New Delhi: Though the coronavirus induced lockdown has impacted everyone’s lives and brought it to a standstill, there’s a flip side to it as well – cleaner air and water bodies. With the nature thriving and healing while humans are staying indoors to check the spread of the COVID-19, the damage being done to the environment is clear more than ever. One of the most visible damages done to the environment in the last few years is plastic pollution. According to a 2019 study by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), India generates 25,940 tonnes of plastic waste per day.
India has committed to phase out the use of single-use plastic by 2022 but in the time of coronavirus pandemic, the use of plastic products in the form of gloves, face shields, packaging and others has increased. Also, given the impact of coronavirus lockdown on the economy, it looks like there is a new challenge at hand. In between all this, how should India address its plastic waste problem? NDTV speaks to experts to understand the problem of plastic and how to solve it.
Solving The Problem Of Plastic Waste
In 2015, 35-year-old young lawyer from Mumbai along with his 84-year-old neighbour late Harbansh Mathur, started the world’s biggest clean-up project at Versova beach. The duo along with volunteers joining the clean-up every week changed the face of the beach. The results were evident with turtles coming back to the beach and enjoying the spic and span surroundings. Talking about the clean-up project and what is required, Afroz Shah said that action speaks louder than words and added,
It’s not only one man’s effort. It’s about community who rises up to save the oceans, beaches, forests, rivers, and lakes. What we saw at Versova beach was people using their hands and telling that it can be done. People think beach clean-up is about cleaning beaches but it’s not only that. It’s about changing the mind set and habits. We cannot have a world where we keep on producing garbage and then say come on, someone pick it up. That needs to be understood at a pre litter stage, litter stage and post litter stage. Once each one gets it, the world will change.
Further talking about the behavioural change such clean-up projects have brought among volunteers, Afroz shared an anecdote from one of the clean-ups and said,
8-year-old girl saw plastic wrapper, biscuit wrapper thrown and said I’m making efforts to not buy biscuits wrapped in plastic packaging. I’m making an effort to go to the local bakery and buy biscuits. That’s the effort we are looking. Every young person looks at the packaging and talks about making a change.
Actor Dia Mirza who has been vocal about plastic pollution and has even given up single-use plastic items like sanitary pads, water bottle, toothbrush, talked about solving the problem of plastic waste and said,
While we will continue to champion the need to reduce our plastic consumption, it’s equally necessary for us to acknowledge that unless people, government, and industries do not work together to solve the problem, we will not be able to solve it. It takes behavioural change from people, how civic bodies are managing our waste and how are industries being responsible of the waste that they are introducing into the world.
As far as industries are concerned, a law called Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) under which producers have been given a responsibility for the treatment or disposal of post-consumer products. A law was enforced in 2016 but according to the environmentalist Afroz Shah, nothing has been done on it apart from some paper work being initiated left, right and center.
Stressing on civic society taking the lead and putting pressure on industries, Dia Mirza said,
We have to continue to question what is becoming of our waste, why such an excess of waste is being introduced, why is there such excessive packaging in everything. There are things which do not require a certain amount of packaging but are packed excessively. Now a lot of businesses are going to happen online. How are they going to become responsible for their packaging? So that’s one area. Yes, EPR also needs to be implemented and companies need to rework their packaging and designing.
Having said that, Dia believes that there has been a significant shift in the way people have started to perceive their patterns of consumption.
The Impact Of Coronavirus Lockdown And Phasing Out Single-use Plastic
India is making efforts to come out of the lockdown in a staggered manner and at the same time revive economy. But the commitment to phase out single-use plastic may lead to job loss. Talking about the same, Dr Ashok Khosla, Chairman Development Alternative, said,
If you want to create jobs, plastic is not a way to do it. We need to focus on creating jobs based on living with nature.
Bharati Chaturvedi, Director at Chintan, a Delhi based NGO believes that the coronavirus pandemic, lockdown and its impact on the economy is not an obstacle rather an opportunity to phase out plastic. Elaborating on her opinion, Ms Chaturvedi said,
There has been a huge migration back to rural India. We can actually use the skills of those who have gone back from the cities to create alternatives to plastic. We do really have to invest money for a long time, to create livelihoods there. Secondly, there are plastics that can be recycled and after COVID-19, there is a huge opportunity to recycle if we put the taxation correctly. For example, a lot of recycling plants are scared to open up, especially small Tones. We need to push those incentives into them so that they can open up. Otherwise all the plastic will be thrown away and enter the ecosystem. Thirdly, replacing and promoting through economic measures is a great way to change consumption.
Further talking about phasing out of the use of single-use plastic, Dr Ashok stressed on getting away with unnecessary fancy packaging on which we have become far too dependent. Calling to change the concept of packaging, Dr Ashok said,
Plastic can be made from bio sources so the material which is being used for packaging needs to be changed. Use natural material to create packaging and make it in such a way that it becomes biodegradable.
Sharing more ways to phase out plastic, Dr Ashok suggested changing the cost of plastic by taxing it and added,
Figure out the ways in which the cost of making single-use plastic is expensive. The real costs the cost to health, environment, and natural resources. If you don’t include all these costs than plastic is cheap and everybody will buy it. We should be adding taxes to things that are causing damage to the environment, human health, and living system.
Is Plastic Ban A Solution?
In 2018, Maharashtra had imposed a ban on the use of single-use plastic but almost two years down the line, it looks like ban was another effort that went wasted. Sharing her opinion on the impact of a plastic ban in Maharashtra, Dia Mirza said,
When the ban was implemented, we saw a big difference, but very quickly we saw single-use plastic coming right back especially before the elections and nobody could do anything about it. It’s a big indicator that there are lobbies and we will need to do much better than we have done so far to overcome this challenge.
Dia tells that in the initial stage of the ban, it did feel it can bring a difference but now plastic bags are back and with the current pandemic, other things like gloves, masks are being used on a large scale.
Echoing the same, Ms Chaturvedi said,
Maharashtra proves that bans are not the way forward for a country like India because we have weak regulation and enforcement system. Anything that depends on a weak system to run it will fail. Therefore, let’s reduce our consumption by finding alternatives. Waste pickers and kabaddiwala have to be a part of the system. We have to look at a far more innovative approach. You cannot ban things and say it failed because people don’t listen.