On August 13, the Environment Ministry notified the Plastic Waste Management Amendment Rules, 2021, which prohibits specific single-use plastic items that have low utility and high littering potential by 2022. The decisions follow recommendations made by an expert group constituted by the Department of Chemicals and Petrochemicals two years ago.
Under this rule, the manufacture, sale, and use of a range of plastic products will be prohibited from July 1 2022 These include ear buds with plastic sticks, plastic sticks for balloons, plastic flags candy sticks, ice cream sticks, thermocol for decoration plastic cutlery such as forks, spoons, knives, cups, plastic wrapping and packing films around sweet boxes, invitation cards, cigarette pack and PVC banners less than 10 microns. These items will be phased out in three stages.
The new rule has also increased the permitted thickness of polythene bags. They must be at least 75 microns thick from September 30, 2021, and 120 microns from December 31 next year, compared to 50 microns at present.
At the 4th United Nations Environment Assembly in 2019, India piloted a resolution on addressing single-use plastic products pollution. Later that year, in his Independence Day speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called on people to stop the use of single-use plastic bags.
Following this, many Indian States set deadlines to ban certain plastic products. The initial enthusiasm soon died down and banned plastic items are back in use. At about 34 lakh tonnes generated in 2019-20. India has a staggering annual volume of plastic waste, of which only about 60 % is recycled.
While environmentalists welcome the new rules, they also point out the challenges in curbing plastic pollution. What are they?
Why is plastic non-biodegradable?
A material is biodegradable if it can be decomposed by bacteria and other living organisms. Most plastic are derived from propylene, a chemical component of petroleum. A crucial manufacturing step causes monomers (a molecule that can be bonded to other identical molecules to form a polymer) of propylene to link together and form very strong carbon-carbon bonds with each other. This results in polypropylene, which is not easily broken down by microorganisms. Thus plastic remains non-biodegradable for years.
What are single-use plastic?
Single-use plastic, or disposable plastic, are those plastic items we use only once before discarding them. Each year, 400 million tonnes of plastic is produced around the world, and 40 % of that is single-use.
Plastic is low cost, lightweight, practical, and easy to make. These qualities make it the most preferred material for producing disposable items. According to the UN Environment, the most common single-use plastic found in the environment (in order of magnitude) are cigarette butts, plastic drinking bottles, plastic bottle caps, food wrappers, plastic grocery bags, plastic lids, straws and stirrers, other types of plastic bags, and takeaway foam containers.
What happens to the plastic that we discard?
Plastic takes hundreds of years to decompose, in the meantime, it remains in the environment contaminating soil and groundwater. A lot of it also ends up in the ocean posing threat to marine life. Animals consume plastic accidentally or mistaking it for food .plastic gets lodged in their stomach and prevent their digestive system from working properly .This eventually leads to the animal death n
When they degrade plastics also leach potentially toxic chemical (additives used to shape and harden plastic) which make their way into our find and water supply systems. These toxic chemicals are now being found in our bloodstream Researches have found them to disrupt the endocrine stem which can cause cancer, birth defects impaired immunity, and many other problems.
Some plastic slowly break down into smaller pieces of plastic called microplastics and make their way into the system of marine animals and humans who ultimately consume some of these seafood Microplastics have been found in soil and air as well.
The UN Environment Programme reports that past 9 % of the world's nine billion tonnes of plastic have been recycled.
What are the challenges ahead?
Putting an end to plastic pollution depends on various factors. Some of the challenges in implementing measures against use of plastic listed out by experts are
- The failure to enforce rules.
- Finding alternatives to single-use plastic items. This alternative should be sustainable too.
- Bioplastics, which are made using a range of agricultural byproducts, are increasingly being seen as an alternative. However, bioplastics break down only in a high-temperature industrial composting facility and very few cities have the infrastructure needed to deal with them. These bioplastics often end up in landfills and oceans and pose the same risk as conventional plastic.
- Considerable amounts of plastic waste are not recycled because of lack of segregation and collection Only 60 % of plastic waste is collected and recycled in India, while the remaining remains littered in the environment Our policies should also focus on collection and segregation
- The plastic recycling industry is vast and unorganised. Most of the plastic wastes are recycled into low quality materials which again become single-use items. The recycling business would need support - technical and financial - to upgrade to alterative industry.
- Collaboration is required across the value chain-from design and reuse to repair and recycling-in order to develop impactful solutions.
Picture Credit : Google