generated, 19% are of chips and confectionery packets, 12% bottle caps, and lids, 10% are PET bottles and 7% are straws.

Plastics do have substantial economic benefits, but their impact on environment needs clear quantifiable indices. For example, small packages, such as shampoo sachets, allow companies to make affordable packets aimed at the relatively poor. Experts said the key was to define utility versus impact.

According to the UN, since the 1950s, the production of plastic has “outpaced that of almost every other material”.

But plastic has caused an unimaginable crisis, too. It is choking the seas, rivers and landfills. India’s plastic challenge is enormous. The country generates approximately 25,940 tonnes per day (TPD) of plastic waste. Of this, around 15,600 TPD get recycled. Annually, the country produces 14 million tonne of plastic of which 9.4 million tonne is said to be single-use plastic.

At many places, plastic is either burnt or buried, both terrible practices. Burning plastic in open air releases carcinogenic gases (dioxin and furan), and burying it means it stays in the environment for years. And when it breaks down, plastics release toxic chemicals, polluting the soil and groundwater. This practice of burning/burying plastics is common because of three reasons — the lack of awareness, lax governance and inspection, and non-existent waste collection-and-disposal/recycling systems.

The Swachh Bharat 2.0 will tackle plastic menace on war footing. The new Swachh Bharat strategy will lay down a framework to guide “local governments, policy makers, implementers and other relevant stakeholders” in implementing what is now being called ODF Plus. It also focuses on, apart from sanitation, the management of three categories of waste: plastic waste, organic, grey water management and black water waste. Organic waste refers to any bio-origin leftover matter, while black-water waste, in the context of sanitation, refers to faecal sludge. Grey water refers to waste water from other household use.

Indore, declared India’s cleanest city under Swachh Bharat rankings, will serve as a model for urban waste management, while Tamil Nadu’s village-level waste recycling model could be replicated elsewhere for rural India.

The strategy has been prepared by the department of sanitation under the Jal Shakti ministry, which oversees the Swachh Bharat Mission, after consulting state governments and various stakeholders.

Environment experts said waste management and awareness were the keys to curbing plastic use. India is only now considering a voluntary phase-out but more than 60 countries have, since the early 2000s, used a mix of bans and levies to deal with the menace of disposable plastics. Africa has the largest number of countries that have implemented a complete ban on production and use of plastic bags. Rwanda is the most successful among them, according to the United Nations Environment Programme’s “Single-use Plastics – A Road to Sustainability” report released last year.

Here’s hoping PM Modi’s push to the campaign will stand India in the league of these countries soon.

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