Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Our dirty dozen

According to the recently-released Plastic Overshoot Day report, India is among the 12 countries responsible for 60% of the planet’s mismanaged plastic waste. This dirty dozen’s members are China, India, Russia, Brazil, Mexico, Vietnam, Iran, Indonesia, Egypt, Pakistan, the United States and Turkey. The report also revealed that global plastic waste generation has risen by 7.11% since 2021. The world is estimated to have generated 220 million tons of plastic waste this year, 70 million tons of which will end up polluting the environment. Though the report classifies India as a low-waste-producing polluter due to its low per capita plastic waste production, it estimated the country’s expected mismanaged waste in 2024 at 7.4 million tons, which is very high. It also claimed India is estimated to release an average of 3,91,879 tons of microplastics into the environment and 31,483 tons of chemical additives into waterways. By April next year, the report projected, almost half of the world’s population will be living in areas where plastic waste has already exceeded the capacity to manage it. It’s almost two years since the nationwide ban on several common single-use plastic (SUP) items. But the move has run along expected lines in many States, including Nagaland ~ straight into the barrier of costly alternatives. In August 2021, the Union Government had notified the rules to prohibit the manufacture and sale of several use-and-throw plastic products including cutlery items, ice cream, balloon sticks, sweet boxes, invitation cards, cigarette packs, PVC banners measuring fewer than 100 microns and ear-buds. On July 1 last year, the nationwide enforcement began. More than 40% of the over 25,000 tonnes of plastic garbage that are produced daily in India, according to reports, go uncollected ~ frequently clogging sewage systems and even endangering cattle. Thus, the need for measures to restrict the use of this non-degradable synthetic material cannot be overstated. Already, Government officials are claiming that a large number of plastic units are switching to alternative packaging materials such as cotton, jute, paper and crop stubble waste. But the alternatives sector doesn’t produce at a level that will allow companies across India to switch to more environmentally-friendly products. Furthermore, the retailer and the customer are burdened by the existing costs of plastic alternatives. This is the case even in a small place like Dimapur. According to shopkeepers in Dimapur, they have to pay five times more than the amount paid for a kilo of plastic grocery bags in order to purchase the same quantity of non-woven bags, which are promoted as the easiest alternative to plastic bags. These are high costs for businesses to bear during this transitional period, particularly for small enterprises. Furthermore, there are far stronger incentives to violate the restriction given the present rates of inflation. The distant threat of paying hefty fines won’t blunt that motivation. Another option is the paper grocery bags, but the customised bags are sold in units rather than kilogram ~ again costly alternative for small businesses. Traders still point to the absence of reasonably priced alternatives and the prevalence of SUPs in nearly every product’s packaging as the main issues. SUPs are still the least expensive choice available, so as long as the leaks are not corrected and alternatives can lessen the use of SUPs, the issue will persist because plastics are hard to surpass in terms of price. The challenges pertaining to the ban on plastic items, therefore, reveal an old fault line ~ the enduring contradictions between the ties that bind development to ecology. The Government must create, promote and support innovative alternatives that take care of the problem of businesses having to pay more for SUP substitute items. These are tougher jobs than issuing ban orders. But they have a much better shot at reducing the damage plastics do. As the Plastic Overshoot Day report asserted: “The assumption that increased recycling and waste management capacity will solve the plastic crisis is flawed. Without aggressive reduction at the source, our struggle against plastic pollution will be a holding pattern at best”.