Representational image. Globally, packaged food and beverage manufacturers, retailers and fashion brands are increasingly under the spotlight for their role as some of the biggest environment polluters due to their indiscriminate use of plastic. Photo: Bloomberg.
Representational image. Globally, packaged food and beverage manufacturers, retailers and fashion brands are increasingly under the spotlight for their role as some of the biggest environment polluters due to their indiscriminate use of plastic. Photo: Bloomberg.

Key to tackling plastic is mindful consumption

Around the world, one million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every minute whereas we use 10 million single-use plastic bags a minute

In the run-up to the World Environment Day celebrations last week, Coca-Cola Co., the world’s biggest beverage company sent two divers to see what lies at the bottom of the Arabian Sea from Versova, a suburb in Mumbai. The company was not expecting to discover exotic marine life or coral reefs. The exercise was to acknowledge that our oceans are filthy and to understand what’s causing it. Not surprisingly, among other things like straws, bottle caps, food wrappers and grocery bags the two divers came back up with two plastic bottles of Coca-Cola.

Globally, packaged food and beverage manufacturers, retailers and fashion brands are increasingly under the spotlight for their role as some of the biggest environment polluters due to their indiscriminate use of plastic.

Around the world, one million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every minute whereas we use 10 million single-use plastic bags a minute. In total we produce about 300 million tonnes of plastic waste every year. That’s nearly equivalent to the weight of the entire human population, according to a presentation by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Meanwhile, plastic-based fibres like polyester, nylon, or acrylic represent 60% of the clothing market, according to a November 2017 report by Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a think-tank that specializes in recycling. Each year, around half a million tonnes of plastic microfibres—equivalent to more than 50 billion plastic bottles—resulting from the washing of textiles are estimated to be released into the ocean, said the study. Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic.

To be sure, we can’t do away with plastics. They have become the ubiquitous workhorse material of the modern economy—combining unrivalled functional properties with low cost. Their use has increased twenty-fold in the past half-century and is expected to double again in the next 20 years, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation report said. What we need though is mindful consumption. This includes relooking at the entire supply chain from manufacturing to consumption and disposal. It requires finding alternative solutions, reducing use, reusing and recycling.

In some states the government’s taking the lead. In 2016, Karnataka enforced a plastic ban. Currently, Maharashtra is in the process of modifying its plastic ban notification. This has led to manufacturers and retailers rethinking their plastics use. McDonald’s has moved to using biodegradable straws in Maharashtra and Karnataka. The American fast food company replaced its plastic spoons, forks and stirrers with wooden ones in the two states and it also replaced its souffle cups used for dips like maple syrup with cups made of bagasse—a sugar cane fibre derivative.

World over manufacturers are experimenting with sustainability. In 2017, Adidas sold over a million pairs of sneakers made from ocean plastic, globally. Even Nike developed a new range using recycled leather fibre last year. Additionally, once used, we need to incentivize recycling. Currently, only 9% of all plastic waste ever produced has been recycled. About 12% has been incinerated, while the rest, 79%, has accumulated in landfills, dumps or the natural environment, the UNEP presentation said.

Companies like Bisleri India Private Ltd, associations like the All India Plastic Manufacturers’ Association and even fast fashion retailers like H&M are taking some initiatives by setting up recycling bins and creating awareness.

However, these efforts need to be adopted by a wider industry and also they are yet to gain scale.

Changing habits is not easy. What sometimes works is the charge of a small fee. For instance, plastic consumption at the point of sale dropped down to 900 tonnes from 2,100 tonnes in two months after the government directed retailers to charge a small fee for availing plastic bags at retail stores in 2010-2011, recounts Kumar Rajgopalan, chief executive officer of the Retailers Association of India.

Increasingly though consumers are leading the way. Over the last 136 weeks, Afroz Shah, a young Indian lawyer from Mumbai, spearheaded one of the world’s largest citizen-based beach cleanup drives in Versova. His enthusiasm has now caught on and inspired other citizens to start similar cleanup drives across Mumbai in the Dadar and Mahim beaches.

More importantly, after 20 years, the Versova beach saw the reappearance of the olive ridley turtles. In March this year about 80 olive ridley turtle hatchlings made their way to the Arabian Sea from the cleaned up beach. That’s the power of change.

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