Plastic Ban – a step in the right direction?
Plastic has become ubiquitous, it is everywhere, on land, in water, in food and if recent studies are to believed, in snow and even in air! According to a report by National Geographic, microplastics (tiny plastic fragments), believed to be present in the air, have found their way even to the remote regions of the Arctic.
Though this is a global issue, India is feeling it more acutely because of lack of adequate plastic waste disposal systems. The Indian government has announced that India is committed to eliminating single-use plastic and encouraging development of environment-friendly substitutes as well as an efficient plastic collection and disposal mechanism.
Why is a ban necessary?
Plastic being non-biodegradable, ends up polluting the roadsides, landfills, lakes and oceans thereby not only endangering animal/marine life but also entering the food chain; currently 85% of marine litter is plastic.
A Report by Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) highlights the possible negative effects of careless disposal of plastics in the Arabian Sea. The research suggests that such accumulation of plastics can hamper the growth of mangroves in Mumbai which play a key role in preventing floods.
Added to this is the fact that plastic manufacture processes release toxic chemicals into the environment. Certain ‘carcinogenic, neurotoxic, and hormone-disruptive’ chemicals that are standard ingredients of plastic production cause water, land and air pollution.
The other problem is the impact on health. Not only are harmful chemicals released during manufacture of plastic (as mentioned above) but certain additives that are often added to give plastic the desired mechanical properties can cause fatal diseases among living beings. These include,
- BPA or Bisphenol A, often used in food and beverages containers, such as water bottles. BPA exposure can affect the brain, cause cancer and hypertension and lead to impaired immune function.
- Plasticisers or Phthalates, primarily used in PVC, to make it flexible, including children’s toys, flooring, clothes and myriad other everyday items. PVC is believed to be a causative factor for health disorders like cancer, birth defects, bronchitis, ulcers, skin diseases etc.
- Flame retardants, used in electric and electronic equipment, upholstery and other items to provide fire safety benefits. These substances have been banned by the UN due to their detrimental effects on environment and human health.
Essentially, plastic is harmful either when broken down or when it is combined with chemicals (as indicated above).
Drives against plastic
- Chile’s Constitutional Court ratified a bill that bans retail use of plastic bags across the country in July, 2018. Chile’s ban is the first country-wide one in the Americas. Similar bans have been passed in China, Kenya, France, and elsewhere.
- Peru has banned visitors from carrying single-use plastics into Peru’s 76 natural and cultural protected areas, including Machu Picchu, Manu, Huascarán and national museums.
- The Canadian Government banned single-use plastics earlier this year and announced that other (unspecified) steps to reduce plastic pollution would also be taken up shortly.
- US City Seattle banned the use of plastic straws and utensils in bars and restaurants in July 2018.
- Madras High Court has recently passed an order banning the sale of plastic bottles in the Nilgiris to prevent plastic pollution in the hill district. As an alternative, the district administration has installed water vending machines from where the public can draw water (in their own receptacles) at a nominal price.
Arguments against the ban
There is an economic argument against the plastic ban especially in the current scenario of economic ‘slowdown’ of the country given that the plastic industry provides employment to over a million people (directly or indirectly). Some feel that a ban only on plastic/polythene bags should be enforced instead of all single use plastics. Besides, there is a belief that the key problem is the ‘attitude towards consumption and disposal’ i.e. it is not the product itself that is harmful to the environment but its ‘misuse and improper disposal’.
While waste disposal and environmental management remain important factors in reducing the plastic footprint, the impact will be minimised only when there is a restriction on its manufacturing and indiscriminate use. Undoubtedly, there are economic ramifications of bans on plastic, but these do not justify its unrestricted use across various sectors. Bottomline is that merely banning plastic may not be the best solution, instead finding affordable and innovative alternatives to plastic is the need of the hour.