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The global war against plastic

October 24, 2007

Kerala has banned plastic bags from this month. It’s not a blanket ban, as only bags below 30 microns are banned – in hotels, hospitals and all retail stores. Kerala however is not the first state in India to ban plastic bags. Sikkim did it quite some time ago and what is admirable is that the ban is working. Sikkim did it even though the state never had as bad a problem as the rest of the country.

The rest of India
Maharashtra’s experience is indicative of the situation in the rest of the country. After the July 2005 floods in Mumbai (drains had got choked which led to flooding during heavy rains) it was decided to ban plastic bags. Did this last? Oh no, the plastic lobby worked overtime and got the ban revoked. And soon the blanket ban was converted to a ban on bags below 50 microns and a dimension not less than 8 x 12 inches.

Even this has not been imposed strictly enough although the government insists that they are doing all they can. Checking, imposing fines and confiscating illegal bags. The problem is with the people apparently. No one listens and there is just this much that the police can do…Prax has described his first hand experience on his blog. As he says:

The whole route through the jungle was spewn with plastic waste of casual thrill seekers and locals alike – with plastic from biscuit packets, balaji wafers, Lays packs and mostly with gutka and zarda packs like the Goa1000. Worse, at a few places there were broken beer bottles (people have gotten drunk and drowned there).

The West Bengal government imposed a ban on the manufacture, sale and use of plastic bags less than 40 microns in thickness in June this year, but the bags are already back on the streets! Tamil Nadu plans to ban plastic bags too (a blanket ban is proposed). The blanket ban idea makes perfect sense as it is easy to get round a thickness ban…manufacturers simply make slightly thicker plastic bags. The Indian government for example has banned shopping bags made of a thickness of less than 20 microns and manufacturers get away by making plastic bags of 21 microns! It doesn’t solve the problem…that of plastic proliferation.

India recycles
And in any case, thick bags are not doing any good to the environment. The only argument in their favour is that in India recycling is a well entrenched activity and thick bags are recycled. Rag-pickers don’t care about thin bags and they find their way into the drains…and the water bodies. Being thin, they also have a tendency to fly away…

The economic angle is very important here. In India recycling is all about economics, while in the west plastics recycling has everything to do with saving the environment. Perhaps that is why recycling works better here than in the US, where less than 5 percent of the 100 billion bags used each year are recycled. In London, out of the 1.6 billion plastic bags that are used annually, only one in 200 is recycled. In France, hardly 4 percent of the three million tonnes of plastics discarded annually is recycled.

India recycles about 40-80 per cent of all plastics produced. Ragpickers (the majority are women and children) do the job by digging into the wastebins with their bare hands. They sell the stuff they have sorted out to eke out a living.

What the world is doing about plastic
San Francisco has banned plastic bags, the first American city to do so. Apparently the plastic-bag lobby “fought hard to stop a ban in San Francisco precisely because it feared that defeat there would start a nationwide trend.”

It’s too late. The trend is well on it’s way! Amit has described how in the US, they are “at a stage where supermarkets are increasingly selling reusable canvas bags and encouraging customers to bring their own bags by giving small monetary discounts.” There is another post of his, on recycling in the US, which is worth a read. The first step is convincing people, making them familiar with the idea, educating them…only then will the laws work…

In Taiwan presently one has to pay for plastic bags, but this is set to change as Taiwan is planning to ban plastic bags altogether as also disposable plastic plates, cups and cutlery used by fast food vendors.

In Ireland one has to pay for a plastic bag and this extra charge has led to a 90 percent drop in usage!

In Australia “green bags” costing a few dollars are available and towns like Coles Bay and Huskisson have banned plastic bags. In France there is a huge movement to promote the use of eco-friendly bags. Plastic bags will be banned in Paris later this year anyway, and by 2010 there will be a ban all over France.

Bangladesh too has imposed a ban, but I do not know if this is working. In Uganda, a ban on plastic shopping bags has been imposed recently, but the people aren’t listening!

Londoners have been asked to vote on “whether they want a tax levied on all disposable shopping bags or a total ban to ease the impact on the environment.” Overall, in the UK there is a move by large retailers “to reward customers who bring their own bags or who reuse or recycle existing bags.”

Plastic Facts (Source: CNN.com)

  • 2007: World consumption of plastic is 100 million tons, but in the 1950s it was just 3 million tons.
  • 1 ton of plastic represents around 20,000 two-liter bottles of water or 120,000 carrier bags
  • In 2004 global consumption of bottled water alone was 154 billion liters.
  • More than 1 million birds and 100,000 marine mammals perish each year by either eating plastic waste or becoming trapped in it.
  • Plastic could take 500-1,000 years to break down.
  • Plastic waste in India is about 4.5 million tons a year.

The future
There is already a strong global movement to ban plastic as it can cause damage, not just to the environment but also human beings. I think many countries are getting their act together.

What about us?? Well, it’s time to got back to our roots. Amit explained this in his post. He talked about the good old days in India when cloth and jute bags were the norm. Abhorrence of waste is ingrained in the Indian psyche…and that’s explained here:

All over the country, material objects like bottles are cleaned out and reused many times in many different ways and if they break, they will be mended. Even plastic is often recycled – so-called ‘plastic mechanics’ visit people’s houses to repair broken plastics by the simple process of heat fusion. And when the material is threadbare, and completely beyond repair, it is often picked up by ragpickers…

Unfortunately the urban rich are changing their frugal habits and embracing a brand new throwaway culture. It’s sad because the west has realised it’s mistake and they will be fixing things while we in India could get from bad to worse.

The only thing that will work in India is if customers have to pay heavily for plastic bags. Rs 10/- extra won’t work with the new rich…I think a minimum of Rs 50/- for just one big thick plastic bag should do the job. As for the smaller ones, Rs 25/- should be the minimum. If the demand drops there is hope. Finally, it’s what the people want. If they want the bags there will always be unscrupulous people willing to provide them. The fines for companies are just Rs 5000/- and if a small bribe is given even this amount need not be paid.

(Photos by me)

Related Reading: Harmful packaging
A profitable way to dispose of garbage (Chennai)

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32 Comments leave one →
  1. Willy Tandiyo permalink
    October 24, 2007 9:41 am

    Does USA recycle plastics? I doubt it. As long as there are developing countries, USA can sell all Post consumer plastic waste without recycle them inside USA. I haven’t seen single plastic recycler in Los Angeles for instance that really recycle plastic on site. Most of them only baller. Collect, Bale and Sell. (CBS)

  2. October 24, 2007 10:22 am

    You are right Willy. Of late the US and other developed countries have been selling their waste to China and India. Better place to go than landfills!🙂

  3. October 24, 2007 10:49 am

    We have curb-side recycling in Boston, and that includes plastic bottles, milk and juice cartons along with glass and metal. And paper+cardboard. The plastic bags are not recycled by the city but we collect them and drop them off at the grocery store which is supposed to recycle them. How much of it ends up in India or China is probably left for a reporter to find out.🙂

    Nita, the reasons in the US are not just the environment – there is some financial benefit for suppling plastic to the industries that recycle them into new products. I’d think that the costs of cleanup associated with not recycling also play a role, but will have to do some research before being certain about it. So, it’s a mix of environmental and economic issues and the two are generally linked, though aam janta in the US probably does it more for the environmental reason.

    Also, in your post, you might want to link to the specific post on my blog rather than the generic blog URL.🙂
    You wrote a very well-researched and detailed article Nita.

  4. October 24, 2007 11:32 am

    Amit thanks.
    yes i had realised that mistake about the link..,and in fact have rectified it.
    Thanks to you too for your detailed post on what is happening in the US.

  5. October 24, 2007 1:21 pm

    or Reduce using by Re-using it atleast.

    As an induvidual – “Not Me” shall be the first step & it starts at Home. Take a bag out when go for shopping and Say no to plastic when shopkeeper gives it. I think that’s simple way when one plans shopping really well.

    Rs 50/- fine not a bad Idea.

    —————————————————————–
    TRUE KNOWLEDGE IS TO KNOW THE EXTENT OF ONE`S IGNORANCE

  6. October 24, 2007 6:01 pm

    The customary use of plastic bags is a symptom of mindlessness and the attitude that materials can be endlessly sourced and discarded after use. The disposition of waste materials thoughtlessly is an out-of-sight-out-of-mind sort of situation. Where I live, we have regular recycling pick-up once a week. As long as the flow of refuse away from us doesn’t make our lives uncomfortable, we really don’t have to give the situation a thought. Plastic grocery sacks are still the norm here, even though long-lasting reusable sacks are commonly available. i suspect outright banning of plastic sacks, and sudden unavailability in stores of these would cause a massive change in buyer behaviour – only when forced to can people be weaned of thoughtless practices. G

  7. October 24, 2007 6:45 pm

    Bharath, Although I do it at times (refuse plastic bags) it’s not the case always. I need to become more conscientious.

    Suburban, thanks for sharing that about Canada.
    This powerful plastic industry is the enemy of the environment and will fight tooth and nail against bans. They give all sorts of stats saying that plastic isn’t that bad and that it saves on paper (wood). I think cloth sacks are a good alternative…

  8. wishtobeanon... permalink
    October 24, 2007 7:24 pm

    Along with the plastic ban, wish the govt. would impose a fine on littering and place garbage bins in all public places so people would have a place to throw trash.
    Does the raddiwaala still come to pick up old newspapers and bottles etc or is he/she an endangered species?

  9. October 24, 2007 9:00 pm

    Hi wishtobeanon, the raddiwalla is very much around!🙂 Some colonies don’t let these guys enter though but they are everywhere anyway. those little shops in small lanes. they take everything from beer bottles to any sort of plastic, even thermocol and cardboard…besides old newspapers and mags ofcourse.
    about bins, they keep getting stolen. even the so-called theft-proof bins. You can read about it here.

  10. wishtobeanon... permalink
    October 24, 2007 9:43 pm

    Thanks for the link. Sad! I guess we cannot think about cleanliness on our streets until we get rid of poverty.

  11. October 24, 2007 10:50 pm

    This reminds me of an incident that my brother (who is a vet) mentioned. He and his colleagues operated on a sick cow, only to discover a HUGE ball of accumulated plastic bags blocking her intestines. It’s just an example of how an individual behavior of throwing away plastic bags when multiplied by many can cause unprecedented and unforeseen problems elsewhere.

  12. Arleen permalink
    October 24, 2007 11:24 pm

    A great website (although it is a commercial site) that shows the worldwide toll of plastic bags is
    http://www.reusablebags.com/
    Nita, thanks for letting me know that so many plastic bottles are recycled! It makes me feel a little less guilty that I’ll be leaving a trail of plastic water bottles behind as I’m visiting India…

  13. oemar permalink
    October 24, 2007 11:29 pm

    We should have learnt a lot form the Mumbai floods, but unfortunately that has been easily forgotten. We have got bio-dgradable plastic bags, I dont know why their use is not enforced. Perhaps they are costlier.

  14. October 25, 2007 4:55 am

    If we stop using plastics, we should use …what? paper bags? That would involve chopping down trees and is not the politically right thing to do, besides being impractical. How would you carry your shopping purchases without it tearing the bag and falling all over the parking lot?
    Using jute is a good idea, but no one (including the Indians) will buy it.
    Don’t know much about Oemar’s biodegradable plastic bags. Sounds good.

  15. October 25, 2007 6:47 am

    That would involve chopping down trees and is not the politically right thing to do, besides being impractical.
    One word: Bamboo. English, not Hindi.🙂
    There are also reusable plastic grocery bags that are quite tough.

    Using jute is a good idea, but no one (including the Indians) will buy it.
    Why not? I would. When I go shopping, I see others who bring their own bags.

  16. October 25, 2007 7:02 am

    Hello. I just discovered this site today. Thank you for this comprehensive summary of the issue of plastic bags throughout the world. I live in Oakland, CA and often forget about how differently people view environmental issues from state to state or even town to town, much less country to country.

    I recently took a tour of a local waste transfer station where much of Oakland’s waste is processed. And yes, most of the plastic is shipped to China. If you’re interested, I’ve written some detailed posts about recycling here and what people need to know in order to do it properly. They are:

    Wait! Are you sure that’s recyclable?

    Lessons from the Davis Street transfer center

    Further Lessons from the Davis Street transfer center

    A lot of materials get put into recycling bins that are ot only non-recyclable, but actually harmful to the sorting equipment.

    And rambodoc, we don’t have to use either paper or plastic, but cotton. In fact, I use organic cotton eco-bags.

    Biodegradable plastic bags are a good idea if people actually compost them. But we do need to get systems in place for that, which don’t much exist at this time as far as I know.

  17. October 25, 2007 8:06 am

    Plastics are evils of convenience

    i hate the way they have been freely used and the callousness of our people in taking them and that of shopkeepers in dumping them onto customers.
    plastic bags aside it is the small packaging that i fear about
    things like Gutka packets and Biscuit packets , which can be a big hazard especially in ecosensetive areas like jungles
    chk out
    http://techntrek.wordpress.com/2007/10/17/plastic-waste-in-national-parks/

    People living in europe and scandinavia are so eco sensitive, they use cycles to goto office , use bio food and even corporates do their bit by dishing out cloth bags
    its time india wakes up

    Prax, I have added this link to my main post. Thanks. – Nita.

  18. October 25, 2007 12:36 pm

    Thanks to all. Amit, Arleen, Beth, Prax , Oemar and Rambodoc. Arleen thanks for that link. That site is a good read.
    Rambodoc there are always alternatives…where there is a will there is a way! The main thing is the intention.
    Beth, I will certainly check out your posts. Thanks.
    Oemar, yes the bio-degradable bags are more expensive. Everything finally boils down to money and consumers are expecting bags free!

  19. October 26, 2007 5:56 am

    didnt people survive before the invention of the plastic bag?
    the kapdeka jhola was just fine then wasent it?

  20. November 3, 2007 6:34 am

    Thanks for the article. I believe that there is too much plastic in the world but I also know that it is the cheapest way to package things. It has its usefulness. The problem is the dumping and landfills. In a lot of countries plastic has a cradle to cradle system. There is a machine called massmelt and a machine called stryomelt that recycles all plastics 1-7 and reduces them by 95 to 98percent. The plastic does not have to be cleaned or really separted from the general waste. This would include plastic bags and pvc, styrofoam containers etc. The material is thermally reduced without emissions. It produces a brick that has use as building material, coal replacement or diesel/heating fuel. Places that use a lot of plastic like schools and stadiums could be zero waste and help the environment by turning their plastic waste back into energy. So on the way to reduction of plastic which will take years and a lobby stronger then the oil industry there are other solutions. cheick out http://www.teampeace.com.

    Karen, thanks for your response. Yes turning all the plastic into energy is something the world should aim for. – Nita.

  21. shree guru permalink
    February 7, 2008 5:47 pm

    even i have stopped to use plastics,polythenebags,batteries,recycling papers
    i want some information of plastic

  22. Michael permalink
    February 26, 2008 8:41 pm

    I just knew about this site today, I wanna know that people doesnt know to survive without plastic?

  23. chandru permalink
    April 15, 2009 6:59 pm

    I would like to start a ngo on eradicating plastic bags in chennai india STAY with green my primary target would be schools (to educate children on harmfull effect of plastic bags)supermarkets (impliment jute bags and eradicate plastic bags) any ideas please PS initially i depend on My company for funding these activities

  24. Dayana Martinez permalink
    September 9, 2009 9:39 pm

    This is just one more example of tyranny. Government’s are trying to change personal behaviour to fit thier own rediculous ideology. The Green movement is the new fascism.

  25. nikey permalink
    June 19, 2010 9:09 pm

    see plastics are not the enemy for environment and anything.The proper usuage of plastic made your life easy going.if you care about environment dont drop plastics with degradable wastes.so come to your new era.so im proud to use plastics.coz im an plasstic technology student in cipet.we ppl are also ecosensitive,ecofriendly&etc. etc.
    here you go say yes to PLASTICS…MODERN MIRACLE

    • Harsh permalink
      August 29, 2011 7:27 pm

      Yes , U r right nikey! agreed! I am also a plastic technology student at L. D College of Engineering..and support the same view.

  26. Urmila permalink
    July 24, 2010 9:35 pm

    Accidentally discovered this site, in an effort to collect ideas for my paintings on plastic (for and against). thanks all of you. I think i can fill in my bucket with quite a bit of plastic here. Thanks to Alexander Parkes, who left his invention for the generations, to be nurtured so well that it has become a part of everyone’s life, willingness is immaterial. The vet was surprised to see plastic in intestine of the cow, i wont be surprised if one day a surgeon finds it in the intestine of our kind. God help us, if we have to say… i’m loving it!

  27. Harsh permalink
    August 29, 2011 7:24 pm

    Friends , Ban on the plastic bag , or use of the Plastic bags is not at all harmfull. All that it hurts is the lack of proper disposal of the used bags , reuse of the bags is the best idea! The plastic waste should be eliminated by the government by appointing the special pickers of the plastic from the heaps of the huge dumps.. I read above in a post here that , it is banned because of the drainge lines getting jam .. Yes it happens , but have U ever asked why?. Why and how plastic bags reached those drainage passages ? Why people or say government are so careless about the plastic collection , until this bags reaches the mentioned!? Banning Plastic bags whether 30, 40, 50 microns is not advisory or say the correct way for innovation. The correct way will be the isolation of the plastic bags or other plastic waste from the huge heaps of dumps and also a certain amount of the awareness among the people using bags as well..!

  28. meenakshi permalink
    July 9, 2015 8:38 pm

    i do not say to ban plastic. just if we minimize the use . just remember the 4r principle. reduce reuse recycle recover

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