The ban on single-use plastics- The New Indian Express

This morning a little girl gave me a plastic-wrapped sweet to celebrate her birthday. She waited till I opened the wrapper, popped the sweet into my mouth and told her that it was very sweet. She ran away, leaving me with the wrapper. Coming from a famous company, the wrapper was well over 100 microns in thickness. But it is still limited to a single use. How could I reuse a sticky plastic sweet wrapper? Or a biscuit packet wrapper? Or a milk sachet? 

When I first kept house, I would shop from the nearest kirana store. The shopkeeper would weigh the rice, daal, etc., and pack each in an old newspaper rolled into a cone and tied with a thick string. Then came the supermarkets. The kiranas closed down and everything—milk, rice, dhal, spices—were packed and sold in plastic bags. They may be over 100 microns, but after the housewife empties each item into her containers, she throws the plastic bags away. Shops are not allowed to give plastic bags. Instead, they charge between Rs 5 and Rs 10 for a thick plastic bag. That just makes it one more way of making money. A biodegradable alternative is a recycled paper bag. Since you cannot charge money for it, it is rarely used in large shops and supermarkets.

Plastics are a petroleum by-product, with a wide range of synthetic and semi-synthetic materials which use polymer as the primary ingredient. They can be moulded, extruded or pressed into different shapes due to their plasticity. But plastics are not degradable and can live in the soil or water for thousands of years. Today, plastic waste has become the biggest problem in the world, destroying ecosystems and animal lives and even creating a plastic island in the ocean. There are a few thousand chemicals involved in the production of plastics. Many are carcinogenic. One can avoid ingesting carcinogens by using natural materials. Animals eat food waste thrown away in plastic bags. That affects their digestive system, leading to their death. Cattle in cities and elephants in the wild succumb in this manner. Discarded plastic nets force freshwater dolphins to drown. Birds pick up plastic to build their nests, ending with plastic rope wounds around their legs. Over a million birds die every year after ingesting plastics. Annually, over 400 million tonnes of plastic products are produced. Restaurants in Chennai, for example, use nearly 5,250 kgs of plastic daily to pack takeaways. Globally, 50 billion bottles of water are bought each year, of which 80% end up in landfills. 

Tiny pieces of plastic, barely visible to the naked eye, are milling around the seas and oceans. These particles are known as microplastics and are formed when large plastic objects such as shopping bags and food containers break down. Microplastics are minuscule and easy for wildlife to consume, whether deliberately or accidentally. A garbage truck full of plastic ends up in the ocean every minute, killing over a million species each year. Plastics transfer from fish to the plate and their potential effects on human health can be devastating. 

Plastic waste also affects soil fertility. Improper plastic waste disposal blocks the drainage systems of our cities, leading to flooding and providing a breeding place for mosquitoes, causing mosquito-borne diseases. Discarded plastic bags prevent rainwater from seeping into the ground. Only 7% of plastics are recycled. Burning plastic releases poisonous chemicals that damage the health of humans and the planet. Black carbon is released, which has a global warming potential of up to 5,000 times more than carbon dioxide.

There are alternatives. The simplest is the cloth or jute bag. Shops can use bags made of old newspapers or recycled paper. Food can be packed in the leaves of banana or mandarai plants. Mandarai leaves will not let even liquids leak through. Supermarkets can weigh grains and lentils and pack them in recycled paper bags. There are biodegradable alternatives for everything. Forty years ago, before segregation became fashionable, the C P Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation separated biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste by keeping two large bins—one was green, and another was made of aluminium. While the biodegradable waste went into a vermin-composting pit or corporation garbage truck, the non-biodegradable waste was (and still is) picked up every Saturday by a rag picker. It is not very difficult. Banning single-use plastics is not enough. The world has to find biodegradable alternatives and decrease the use of plastics. Very few people segregate their trash and most do not know how to. Multi-coloured trash cans are essential and people should learn what trash goes into which can. Even school children are not taught about the mal-effects of plastics on the environment. Television channels fleetingly mentioned the ban on single-use plastic on July 1, 2022, many without giving the reason.

Governments everywhere have ignored the expanding use of plastics in food, cosmetics, water cans, bottles, etc. The plastic industry says there is no evidence of risk, but the absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence. The chemicals that go into the construction of plastics are sufficient evidence of the health risks involved. The success of the single-use plastic ban is doubtful, considering the lack of implementation of laws in India, especially environmental laws.

The world is looking to halt climate change. Reducing plastic use helps reduce environmental degradation and halts climate change. Driving along highways, on the hillside, along the coast and in cities, one cannot ignore the ugly sight of mounds of plastic. When the monsoon arrives, the plastic mounds halt the passage of rainwater underground, causing floods and leading to disease and water shortages. Unless we think green, go green and act green, our world will continue to be a massive garbage bin.

Nanditha Krishna
Historian, environmentalist and writer based in Chennai

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