While the first part of the series in the previous issue discussed harmful effects of plastic and India’s plastic ban, the current issue discusses the extent of the problem, regional and industrial segregation of plastic pollutants and certain innovative ideas for remediation.
Managing Plastic Pollution II
Annual plastic production increased nearly 200-fold between 1950 and 2015, reaching 381 million tonnes in 2015. This is roughly equivalent to the mass of two-thirds of the world population, plastic manufacturing soared in the early 2000s as did single use plastic. The resultant plastic waste could not be managed sustainably because of lack of will, capacity and infrastructure.
Regionwise, the maximum plastic waste i.e. 57 million tonnes was generated in East Asia and the Pacific, 45 million tonnes in Europe and Central Asia, and 35 million tonnes in North America (in 2016). Amongst industries, packaging accounts for almost half of global plastic waste.
Global plastic waste generation by Industry 2015
Generating nearly 26,000 tonnes of plastic waste every day, India ranks 15th amongst worst plastic polluting countries in the world. According to a study by FICCI, 43% of India’s plastics are used in packaging and are single-use.
In India, the key reasons for rampant plastic pollution are numerous unlicensed single use manufacturers, indifferent attitude of municipal agencies towards plastic waste management etc.. Also, consumption of plastic is way higher than India’s capacity to recycle.
Possible remedies – Restrictive Measures
What is required is an all-inclusive strategy to control manufacture, consumption as well as disposal of plastic.
Ban on plastic is one way to do this and it has been done quite effectively in countries like Rwanda and Zanzibar (in Tanzania. A ban on all thin plastic bags and a tax on thicker bags by the Chinese government led to a 66% drop in plastic bag use.
The single use plastic ban by the Indian government too could be a strong check if implemented effectively. This measure however will have to be complemented by establishing better waste management systems coupled with an effective municipal solid waste (MSW) plan, one that would include collection and transportation of segregated waste including identification of affordable plastic alternatives.
Ireland is one of the leading countries which has tackled plastic bag consumption. Displaying considerable foresight, Ireland levied a high tax on plastic bags as far back as 2002. This not only controlled use of plastic bags but also generated revenue from the tax (on the continued plastic bag usage) which was spent on environmental protection. This measure caused an instant impact, with plastic bag consumption dropping by 94%.
The UK government passed a policy (with effect from 2022) that encourages the use of recycled package products through plastic packaging tax on production and import.
Innovative practices for plastic waste recycle and reuse
While above-mentioned measures are used as deterrents for plastic consumption, unfortunately only 12% of the plastic waste generated worldwide is recycled.
Some countries have devised creative methods to mitigate the plastic menace i.e. a program was introduced in an Indonesian city to collect used plastic bottles in exchange for free bus rides. The concept of “precycling” (bringing own mugs and reusable bags), in South Korea’s supermarkets, grocery stores and cafes is curbing the consumption of disposables.
Ambikapur in Chhattisgarh launched a ‘garbage café’ with the innovative idea of providing food to ragpickers in exchange for plastic waste, this collected plastic is used to lay roads. This is a good way to manage plastic waste and use it productively, these roads also last longer and are more resistant to floods and water damage.
Conceptos Plasticos, a social enterprise in Colombia, has developed stackable bricks from waste plastic and rubber, these bricks can be manufactured quickly, are durable and economical.
Considering the enormity of the plastic menace, there cannot be piece-meal or a half-hearted measure to control this problem. A holistic approach combining restrictive measures i.e. bans and taxes on manufacturing and consumption of plastic, efficient waste management and recycle with reuse of plastic needs to be adopted. This audacious goal not only requires the will but also a concerted effort from governments, policy makers, industries, academicians, research scientists, civil society and public at large.