Beyond The Plastic Dilemma

PARIBHA VASHIST

I decided to give up on all single-use plastics in the midst of the on-going buzz against plastic. I did not, however, reckon how difficult it would be to stick to that promise. The next day, I skipped my breakfast because I was late for an important event that I had to attend. With a growling stomach, I sat through the entire show desperately waiting for the lunch break. When it came I was taken startled, also disappointed; the sumptuous meal was being served in plastic plates with plastic spoons and plastic bowls.

Feelings of despondency and helplessness dominated my psyche. I was in a dilemma and the choice was extremely hard to make, but I ended up breaking the promise, like most of us do, a pledge just 24 hours ago. I chose to eat in single-use plastic.

The anguish and guilt that enveloped me on that day propelled me to think about how difficult it is for one who is consciously on a mission to refuse single-use plastics — to actually avoid them, because are so indispensable in our day-to-day life. All of us, in today’s dispensation, are unabashedly accustomed to using plastic that a person who doesn’t heed to this norm is the ‘odd one out.’

I vividly remember suggesting my friends to get steel spoons from home for a class party and being encountered with inexplicably strange glances and spontaneous recommendations to buy a pack of plastic spoons instead. This apathy towards the usage of plastics and lack of sensitivity to think about their long-term repercussions are two primary reasons why they have become such a song of our burden.

We value convenience and cheapness far more than anything and, therefore, today, as reports suggest, the mass of plastic on earth is more than the mass of the entire human population.

PLASTIC MENACE

Since its discovery in the 1950s approximately 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been discarded into the environment. Single-use plastics constitute a major part of the solid waste and their contribution to waste is increasing day-by-day.

Plastics — ‘thanks’ to their slow process of degradation — release toxic chemicals, such as furans and dioxins as well as greenhouse gases, such as methane, which cause global warming and, therefore, negatively affect the environment and our well-being too.

A 2015 study on plastic waste generated in 60 major Indian cities revealed that plastics are seldom segregated, and they usually end up in landfills in soiled, or mixed, conditions. Traditional segregators like rag-pickers and kabadiwalas [junk, or scrap, dealer] have no economic incentives to selectively segregate single-use plastics from the enormous mixed waste; this is also reason why plastics remain idle in the landfill, leaching toxic chemicals and adding to the already dire environmental situation.

PLASTICS, PLASTICS EVERYWHERE

Single-use plastics are extremely cheap, easily transformable and available in all possible forms. So, the economically-weaker sections of society prefer and are, in a way, dependent on them for daily sustenance.

The next time you visit a local market, just observe the street vendors serving food items; most of them will be serving in disposable plastic utensils, because it allows them to reduce their costs substantially. Yet, and also ironically, even world-class global companies conveniently use plastic spoons, containers, straws and disposable cups despite having such high profit margins. They also ‘discourage’ well-off consumers who are willing to spend. For them, the danger that single-use plastics pose to the environment is completely irrelevant. When they can earn so much more from not using expensive biodegradable alternatives and when there is no binding extended producer responsibility, or governmental regulation, well, why would they care about the environment at all?

This is where two factors become important: the extent of governmental intervention and the status of research and development on economically viable substitutes to plastics.

ROLE OF THE GOVERNMENT

Tackling environmental pollution has never been an agenda of any political party in India because it is not an issue that the majority of voters are concerned about. India is a signatory to various international treaties and conventions on environmental protection and has framed policies and guidelines such as the Plastic Management Rules 2016 and Amendment 2018 to regulate plastic production, usage and recycling. However, the implementation of these rules has still been a challenge. This makes it very important for the government to take the onus of creating a system where the producers are held responsible for their usage of plastic and its subsequent recycling.

Furthermore, the implementation of policies for promoting research on alternatives to single-use plastics is the need of the hour, because it is a long-term sustainable approach to reduce the plastic footprint.

ALTERNATIVES TO SINGLE-USE PLASTICS

In recent years, eco-friendly alternatives to single-use plastics have been a subject of intense research in developed countries. In India, natural materials of renewable origin and improved forms of traditionally used materials are being utilised as alternatives. However the current limitations with the production of such alternatives are — lack of suitable technology, high cost of manufacturing and limited availability of raw materials to meeting the burgeoning demands of consumerism. This means that there is an urgent need to increase the availability of raw materials, explore new sources of biomass, innovation and cost-effective technology, for commercial production.

It is, of course, evident that the alternatives available presently are not perfect substitutes of plastic items, because of their relative trade-offs in terms of economic cost and properties. This also implies that in addition to social change and ‘mindful research’ and development in the exploration of cost-effective, versatile alternatives need to be fuelled through personal efforts and governmental intervention. Likewise, producers need to be held accountable and the concept of extended producer responsibility needs to be largely implemented too.

Meanwhile, we as, conscious citizens, need to seriously consider and make a decision, also a paradigm shift, as to whether the benefits of using single-use plastics really outweigh its enormous social cost. This cost-benefit analysis will, doubtless, give us the answer and possibly the road-map ahead.

[NB: For a listing of possible alternatives for various single-use plastic items in India CLICK HERE]