Context:

  • A new study by an NGO has found evidence of a modern-day scourge, microplastics, in the river, with the highest concentrations in Varanasi and Kanpur, followed by Haridwar.
  • What the data show is the alarming presence of plastic filaments, fibres, fragments, and in two places, microbeads, with their composition pointing to both industrial and secondary broken-down plastics from articles of everyday use.

Relevance:

  • GS Paper 3: Conservation, Environmental Pollution and Degradation, Environmental Impact Assessment.

Mains Questions:

  1. Plastic waste around the world is threatening the food web and the crisis demands a new global treaty modelled on the Montreal Protocol and the Paris Agreement. Discuss 15 Marks

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. Findings of the report:
  2. About Single use plastic:
  3. Impacts of single use plastic (SUP):
  4. Challenges with banning single use plastic
  5. Way forward

Findings of the report:

  • The data show is the alarming presence of plastic filaments, fibres, fragments, and in two places, microbeads, with their composition pointing to both industrial and secondary broken-down plastics from articles of everyday use.
  • These range from tyres, clothing, food packaging, bags, cosmetics with microbeads, garland covers and other municipal waste.
  • The finding of significant levels of microscopic particles invisible to the naked eye at below 300 micrometres to 5 millimetres in the country’s holiest river.

About Single use plastic:

  • 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, stirrers, styrofoam cups or plates etc.
  • According to Un-Plastic Collective Report, an estimated 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced since the early 1950s, about 60% of which has ended up either in a landfill or the natural environment.
  • India alone generates 9.46 million tonnes of plastic waste every year, around 43% of which comprises single-use plastic.

Impacts of single use plastic (SUP):

  • Environmental pollution: A staggering total of it remains uncollected causing choking of drainage and river systems, littering of the marine ecosystem, soil and water pollution, ingestion by stray animals, and open air burning leading to adverse impact on environment.
  • Disposal issue: They do not biodegrade instead they slowly break down into smaller pieces of plastic called microplastics which again causes more issues. It can take up to thousands of years for plastic bags and Styrofoam containers to decompose.
  • Human health: The toxins, poisons and persistent pollutants present in some of these plastic products leach and enter human bodies where they cause several diseases, including cancer and can damage nervous systems, lungs and reproductive organs.
    • Humans may be consuming anywhere from 39,000 to 52,000 microplastic particles a year through fish (contaminated with microplastics) alone.
  • Marine life & climate change: Plastic waste is at epidemic proportions in the world’s oceans with an estimated 100 million tonnes dumped there to date. o Plastic kills an estimated 1 million sea birds every year and affects around 700 species which get infected by ingesting plastics.
    • Single-use plastics make up on average 49% of beach litter.
  • Increasing Carbon dioxide: If the production, disposal and incineration of plastic continues on its present day growth trajectory, by 2030 these global emissions could reach 1.34 gigatonne per year — equivalent to more than 295 coal-based power plants of 500-MW capacity.
  • More impact on developing countries: The ubiquitous plastic seems to be a curse for the third world countries, because poor countries, especially in Asia, not only have their own plastic dump to deal with but also the plastic trash that lands on their shores from developed countries.
    • India has imported 99,545 MT plastic flakes and 21,801 MT plastic lumps from South America, Africa, Middle East, Europe and Asia.
    • Recently, Malaysia has decided that 450 tonne of contaminated plastic waste would be shipped back to where it came from — Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, China, Japan, Saudi Arabia and the US.

Challenges with banning single use plastic

  • No immediate alternatives: It is difficult to ban the product which is of immense use to the public, without thinking of a sustainable and equally utilitarian alternative product.
    • For e.g. Single-use plastic helps keep medical equipment sterile and safe to use.
    • There is no alternative to plastic yet and sectors like pharmaceuticals, hardware, toys, food processing, food delivery will be in total chaos.
    • While there is increased awareness in urban area, the challenge will be to find a suitable cost effective alternatives in tier II and tier III towns and remote locations.
  • Impact on packaging industry: It impacts most industries since SUP forms part of packaging and hence is linked to all industries directly or indirectly.
    • If plastic sachets made from multi-layered packaging are banned, it can disrupt supplies of key products such as biscuits, salt and milk etc which has made life easier for the poor in terms of affordable small packs and convenience.
    • Ban will increase the price of most FMCG products as manufacturers would try and shift to alternative packaging (which can be costlier).
  • Loss of jobs and revenue: Ban can lead to loss of revenue as well as job loss in the plastic manufacturing industry.
    • India’s plastic industry officially employs around 4 million people across 30,000 processing units, out of which 90% are small to medium-sized businesses.
    • Plastics also support thousands employed informally such as ragpickers as well as street food and market vendors who are reliant on single-use plastic.
  • Attitudinal change: It is difficult as no one takes the responsibility for the single use plastic thrown by them and behaviour change towards the shift from non-using of single use plastic is difficult.

Way forward

  • Define single use plastic: It will help to categorise items according to both their “qualitative and quantitative aspects” as well as “technical attributes”.
  • Effective waste management with focus on segregation, collection and recycling: India uses about 14 million tonnes of plastic annually but lacks an organised system for management of plastic waste, leading to widespread littering.
    • There is a need to invest heavily in improving source segregation of waste and supporting end-to-end segregation of waste to strengthen processing.
  • Policy framework for phased ban: There is need for a National Action Plan or guidelines that focus on implementing plastic ban in a phase-wise manner in terms of urgency.
    • This means products that have alternatives available should be phased earlier than the items which do not have alternatives, simultaneously reinforcing research and development funding for different alternatives and eco-friendly products.
  • Effectively implement Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR): There is need to clear about which items should be included in EPR. Ideally it should include all plastic packaging items that are not collected and become waste instantly, such as multi-layered plastics, PET, milk pouches, sachets, etc.
    • Also, companies are getting together and setting up their own plastic waste collection and recycling schemes for items such as PET, that have a high recycling value (about 90 per cent), but an approach that integrates industry, informal sector and ULB would lead to better implementation of EPR.
  • Focus on innovation in designs: Government should invest money in encouraging the setting up of ventures that provide sustainable products as an alternative to current non-recyclable products.
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