Plastic surgery

The government's notification on plastic will have little effect on the industry or the environment. It is merely a move to silence opposition to the plastic bag

Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

Thanks to sustained pressure from environmentalists and NGOs, and the awareness generated about health and environment damage done by plastic bags, the government has at last produced a notification aimed at limiting their use. However, it is unlikely to take us too far.

The notification arises out of two recommendations made by the National Plastic Waste Management Task Force Committee created by the ministry of environment and forests four years ago. These are: one, to ban the use of recy-cled plastic bags for unpacked food products; two, to increase the thickness of the plastic bag made out of virgin material to about 20 microns and of recycled bags to 25 microns from the present five. Clearly, the assumption is that people will be more careful with the thicker - and more expensive - bags than they are with the thin ones now in use. So, shopkeepers will not be handing out the thicker bags for the asking, and consumers too would preserve them for re-use. So, on the whole, there will be fewer of these things fluttering about in the wind. Also, the thickness and the higher value of the new bags would be an incentive for rag-pickers to collect them.

The first recommendation - about banning use of plastic bags for unpacked foodstuffs - is meant to tackle the negative impact they have on health. But, can the move succeed? It will involve policing and monitoring on a gigantic scale of the mammoth informal sector that makes these flimsy dreadful things that come at near zero price. This sector works out of shanties and is largely unregistered. This would make it very hard indeed to keep tabs on it. So long as the plastic bag phe-nomenon lives, the informal sector would be needed to recycle (albeit, only thicker bags now), and it would flourish no doubt, as always cutting corners.

The second recommendation- making bags thicker and more expensive-perhaps intends to check the impact of plastic bags on the environment by reducing their numbers in circula-tion. However, while the sheer numbers may decline (provided the first recommendation clicks), the quantities of plastic in the system may actually increase, given that the new bags will have to be about five times thicker on average. The exact picture would, of course, become clearer when the response of con-sumers to the better but more expensive bags is known. In committee meetings that produced the recommendations which paved the way for the official notification on plastic bags, industry representatives appeared unduly shy about giving fig-ures regarding the quantity of plastic going into bag-making.

According to some estimates, India uses 18.2 million tonnes of plastic virgin material to make plastic goods, and only 2.7 million tonnes of waste material, i.e. broken or discarded plastic goods from households that can once again be moulded into plastic products. Thus, more and more plas-tic is entering the market every day. Since there is no viable way of disposing it of, the accumulated plastic, regardless of form, is playing havoc with the environment.

Whatever it may intend or achieve, it is clear enough that the new official notification is not intended to send plastic bags packing. We will still have millions of them floating around all over the countryside. Just that they will be of thicker dimension if the government can help it. Thus, it will be thick bags clogging drains now, or the sewers, or contributing to landslides, not the flimsy ones of yore. And the ultimate end-product which can no longer be recycled will still remain. The notification can do nothing about it.

The real problem lies in the government's hesitation to ask the plastic industry tough questions. To begin with, the official committee making recommendations on plastic bags is heavily packed with representatives from the big plastic industry. Civil society is hardly represented, and the government nominees generally play an ornamental role. Thus the big boys of the industry have a run of the place. In effect, then, the notification that has emerged is their notification, not the government's.

Essentially it should be seen as the duty of industry to pro-vide safeguards against health and environmental damages. The problem lies in industrialists shrugging off their responsi-bility towards the waste of their creation. In countries like the us and Germany, the plastic industry industry undertakes to deal with plastic waste. Not in India. There are no waste recy-cling initiatives here by industry. Nor, for that matter, direc-tives to that effect from the authorities.

It would be best if the very manufacture of plastic bags could be comprehensively stamped out. That will put an end to all questions about recycling or reuse. But this is in the future. Meanwhile, the plastic industry should provide both the finances and the technology to ensure that a non-biodegradable sub-stance like plastic does not continue to play havoc with our lives.

According to the industry, plastic is the most environmentally-friendly material as it can be recycled many times over. It can be made into lumber, tiles and hundreds of useful materials. Energy can also be extracted from it ultimately. So what if it is non-bio-degradable? The trouble is we do not have the finances or the technology to convert plastic into energy. The question is, who should provide these. It is no use placing any reliance on the poor, shoddy, and ill-informed informal sector for relief from plastic waste. It is time the government prodded the plas- tic industry to make proper moves in this direction. The chain begins with them, and should naturally end with them.

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