Plastic Peril

Plastics are useful, but their use and disposal should be bound by a strong policy

By P P Sangal
Published: Thursday 31 December 1998

SHOULD the use of plastics be banned? This question has triggered off a debate on the production, use and ultimate disposal of items made of plastics in India. Three states - Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and Goa - have already passed legislations banning their use. During Sahib Singh Verma's tenure as chief minister of Delhi, there was an immense pressure on the state government to bring out a similar legislation.

In India, about 60 per cent of plastic waste is recycled. This contains toxic and hazardous substances. Hence, its recycling is not ecofriendly for two reasons. Firstly, a large number of small-scale units, hardly equipped with suitable cleaning facilities, recycle these wastes. Thus, plastic items produced from recycled plastics are unhygenic and contaminated. As these plastic bags are often used for packing food items, vegetables, fruits and medicines, the harm caused to the public is immeasurable. Secondly, even if proper facilities are available, toxic effluents and fumes are produced while cleaning the wastes before recycling.

Out of the remaining 40 per cent of plastic waste, rag pickers either use it or sell it to small vendors after an ordinary wash. Only a small portion of the waste finds its way into landfills and incineration plants which, in most cases, are substandard. Deadly toxins from landfills often contaminate groundwater and ruin agricultural lands.

But banning the use of plastics will not end the problems. From an environment perspective, the use of plastics offer many advantages. For instance, it helps conserve forests as the we of paper is reduced; conserve water in minor irrigation systems; and even reduces the wastage of agricultural produce, processed foods and tonnes of cement by airbag seepage through traditional sacks.

In the transport sector, plastics have given us smaller, fuel-efficient vehicles and reduced weight of packaging. This has helped conserve fuel and eventually resulted in less vehicular air pollution. Further, energy requirements for processing plastic products is much less as compared to the metal, glass or paper products.

Since it has several benefits as well, a balanced and a rational view should be taken of the whole issue.
Waste management We do not have a scientific plastic waste management policy and a definite programme based on that policy. In the us and European countries, only 15 per cent of the plastic waste is recycled using proper technology. The major portion is incinerated. Incineration, through high-quality emission controls, is a far better method of treating plastic waste as compared to dumping them into landfills. It is a Source of renewable energy too. China has gone ahead with plans to incinerate three million tonnes of solid wastes, rich in plastics, to provide one billion kilowatt of energy annually by 2000 and meet, to some extent, its power shortage.

The solution lies in setting up a technical institute comprising environmental engineers, economists, statisticians, representatives from the plastic industry, government and non-government organisations. Such an institute could help evolve a plastic waste management policy and its implementation. It should provide technical guidance to industries responsible for plastic waste disposal.

An institute set up by the Association of Plastics Waste Manufacturers for European Countries has been actively working on "plastics waste management". It has formed special task forces for investigating all aspects of plastics and their environmental impacts. Similar institutes have been set up in the us, Canada, Japan and Singapore, to name a few. The institutes regularly bring out useful publications and carry out environmental awareness programmes.

The government should formulate a national plastic policy immediately. Or else, the plastics industry might suffer serious repercussions in the near future. It should help the industry in its efforts as it would be in the national interest to promote varied and valuable eco-friendly uses of plastics.

---P P Sangal is a consultant on environment, rural development and planning, and former consultant to United Nations.

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