The global war against plastic
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.
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.
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.
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)