On World Environment Day, the Gas Authority of India Limited (GAIL) put out an advertisement propagating plastic as the alternative to the felling of trees. Is this a genuine concern or a red herring to confuse public opinion? Is there any truth in allegations of a darker game in the GAIL strategy? Here are two entirely different perspectives on the matter
A fair hearing
No discourse on development is possible today without adequate consideration of the environment component. There seems to be, however, a lack of basic understanding that environment and industrialisation or infrastructure development are complementary, not mutually exclusive, aspects of a country's growth and its people's well-being. The lookout, therefore, has been for a material that would combine convenience of usage with the most balanced combination of cost and functional merits from the ecological point of view. This is where plastic has scored over its nearest substitutes, like metal, glass or paper. In fact, if consumption grows at the current rate, India will be the third-largest polymer consumer in the world by 2010.
The flipside to this phenomenal growth is the misconceptions about plastics that are gaining ground, especially of late. Decision-makers, as also the people, are increasingly convinced that plastics are harmful, and its use should be banned. The possibility that a blanket ban on plastics could actually increase the environmental burden does not figure in these calculations. It is important, therefore, to understand the issue in the right perspective.
A high rate of growth of consumerism leads to a constant rise in municipal solid waste. A more balanced approach to high waste generation is recycling. We need to adopt the slogan "we don't waste, we recycle". It is necessary to consider a few facts and figures to understand this concept better. The per capita consumption of plastics in India is 3.5 kg as compared to the global average of 19 kg. Plastics constitute three per cent of India's solid waste stream as against a world average of eight per cent. The Indian plastic industry also has an efficient recycling mechanism in place. About 60 per cent of all plastic in India is recycled as against a world average of 15-20 per cent.
With these figures in mind, one proceeds to consider an environment without plastics:
• We would have had to use iron pipes to transport drinking water. This means a 40 per cent higher consumption of electrical energy due to corrosion and pumping inefficiency.
• Without milk pouches, chances of adulteration and related hazards increase multifold. Also, the changeover from glass bottles to plastic pouches saves us approximately 27.6 billion units of thermal power in terms of energy consumption over a ten-year period.
• Had paper been the only mode of packaging, we would have felled 20 million trees matured over a period of 10 years, apart from generating highly toxic chemical pollutants that would have been discharged from paper mills. Additionally, the use of plastic crates for transportation helps in controlling the denudation of forests.
• The Chemicals and Petrochemicals Manufacturers' Association (cpma) has estimated that if plastics bags are used instead of jute bags for packaging foodgrain and sugar, there would be an estimated saving of Rs 12,000 crore, which is lost due to spoilage in jute bags.
Reusability and recyclability are the two major attributes of any material that is to be regarded as eco-friendly. Instead of launching 'Ban Plastics' or 'Use No Plastics' campaigns, there should be awareness generation on wrong littering habits. An effective campaign or policy in this regard would necessarily involve the government, industry and public. There is, in fact, a need for a nodal agency that manages recycling and reusability of plastics. With such policy initiatives, there is also a need to encourage research on a breakthrough in the area of biodegradability of plastics.
It is important that our environment management strategies are infused with a degree of professionalism. It demands as much attention as our businesses. It is important that the issue of environment be addressed in the right perspective. Emotional or prejudiced opinions should not be allowed to halt India on its way to development.
Proshanto Banerjee is chairman and managing director, Gas Authority of India Limited
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