The right decision even if it’s late – The last drop

Sunita Narayan

Given India’s ban on single-use plastic, effective July 1, it’s important to know what we’re up against: the serious challenge we face. Anyone who has been to the beach and found the message in a bottle knows it is a difficult challenge. The bottle is made of plastic. The water is almost the same. This is the message. The bottle looks very small compared to the vast ocean, but have you heard of the swirls of garbage? The largest vortex is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a vast stretch of garbage in the Pacific Ocean spread over an area of ​​about 1.6 million square miles, a floating bridge of half-dissolved waste between California and Japan. We also have a landfill similar to the Indian Ocean, which is poisoning the blue sea between South Africa and Australia. Scientists have called this “thin plastic soup.”

The first is the first. This ban is a small one, in fact very small, but a big step forward for India. Even in this limited way, this restriction can at least force us to think and move forward. List and stop the everyday things we throw away when used. Unfortunately, this is an incomplete list, but for those who don’t know, it includes the lightweight plastic cups you find in roadside stores, the straws you throw away without thinking about it again after you’ve finished a cold drink, and yes, everywhere. . Existing plastic bags, less than 120 microns thick, in December 2022. As soon as they get out of our hands, they fly here and there, roam the streets like ghosts, bury themselves in the mud of the mountains of rubbish or cover drains and finally flow into our rivers and seas … Touch whatever you touch. , dissolves the poison. The Ganges ranks sixth among the world’s rivers that put plastic in the oceans. Sindhu is at number two. They often find centuries-old toothbrushes in the oceans, but most plastics do not retain their appearance. It breaks and its polymers disintegrate. This is the plastic soup that goes inside the fish, inside you, inside everything.

Second, we must admit that the list of banned items is not complete enough, despite the full understanding of the foreseeable future and the resilience of the industry. If we really want to get rid of disposable plastic, then it must have multi-layer packaging. It is the devil that encompasses everything in which all the fast-growing consumer goods reach us, from french fries to shampoos and gutka bags. Don’t be fooled, these are the real dangers when it comes to plastic pollution. It is almost impossible to collect and then absolutely impossible to process. The only thing that can be done is to incinerate it in cement plants, which almost never happens. How do we know? Thanks to the rare and extensive study of the types of plastics found in the large piles of waste on which they are dumped. Remember this when you remove a few slices of pickled potatoes from the inside of the yellow plastic wrap.

What will happen? Two simple steps involving a variety of non-specialized plastics used alone (about half of the plastics manufactured) involve. First, you will need to pick up a plastic bag and packs of headphones and chips. Second, this plastic waste should be collected and recycled or consumed, in no case should it be allowed to go to mountains of garbage or bodies of water. These must also be incinerated in an environmentally friendly way, so that they do not end up causing more pollution or dangers to the health of workers. The COVID has already imposed a lot of burden on us, causing an explosion of plastic between us, although it could not be avoided and has become commonplace in the form of protective clothing, from gloves to bodysuits.

Open collection of plastic waste is a difficult task in itself. For example, grab only plastic bags. Banning them is not a new thing. Some 25 states and territories of the union have already imposed a total ban on them. But we know what happens in practice. Thickness is especially troubling: governments and regulators take the easy way out, saying it’s hard to make decisions and enforce rules. Putting it into practice wholeheartedly is our biggest challenge and the deciding factor in this struggle.

Another challenge is to set the responsibility. The government is making noise with good intentions: look at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call during Independence Day 2019 in which he called on Indians to give up the “plastic habit”. Currently, various packaging materials are considered part of the “increased responsibility of producers”, which requires companies that manufacture (or consume) plastic waste to be collected and sent for reprocessing. Annual objectives. It seems to work like a clock … in principle only. In reality, only the industry is aware of the amount of plastic manufactured or consumed. There is nothing obvious from which we can evaluate the accuracy of your ads. In this way the EPR system is empty.

What is happening in the meantime? Half-hearted solutions that are only used to hide the truth. On a visit to one of the agencies that companies hire for waste collection on their behalf to meet their EPR goals, I noticed that the garbage carried by the trucks of the municipal bodies is being put on conveyor belts. and are classified. Reusable materials, aluminum, etc., were returning to the market. In the end, they piled up mountains of well-graded plastics that had nowhere to go: it was too hard for them to take them to the burning cement plants. Most were multilayer containers and bags.

Down in the value chain of large companies – and especially the middle class – there are millions of people in the informal sector who only find alternatives to reuse plastics. They are the true warriors of our waste, who at least move the burden away from the earth. Then there are the recycling ‘factories’, a world like Charles Dickens ’novels, in which even more poor people work in horrible conditions to atone for our sins. In one of these factories in Bawana, an industrial area of ​​Delhi, graded plastics are cleaned in tanks, boiled, heated and removed from the coils until they become wire. Then plastic granules are made from these pieces, which come back to you with a new shape.

As a strict policy, we make sure to focus on recycled plastics. It is part of the negotiation we have to make for our future. The second is local thinking: rich countries have thrown their garbage carts at the heads of the poor south, and everyone is trapped in the feeling of “not-my-backyard-not-my-backyard” after China’s ban on importing plastic waste in 2018.. The problem of plastic waste in India is not as big as in the West, but we are also getting there. Wealthy states like Goa produce more than 60 grams per capita; Delhi is also ahead with 37 grams per person. India’s average per capita, which is around 8 grams, is low, but our population means we are the world’s second largest producer. After 1950, more than half of the plastic produced worldwide has been produced in the last 12 years. Now that we aspire to become a $ 5 trillion economy, we need to eliminate that threat.

(The author is the Director General of the Center for Science and Environment, New Delhi)

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