The Hindu Editorials Notes (1st September 2019)

Question – Comment on the menace of single use plastic and suggest the way ahead.(250 words)

GS-1 & 3 Mains

Context – the independence day speech by the PM.

What is single use plastic?

  • Single-use plastic (SUP) also called disposable plastic simply refers to the plastics that are used only once before they are thrown away or recycled. They include plastic carry bags, spoons, packed water bottles, bread bags, take-away containers, the packets in which processed foods are packed, wrappers, straws and most food packaging.

Why in news?

  • The PM in his Independence Day address called for a movement to eliminate single-use plastic in India, beginning on Gandhi Jayanti (October 2).

Why is SUP a problem?

  • We produce roughly 300 million tons of plastic each year and half of it is disposable.
  • But World-wide only 10-13% of plastic items are recycled.
  • These plastics are mostly petroleum based.
  • The nature of petroleum based disposable plastic makes it difficult to recycle and they have to add new virgin materials and chemicals to it to do so. Additionally there are a limited number of items that recycled plastic can be used.
  • Petroleum based plastic is not biodegradable and usually goes into a landfill where it is buried or it gets into the water and finds its way into the ocean. Although plastic will not biodegrade (decompose into natural substance like soil,) it will degrade (break down) into tiny particles after many years. In the process of breaking down, it releases toxic chemicals (additives that were used to shape and harden the plastic) which make their way into our food and water supply.
  • These toxic chemicals are now being found in our bloodstream and the latest research has found them to disrupt the Endocrine system  which can cause cancer, infertility, birth defects, impaired immunity and many other ailments.

Where does India stand in terms of SUP?

  1. The per capita consumption of plastic in India is projected to go up from 11 kg in 2014-15 to 20 kg by 2022 (Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry data) and about 43% of this is single-use packaging with poor rates of recovery.
  2. In spite of the notification of the Plastic Waste Management (PWM) Rules, 2016, and amendments made two years later, most cities and towns are not prepared to implement its provisions.
  3. Even the biggest Municipal Corporations shouldering have failed to implement segregation of waste i.e. collecting recyclable plastic, non-recyclable plastic and other waste separately.
  4. There is also under-reporting of the true extent of plastic waste.
  5. An amendment to the PWM Rules in 2018, by which a six-month deadline was fixed for producers to arrange for recovery of waste in partnership with State Urban Development departments, has made little progress.
  6.  And neither is plastic marked with numerical symbols (such as 1 for PET, 4 for Low Density Polyethylene, 5 for Polypropylene and so on) to facilitate recycling using the correct industrial process.
  7. In India, in the absence of robust testing and certification to verify claims made by producers, spurious biodegradable and compostable plastics are entering the marketplace. In January this year, the CPCB said that 12 companies were marketing carry bags and products marked ‘compostable’ without any certification.

What does recycling do?

  • Recycling reduces the volume of non-recyclables that must be disposed of using methods such as co-processing in cement kilns, plasma pyrolysis or land-filling.
  • In April this year, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) issued notices to 52 companies asking them to file their plan to fulfil their EPR (extended producer responsibility) obligation.

Are alternatives such as biodegradable plastic viable?

  • The compostable, biodegradable or even edible plastics made from various materials such as bagasse, corn starch, and grain flour have limitations of scale and cost. 
  • Some biodegradable packaging materials require specific microorganisms to be broken down. For example, compostable cups and plates made of polylactic acid, a popular resource derived from biomass such as corn starch, require industrial composters.
  • But the articles made through a different process like those involving potato and cornstarch can be degraded better in normal conditions, going by the experience in Britain. Seaweed is emerging as a choice to make edible containers.

Way ahead:

  • We produce hundreds of millions of tons of plastic every year, most of which cannot be recycled. So we need to use less plastic, move towards environmentally sustainable products and services and come up with technology that recycles plastic more efficiently. 
  • Individuals and organisations should now actively remove plastic waste from their surroundings and municipal bodies must arrange to collect these articles. 
  • Start-ups and industries should think of newer ways of recycling.
  • Also since there is an absence of robust testing and certification to verify claims made by producers, a comprehensive mechanism to certify the materials marketed as alternatives, and the specific process required to biodegrade or compost them.
  • The campaign must focus on tested biodegradable and compostable alternatives for plates, cutlery and cups.
  • Also a rigorous segregation of waste and scaled up recycling.
  • Finally, the companies  must take its extended producer responsibility requirements under the law seriously

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