Plastics disaster threatens mankind what with its all-round pollution surge globally. India is no exception. Plastic is one of the biggest environmental hazards presently and in future. Items can take up to 1000 years to decompose. For example, plastic bags take 10-1000 years to decompose.
Rightly so, Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister, announced from the ramparts of the Red Fort on 15 August 2019 to eliminate single-use plastic by 2022, beginning Gandhi Jayanti (October 2). Later in the G7 Summit on August 26, 2019, Modi reiterated to free the nation from single-use plastic items. In the past too on the World Environment Day in 2018, Modi vowed to phase out single-use plastics by 2022. Hopefully, civil society, judiciary and media take the cue and enforce Modi’s idea with vigour.
Ironic rivals of Prime Minister Modi have passed derisive remarks against Modi “Plogging” on the Mahabalipuram beach recently. In fact, Modi must be applauded for setting an example as the PM for the people to refrain from using single use plastics and littering them all over with utter disregard to its adverse ecological fallout.
In reality, the plastics story is just over a century old - made from fossil fuels. Only after World War II, production of new plastic products accelerated. Right until late 1980s, personally I used cotton bags to buy vegetables and grocery items. Otherwise, jute bags were commonly used.
Today, plastic economy is real what with “Plastic Age” as sub set of “Technology Age.” For example, plastics have revolutionized medicine with life-saving devices, made space travel possible, lightened cars and jets—saving fuel and pollution—and saved lives with helmets, incubators, plastic bags and food wrappers and equipment for drinking water – almost for every human activity.
From 1957 Indian plastics industry made a vigorous beginning. It took more than 30 years for it to pervade Indian lifestyles. Some of the key facts include: half of all plastics ever manufactured have been made in the last 15 years; from 2.3 million tons in 1950 to 448 million tons by 2015; single-use plastics account for 40 percent of the plastic produced every year; and production expected to double by 2050. Packaging is projected to grow into a $72.6 billion industry in India by 2020 from about $31 billion in 2015, with a proportionate rise in waste volumes.
The growth rate of the Indian plastics industry is one of the highest in the world, with plastics consumption growing at 16% per annum (compared to 10% p.a. in China and around 2.5% p.a. in the UK). India uses about 14 million tones of plastic annually – 11 kg in 2014-15 to 20 kg by 2022. The consumption is likely to grow at 10.4 per cent until 202. Nearly half is single-use plastic.
The State of Gujarat is the leading plastics processing hub and accounts for the largest number of plastics manufacturers. Of the domestic suppliers, Reliance is the largest followed by Chemplast and Finoflex (with the latter two accounting for about 5% of demand). 80% of Polypropylene demand is met by Reliance Industries with around 20% coming from Indian Oil Corporation Ltd (IOCL), Haldia Petrochemicals, Bharat Petroleum Corporation LTD (BPCL) and the Gas Authority of India Ltd (GAIL).
As per data available, there are a total of 50,000 plastic manufacturing units and about 90 percent of these are MSMEs. The ban on single-use plastic will impact a large number of industries including FMCG, auto, infrastructure, etc. The FMCG sector is expected to be hit the most. Almost every FMCG company including HUL, ITC, P&G, Nestle, Britannia, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Bisleri etc., will be impacted by the single use plastics ban. Ban will affect close to 10,000 plastic manufacturing units and render 3-4 lakhs jobless workers.
Plastic consumption by application in India includes: 24% packaging; 23% agriculture; 16% electronics; 10% House ware; 8% building; 4% transportation; 1% furniture; and 14% others. Partially due to the growth of the Indian construction industry (which is growing at approx. 20% p.a.) the demand for PVC is exceptionally high with domestic production barely meeting 50% of the demand.
Main plastics processing technologies include: 58% Injection Molding; 30% Extrusion; 10% Blow Molding; and 2% others. Polypropylene and polyethylene are the two raw materials. Polypropylene will account for the largest growth at 18% (with consumption growing from 2.2 million metric tons to 2.6 million metric tons).
Lack of clarity around what constitutes plastic persists, particularly single-use plastics. Single-use plastics, or disposable plastics, are used only once before they are thrown away or recycled to include: plastic bags, cups, coffee stirrers, plates, cutlery, cotton swabs, small bottles, straws and sachets.
Single-use plastics are the root cause for the massive generation of plastic waste. As per the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) Annual Report (2018), it is due to rapid urbanization, spread of retail chains, plastic packaging from grocery to food, vegetable products, cosmetics consumer items.
Data from 60 major cities shows that around 25,940 tons of plastic waste per day (TPD) is generated in India. Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Ahmadabad and Hyderabad are amongst the top generators, while Gangtok, Panjim, Daman, Dwarka and Kavaratti are lowest on the index. About 60 percent of plastic waste annually is recycled.
Ipso facto, discarded plastics harm animal and possibly human health. Land-based animals, including bovines, elephants, hyenas, zebras, tigers, camels, cattle, and other large mammals consume them resulting in some cases their death. Plastic microfibers have been found in municipal drinking water systems and drifting through the air – air pollution.
Scientists have recently found tiny pieces of plastic falling with the rain in the high mountains, including France’s Pyrenees and the Colorado Rockies. The so-called micro plastics are spread throughout the water column and have been found in every corner of the globe, from Mount Everest, the highest peak, to the Mariana Trench, the deepest trough.
Most important, plastic waste is at epidemic proportions in the world's oceans with an estimated 100 million tones dumped there to date, according to the United Nations (about 8 million tons of plastic waste escapes into the oceans annually). However, marine researchers have found only roughly one per cent of all the plastic that has ever gone into the ocean.
Once at sea, sunlight, wind, and wave action break down plastic waste into small particles, often less than one-fifth of an inch across. Micro plastics break down further into smaller and smaller pieces. Once in the ocean, it is difficult—if not impossible—to retrieve plastic waste. Mechanical systems can be effective at picking up large pieces of plastic, such as foam cups and food containers, from inland waters. But once plastics break down into micro plastics and drift throughout the water column in the open ocean, they are virtually impossible to recover.
Millions of animals are killed by plastics every year, from birds to fish to other marine organisms. Nearly 700 species, including endangered ones, are known to have been affected by plastics. Nearly every species of seabird eats plastics. Seals, whales, turtles, and other animals are strangled by abandoned fishing gear or discarded six-pack rings. Plastic in the ocean is particularly harmful when near land, arguably even worse than if it was sinking into the depths somewhere offshore.
Most marine life is near coastlines—fisheries, agriculture, coral reefs. Large amounts of micro plastic have been found in the intestines of deep-dwelling ocean mammals like whales and also more than 100 aquatic species, including fish, shrimp, and mussels destined for our dinner plates. In many cases, these tiny bits pass through the digestive system and are expelled without consequence. But plastics have also been found to have blocked digestive tracts or pierced organs, causing death.
Based on data collected by researchers in the field, only a small fraction of the plastic that has entered the ocean eventually arrives to one of the five great ocean gyres. According to the study, most of the plastic thought to be currently in the marine environment—somewhere between seventy and a hundred and eighty-nine million metric tons—is stranded, lingering on shorelines and beaches, or buried near the coastline, deep under sand and rocks.
As per experts, the small fraction of the plastic is “possibly slowly circulating between coastal environments with repeated episodes of beaching, fouling”—the accumulation of living and non-living things on the materials’ surface—“defouling and resurfacing.” The older artifacts that the researchers had seen in the middle of the ocean were the few that had escaped the cycle, at least for a while.
The question that everyone ‘Where is all the plastic?’ “Erik van Sebille, an oceanographer, calls the missing 99% as “dark plastic.” For dark plastic, the leading hypothesis has been that the majority of it sinks to the seafloor. Much of it might degrade quickly into micro plastic and then sink; other pieces might sink and then quickly degrade, becoming part of that sedimentary record.
As per researchers, since the 1940s, the quantity of micro plastic in each sediment layer began to increase exponentially at the bottom of Oceans is doubling every fifteen years - almost no oxygen at the bottom at nineteen hundred feet deep. The plastic fragments and fibres that dot this sedimentary core correlate to post-war increases in population and commercial plastic production.
The root cause for the plastic waste developing into human hazard is lack of organized system for management of plastic waste resulting in widespread littering. Ipso facto, garbage collection systems are often inefficient or non-existent. Use and Discard culture reveals the material’s dark side. Plastic trash has become ubiquitous.
Cleaning up all plastic once it enters the environment is likely impossible. Eventually, all of the plastic contamination ends up in the same place—documented deep in the mud. Last year, more than a million people collected nearly a hundred million pieces of trash (23.3 million pounds), including a vacuum cleaner, a boom box, and dentures. The top item collected was, yet again, the measly cigarette butt (filters contain plastic), followed by food packaging, a $370 billion market in 2020.
So, the time is now to formulate robust and inclusive National Action Plans. Policies that address the crisis at the source—by eliminating single-use plastics, expanding the circular economy (i.e., reusing more materials), and improving sanitation, waste, and recycling infrastructure —hold the most promise for reducing the amount of plastic in our seas.
However, the government today is caught in a dilemma to impose a blanket ban on single-use plastics. It is too disruptive for industry at a time when it is coping with an economic slowdown and job losses. The government's proposed countrywide ban has dismayed consumer firms. An outright ban is ruled out; and needs to be carried out selectively over several phases.
As per media reports, there would be no immediate move to ban plastic bags, cups, plates, small bottles, straws and certain types of sachets. Few suggest that small-sized plastic bottles used for pharmaceutical or health products should be exempted as there is no alternate available. Sachets made from so-called multi-layered packaging should also not be banned, as that could disrupt supplies of products like biscuits, salt and milk.
For now, government will ask states to enforce existing rules against storing, manufacturing and using some single-use plastic products such as polythene bags and Styrofoam. The plan is to spread awareness among people about its ill-effects.
But there is an alternative view. Government must not dither from banning single-use plastic. Industry should look at innovation and new materials. There are hundreds of solutions and alternatives to single-use plastics that are ready now, or in the pipeline. In the past, earthen cups were commonly used to serve tea on Railway platforms in the North. Alternatives such as compostable or biodegradable plastics are available like potato and corn starch, seaweed, and others can replace single use plastics.
Already, Westlife Development Ltd. (WDL) that runs over 300 McDonald’s restaurants in West and South India has reportedly substituted all single-use customer-facing plastic with eco-friendly and biodegradable alternatives. Now, they offer wooden cutlery and replaced plastic cups with paper cups, besides introducing bio-degradable lids for hot and cold beverages and straws made from corn starch extract and will eventually replace them with paper straws.
Also, Parle Agro, the maker of Frooti and Appy Fizz, said it will invest Rs 50 crore over the next three years to implement a PET plastic waste management (PWM) program. Parle Agro has tied up with the Indian Pollution Control Association (IPCA) and Nepra to collect and recycle 100% of its PET bottle waste. The plastic recycled by the company plastic will be utilized by textiles and other non-allied industry segments. In all, Parle Agro will facilitate an annual collection of 310 crore PET bottles, along with its waste management partners, totalling to nearly 50,000 metric tons of PET waste.
Even the country's largest consumer goods firms such as Coca-Cola, Diageo, Bisleri, PepsiCo among others announced their participation in a plastic waste management entity called “Karo Sambhav". Earlier at Starbucks, consumers will now be offered compostable straws, lids, take-away cups, wooden cutlery and stirrers, and even carry bags and napkins from recycled paper.
Next, 10 states/UTs (Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Meghalaya, Odisha, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu) are currently sending their collected plastic waste to cement plants for co-processing,
12 states/UTs (Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Nagaland, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Puducherry and West Bengal) are using plastic waste for polymer bitumen road construction, and four states/UTs (Chandigarh, Delhi, Karnataka are Madhya Pradesh) are using the plastic waste for waste-to-energy plants and oil production. More recently, students at IIT Delhi successfully converted SUPs into diesel under the ‘Make in India’ project.
Finally, recycling reduces the volume of non-recyclables that must be disposed of using methods such as co-processing in cement kilns, plasma pyrolysis or land-filling. Industry must facilitate collection and recycling with the help of city administrations. India has one of the highest plastics recycling rates in the world (an estimated 47% of all plastics is recycled) with huge demand for recycled plastics, especially for commodity plastics such as PP, PET, PS, LDPE and HDPE.
An amendment to the PWM Rules in 2018, has fixed a six-month deadline for producers to arrange for recovery of waste in partnership with State Urban Development departments. But, it has made little progress. Neither is plastic marked with numerical symbols (such as 1 for PET, 4 for Low Density Polyethylene, 5 for Polypropylene and so on) to facilitate recycling.
Most important, in June 2018, the state of Maharashtra banned single-use plastics and notified the banned categories to include: PET bottles with less than 200ml capacity; plastic mineral water pouches; and plastic shopping bags with or without handles. Single-use disposable items made of thermocol like cups, plates, saucers, spoons and straws have also been outlawed, as have plastic and thermocol decoration material. Also, the area around the Taj Mahal is declared plastic-free zone.
Also, penalties vary by state, the nature of offence, and the category and weight of items used. In Maharashtra, a first-time offence will invite a fine of Rs 5,000, while the second offence will face a penalty of Rs. 10,000. A third-time offender can get slapped with 3 months’ imprisonment and Rs 25,000 as fine. Goa has approved a bill setting fines from Rs 2,500 to Rs 3 lakhs, for manufacture, sale and use of single-use plastic items and carry bags. In Himachal, the fine for using one-time plastic cutlery is Rs 1000 (individuals) and Rs 5000 (commercial establishments). Other states need to replicate them.
In sum, Modi Ji has set the vision or road map ahead to pre-empt the looming environmental disaster. “We the People” ably inspired by the civil society activists, media, industry and the State Governments must expeditiously formulate policies and effectively enforce them. Alternatives are available and already implemented by few organizations. Innovations are providing breakthroughs. The shift from plastics to alternatives is certainly a Himalayan Challenge; but must be overcome.