Maharashtra has imposed a ban on single-use disposable plastic vide the Maharashtra Plastic and Thermocol products (Manufacture, usage, Sale, Transport, Handling and Storage) Notification, 2018 to reduce plastic waste that presents not only an environmental challenge but also a major socio-economic development challenge which impacts biodiversity, infrastructure, tourism and livelihoods.
Also burning plastic in open air by people out of ignorance, releases gases – namely dioxin and furan – which are highly carcinogenic. No doubt, the most critical environmental issue is management of plastic waste. To beat this, over the last ten years a remarkable shift in policies associated with plastic has taken place in countries across the world. Many governments have started to ban or to put restrictions on sale or free distribution of plastic carrier bags in countries over the world, including India.
Maharashtra is the 18th state to ban plastic. The other 17 states that banned plastic use have failed to crack down on the problem. The likely reasons are the intervention of the corporate brigade and vested interests, but most importantly the attitude of people. Thereby, success of the policy to impose ban on using plastic without availability of alternative materials in all respects depends on the fact that it must be consistent with public opinion and have a definite control target.
According to researchers, recycle and reuse are practical environmental solutions to the problem of plastic waste. But an important task to overcome the key knowledge gap is to measure the extent, distribution and impact of debris on land, rivers, estuaries, islands and along coastlines.
This is practically neglected. The traditional mindset of engineers and scientists in India, with scant regard to sound scientific evidence available in literature, is the major impediment to success in developing management and remedial strategies for plastic waste by identifying and quantifying the sources, sinks, ?ows and types of waste.
Inert plastic waste can be converted into energy (thermal and mechanical) via a light-controlled process through the simple chemical activation of plastic waste, including polyethylene, polypropylene, and polyvinyl chloride. This is done in many other countries.
Another approach may be the polluter-pays principle that needs to integrate systemic thinking, with technological innovations and policy reforms at all stages of the supply chain, to promote sustainable practices. The most important component in plastic waste management are “collection modalities”.
According to the Central Pollution Control Board, 9,000 tonnes out of 15,000 tonnes plastic produced in India per day are collected and processed/recycled. This figure needs to be verified in the backdrop of today’s plastic pollution problem which have not been mitigated successfully by recycle and reuse.
The best alternative is to frame a policy to ban plastic and to charge for plastic use till cheap bio-degradable shopping bags are developed using advanced science and technology. In many countries including India, artisans are preparing bags, plates, buckets etc of various sizes and shapes using water hyacinth, coconut tree, bamboo, palm tree, grasses etc.
Now these are not cost effective. But incremental innovation of existing technology will obviously reduce the cost in future. Material like plastic straw, which is not a necessity but more of a luxury causing great harm to our environments must be banned. Moreover, there are paper straws, aluminum straws and bamboo straws that are much safer for our environment.
Obviously ban on plastic bags or levy of a charge has had a positive effect on consumer behavior. But the most important aspect is to know about the underlying processes, to explore why and under which conditions these policies would be effective, and how to improve them. Imposing a ban followed by penalty on plastic bag use may cause negative consequences as it may be a “shove measure” aiming to modify customer’s behavior.
The underlying process is not clear, so we do not know for sure about consistency of behavior of the people in the long-term as there is no cheap alternative. A plastic bag charge is quite effective to increase use of one’s own bags among consumers in cities, towns and even in villages. This will be a sustainable approach.
The ?nancial implications were always related to policy opposition because the free-of-charge bag has immediate positive consequences (i.e., comfort, ease), while its negative consequences (i.e., environmental damage) are always uncertain and distant in time. Common people do not realise this when they use plastic bags. Importantly, a plastic bag charge may activate environmental motives to bring one’s own shopping bags.
It can be observed at supermarket counters that many consumers support plastic bag charges to improve environmental quality. Many consumers who carried their own shopping bag after the policy implementation are now influenced by intrinsic motives (environmental and hedonic) rather than extrinsic (?nancial) ones. Clearly, this suggests a positive behavior change of many consumers to protect the environment and human health from risks of plastic waste.
Therefore, there is need for education at all levels to inculcate environmental knowledge and sustain this behavior even when incentives would no longer be available. Moreover, all consumers must be exposed to a media campaign announcing the ban, the charge, and the environmental bene?ts of reduced plastic bag use emphasising the role of citizen participation. This will reduce negative attitudes.
The best option to manage plastic waste will depend on collation of scientific information and development of a conceptual model to tackle this problem. Since a lot of scientific information is already available, a sincere effort is now needed to evolve the management strategy.
The writer is a former Senior Scientist, Central Pollution Control Board.