The world celebrates World Environment Day each year in June and each year, the United Nations determines a theme or a goal, towards which multiple organizations and institutions along with the United Nations make a concerted effort. The theme reflects some of the most pressing current environmental issues, with this year’s theme being #BeatPlasticPollution.
Usually, the themes for World Environment Day are associated with tree plantation, forest conservation, renewable energy, etc. The fact that the United Nations decided to focus on plastic pollution in 2018 should tell us that the problem is immense. Unsurprisingly, India is one of the most plastic polluted countries, containing 14 of the most polluted cities of the world, according to World Health Organization. India is, therefore, a focal point of this campaign.
Our country has an ongoing Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, which in principle should have addressed the problem of plastic waste and plastic pollution, but the reality tells another story.
According to Global Citizen, at least 8 million tons of plastic enters the oceans each year. That’s equivalent to emptying a garbage truck of plastic into an ocean every minute.
Moreover, 60-90% of marine litter is plastic-based. The amount of plastic in the world’s oceans could increase by a factor of 10 in the next decade. Cigarette butts, plastic bags, fishing gear and food and beverage containers are the most common forms of plastic pollution found in the oceans.
How did we get here?
Ocean Conservancy reports that “Global production of plastic increased from 2 million tons in 1950 to 380 million tons by 2015, a growth rate 2.5 greater than that of the global economy. Half of that amount was produced in just the last 13 years.
If this global trend in production continues, humans will have produced 34 billion tons of plastic by 2050 (100 times greater than the weight of all the humans on the planet), four times more than we have made to date. Close to half—46% of that (a whopping 12 billion tons)—is expected to be discarded in landfills or the natural environment.
As a material, plastic is long-lasting and durable and doesn’t degrade. This is one of the reasons plastic can be so useful when it comes to human health and food safety–especially in the developing world. But this also means that plastics accumulate in the natural environment and landfills, leading to what Geyer and his coauthors call a growing concern of a “near-permanent contamination of the natural environment.”
So what was heralded as a low cost, lightweight, durable solution to packaging problems, has now become a problem beyond anyone’s control.
The facts about India’s plastic industry as declared by Center for Science and Environment are as follows:
Down To Earth reports, Plastindia Foundation—a body of major associations, organisations and institutions connected with plastics estimates that in 2017-18 alone, India consumed 16.5 million tonnes of plastic. Worse, according to industry body FICCI, 43% of India’s plastics are used in packaging and are single-use plastic.
Single-use plastics are those which are used only once e.g. the packaging of your bag of chips, soft drinks, mineral water, straws and cups used by coffee brands, plates and cups used in parties, weddings, bags used by hawkers and street vendors and even the cups used by roadside tea sellers. Consumption has clearly outstripped India’s capacity to recycle.
The government has tried but failed to implement plastic bans successfully. Policy is also not implemented strongly enough to hold the corporates accountable. CSE reports that “The complete ban on ‘non-recyclable multi-layered plastic’ which was implied in the 2016 rules was removed through some clever wordplay.”
When it is clear that the Government and corporates aren’t doing enough to recognise and address plastic pollution, the only other stakeholder that is responsible in this chain is us, the individual consumers. While corporate investments in better packaging are eminent, Government policies will make sure that there is Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), it is eventually upon us to undergo a behavioural shift.
Here are some ways, though not easy and complete by themselves, that will definitely add to the multi-faceted effort of beating plastic pollution:
7 things you can do to #BeatPlasticPollution:
When you buy groceries, medicines or get something from a street vendor, say NO to the plastic bags. It doesn’t matter that it is thicker than 50 microns, it will still be a menace. Carry your cloth or reusable plastic bag.
It is simple economics – the more people buy sustainably packaged products, the cheaper they’ll become. Look out for those brands which don’t use plastic packaging.
Carry your own bottle of water, coffee mugs, reusable straw, Tupperware boxes for taking remaining food from those restaurants dinners.
The companies that sell us things in single-use plastic packaging do so due to economic reasons. Talk to your favorite brand, ask them to #SayNoToPlastics. Globally, brands have started realizing this problem and are willing to work towards it. Do your job, write to them, call them out on social media. Be persistent till they change!
The next time some political leader asks you for their vote, or even if they don’t, ask them what are they doing to address plastic pollution? Do they even think this is a problem? Ask them to set up recycling units under your municipal ward.
There are about 7500 plastic recycling units across the country. But, even they cannot come inside our homes to segregate waste that we generate. Look at the waste you generate, reduce it if possible and segregate plastic and non-plastic waste. This will help the plastic recycling supply chain.
Even if you do most of the things mentioned above, there’s still a ton of plastic waste that we have generated over the past few decades. It will not go away by itself. Join your municipal corporation or an NGO or call your friends and organise a clean-up. Clean your street, school, college, station, pond, river or beach. Make sure that the plastic collected goes to recycling.
The plastic pollution problem is like no other, both in terms of its scale and its rapid increase. We will all need to work on it collectively if we do not want our rivers to choke, oceans to die and fish to perish. Let us all take a pledge to #BeatPlasticPollution Lastly, talk about this with as many people as you can. We can keep debating about our political ideologies, let us first save the planet we live on!