Prelims level : Pollution & Waste Management Mains level : GS-III Conservation, Environmental Pollution and Degradation, Environmental Impact Assessment
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  • The Prime Minister of India has stressed on the need to find an alternative to Plastic in order to keep the environment safe. Though there are several alternatives to plastic like glass, paper, cardboard exist, their aspects such as recycling rate, safety, affordability have to be looked into, to promote them as viable alternatives.

What are Single Use Plastics?

  • Single used plastics are those plastics which are used once and thrown away.
  • Almost half of the plastic produced in the world is designed to be used only once.
  • It has been found everywhere, right from depth of the oceans to the peaks of Himalayas.
  • They accumulate in the water bodies and choke the drains which lead to floods.

India and Single use plastics:

  • Single use plastic was banned in India last year on the 150th Birth Anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi.
  • However, its implementation is found to be complex. Because, there is no comprehensive definition for single-use plastic, crucial for any ban to be successful.
  • Governments currently use various definitions.

Plastic pollution in Oceans:

  • Merchant ships expel cargo, sewage, used medical equipment, and other types of waste that releases plastic into the ocean.
  • The largest ocean-based source of plastic pollution is discarded fishing gear – including traps and nets (Ghost nets).
  • Continental plastic litter such as food wrappers & containers, bottles and container caps, plastic bags, straws and stirrers etc. enters the ocean largely through storm-water runoff.

Difficulty in Promoting Alternatives:

  • Although compostable, biodegradable or even edible plastics made from various materials such as bagasse (the residue after extracting juice from sugarcane), corn starch, and grain flour are promoted as alternatives, these currently have limitations of scale and cost.
  • In India in the absence of robust testing and certification to verify claims made by producers, spurious biodegradable and compostable plastics are entering the marketplace.
  • Recently, the CPCB had taken action against the companies that were marketing carry bags and products marked ‘compostable’ without any certification.
  • Petroleum-based plastic is non-biodegradable and usually goes into a landfill where it is buried, or it gets into the water and finds its way into the ocean.

Solutions to the Plastic Problem:

  • Comprehensive mechanism to certify the materials marketed as alternatives, and the specific process required to biodegrade or compost them.
  • Promoting innovation in packaging, upscaling waste segregation, collection and Transmission.Recovering materials from garbage should be a high priority, considering that India is the third highest consumer of materials.
  • Reduction of single use plastic used in multilayer packaging, bread bags, food wrap, and protective packaging.
  • Municipal and pollution control authorities must also be held accountable for the lapses.

Global Best Practices:

  • Plastic bag fee is levied in cities like Chicago and Washington, such interventions could be effective in shaping behaviour change.
  • The European Union is mulling new laws to ban some single-use plastic products including straws, cutlery and plates citing plastic litter in oceans as the concern prompting the action.
  • Countries such as the U.S., Canada and the Netherlands have already put in place regulations to stop the use of microbeads in personal-care products.
  • Encouraging ‘plogging’: Picking up litter while jogging was kick-started on a small scale in a small part of Stockholm about an year ago, it has spread across the globe and India can adopt this as well.

Challenges Ahead:

  • Plastic in oceans and forests are choking flora and fauna. In fact, plastic trash is expected to exceed the fish population by 2050.
  • Microplastics have ability to enter food chain with the highest concentration of the pollutants in it.
  • The Plastic Waste Management Rules Amendment, 2018, omitted explicit pricing of plastic bags that had been a feature of the 2016 Rules.
  • Waste plastic from packaging of from food, cosmetics and groceries to goods delivered by online platforms remains unaddressed.
  • The fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) sector that uses large volumes of packaging, posing a higher order challenge.
  • Lack of adequate infrastructure for segregation and collection is the key reason for inefficient plastic waste disposal.
  • Small producers of plastics are facing the ban, while more organised entities covered by the Extended Producer Responsibility clause continue with business as usual.
  • Lack of consultation with stakeholders such as manufacturers of plastics, eateries and citizen groups: This leads to implementation issues and inconvenience to the consumers.
  • Exemptions for certain products such as milk pouches and plastic packaging for food items severely weaken the impact of the ban.
  • No investment in finding out alternative materials to plug the plastic vacuum: Until people are able to shift to a material which is as light-weight and cheap as plastic, banning plastic will remain a mere customary practice.
  • Lack of widespread awareness among citizens about the magnitude of harm caused by single-use plastic: Without citizens ‘buying in’ to a cause, bans only result in creating unregulated underground markets.
  • No strategy to offset the massive economic impact: Sweeping bans like the one in Maharashtra are likely to cause massive loss of jobs and disruption of a large part of the economy dependent on the production and use of plastic.

Way Forward:

  • Promote alternatives like cotton, khadi bags and bio-degradable plastics.
  • Provide economic incentives to encourage the uptake of eco-friendly and fit-for-purpose alternatives that do not Cause More Harm.
  • Reduce or abolish taxes on the import of materials used to make alternatives.
  • Provide incentives to industry by introducing tax rebates or other conditions to support its transition.
  • Use revenues collected from taxes or levies on single-use plastics to maximize the public good.
  • Boost local recycling: Create jobs in the plastic recycling sector.
  • Individuals and organizations should be encouraged to remove plastic waste from their surroundings and municipal bodies must arrange facilities to collect these articles. Start-up industries shall make use of the opportunity to innovate in the field of waste management, which is the need of the hour.
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