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World Environment Day 2023: Plastic menace continues unabated

Updated: Jan 20

World Environment Day

The Supreme Court of India had once observed that the threat posed by plastic bags is bigger than the atom bomb for the next generation. The apex court’s observation was quite logical as, according to research findings, plastic generally degrades in about 500-1,000 years.

A nationwide ban on single-use plastic (SUP) declared last year had raised some hopes, but the fight against plastic menace is far from achieving the desired results in the country, including in Bihar.

Grocery shops, vegetable vendors and small commercial establishments continue to openly use plastic bags of all shapes and sizes. Only supermarkets, big grocery stores and malls have started using paper and cloth bags to some extent. The plastic bags continue to choke drains, pollute rivers and cause health hazards to cattle.

As World Environment Day is set to be observed on Monday (June 5) with ‘Solutions to plastic pollution’ theme under the ‘Beat Plastic Pollution’ campaign, TOI dives deep into the issue for a reality check and the way forward.

What is banned

The Plastic Waste Management (PWM) Rules, 2016 of the government of India were amended on August 12, 2021 to accommodate the ban on identified SUP across the country. Later, the Union ministry of environment and forests announced a ban on SUPs of 19 categories that have low utility and high littering potential from July 1, 2022. The categories include plates, cups, cutlery, straws, packaging films and cigarette packets.

“The Bihar government banned plastic carry bags in urban areas with effect from December 14, 2018. The ban was extended to rural areas in February 2019 and the rules for the same are being framed by the rural works department. The state government issued the notification for ban on SUP on December 17, 2021 and it was made effective from July 1, 2022 under the nationwide ban,” Bihar State Pollution Control Board chairman D K Shukla told TOI.

Need for ban

Researchers have estimated that since the 1950s, the rate of plastic production has grown faster than that of any other material. A 2021 report by an Australian philanthropic organization, Minderoo Foundation, stated that SUPs account for one-third of all plastic produced globally. The report found that India features in the top 100 countries of single-use plastic waste generation – with a rank of 94.

“From the 1950s to the 70s, only a small amount of plastic was produced. Hence, plastic waste was manageable. By the 1999s, plastic waste had more than tripled due to a rise in plastic production. In the early 2000s, our output of plastic rose more in a single decade than it had in the previous 40 years. Today, we produce about 300 million tonnes of plastic waste every year. That’s nearly equivalent to the weight of the entire population,” said Ashok Kumar Ghosh, professor and head of research department at Mahavir Cancer Sansthan.

Reality check

The ban on plastic initially seemed effective on the ground, at least in urban areas of the state. However, as time passed, the restrictions gradually started losing grip. A significant number of shopkeepers and small vendors either switched to paper bags or forced buyers to come with their cloth or jute bags in the initial few weeks, but implementation of the ban later got derailed.

“The ban on plastic is not effective on the ground at all. Either the government could not strictly enforce it, or people could not make behavioural changes,” said Pradhan Parth Sarth, dean, School of Earth, Biological and Environmental Science, Central University of South Bihar.

Challenging areas

According to experts, lack of affordable alternatives and effective localised implementation of the plastic ban are some of the major challenges.

“Identification of locally affordable and environmentally sustainable alternatives is necessary. With the ban taking away a less expensive commodity, SUP, alternatives chosen to replace it need to match its price,” country head of United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Atul Bagai, told TOI.

Way forward

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” This seems to be the common notion of all stakeholders in suggesting effective implementation of plastic ban.

Shashi Darshan, coordinator at Tarumitra (Friends of Trees), who also works for spreading awareness on waste management, is of the view that plastic is more a human behaviour problem than an environmental problem.

“We have been engaging youth and students of various schools to ensure whatever plastic comes to our home, must not be let into the environment,” he said.

“People’s awareness is of utmost importance as plastic has found usage in almost all spheres of human activities,” said Shashi Bhushan Prasad, additional director, urban development and housing department.

Plastic pollution could reduce by 80% by 2040 if countries and companies make deep policies, according to a latest report by UNEP.

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