Resolute measures can save the planet from the harm of plastics

This photo taken on September 17, 2015 shows a Chinese labourer sorting out plastic bottles for recycling in Dong Xiao Kou village, on the outskirts of Beijing. (AFP)
This photo taken on September 17, 2015 shows a Chinese labourer sorting out plastic bottles for recycling in Dong Xiao Kou village, on the outskirts of Beijing. (AFP)


Laws to stop the use of plastics will help, but people must also adopt a low resource-intensive lifestyle for the greatest impact

The theme for this World Environment Day 2023 is ‘Beat Plastic Pollution’. This was also the theme in 2018 when India was the host country for the World Environment Day that saw the historic announcement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to make India single-use plastic free by 2022.

At the time, it felt like a personal victory, having been so involved with the campaign. And when finally last year, the ban on 21 items of single-use plastic was announced, it offered some relief. But the ban, unfortunately, has been ineffective in most parts of our country as we continue to witness the sale and use of all of the items on the list.

This gap between the ban and its enforcement exists for many reasons: an unwillingness to change because these items create an illusion of convenience, producers of these items seem to have a stronghold and do not respect the need for the ban, and the absence of a legal framework for waste management in our country.

Civil society and civic bodies at large remain unwitting to bring about the changes that are required to implement steps to reduce, substitute, collect, recycle and sustainably dispose off plastics.

Allow me to begin by sharing some startling facts that will help us understand why it is so necessary to ‘Beat Plastic Pollution’:

–The world produces 400 million tonnes of plastic every year, much of which is mismanaged after use, causing untold damage to the environment and societies.

–About 75% of all plastic ever produced has become waste.

–Around the world, one million plastic bottles are purchased every minute, while up to five trillion plastic bags are used worldwide every year. In total, half of all plastic produced is designed for single-use purposes—used just once and then thrown away.

–About 36% of all plastics produced are used in packaging, including single-use plastic products for food and beverage containers, about 85% of which ends up in landfills or as unregulated waste.

–Plastics can cause tremendous impact on biodiversity, including marine animals (mammals, fish, turtles and birds). There are studies which claim that there will be more plastics than fish in the ocean by 2050.

–Plastics also impact at the planetary scale. The level of greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production, use and disposal of conventional fossil fuel-based plastics is forecast to grow to about 2.1 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e) by 2040, or 19% of the global carbon budget. The global plastic market in 2020 is estimated to have been around $580 billion while losses of marine natural capital totalled up to $2,500 billion per year. There are also very visible impacts of plastics in the clogging of drains contributing to urban floods, aesthetic deterioration, landfill leachates, and damage to coral reefs.

–Most plastic items never fully disappear; they just break down into smaller and smaller pieces. These microplastics can enter the human body through inhalation and absorption and accumulate in organs. Microplastics have been found in our lungs, livers, spleens and kidneys, a study recently detected microplastics in the placentas of new-born babies, plastics have also been detected in breast milk. The full extent of the impact of this on human health is still unknown. There is, however, substantial evidence that plastics-associated chemicals, such as methyl mercury, plasticisers and flame retardants, can enter the body and are linked to health concerns.

For those of us alarmed by these facts, it is time it propelled us into action. There are many things that can and must be done. Institutions, industry, civic bodies and individuals have a role to play in mitigating plastic pollution. The first step is to refuse all single-use plastics. This will ensure we close the tap on commodities that have low utility and high littering potential. The second step is to ensure the extended producer’s responsibility that sets targets for companies to address their plastic packaging waste—which constitutes about 59% of India’s plastic consumption—is implemented.

The most cohesive step would also be to manage waste scientifically at our homes, work spaces, institutions, hospitals, universities, schools, restaurants, hotels, et all. Because the best place to create change is in the area within our reach. Which is what brings those who lead clean-up drives across the country and the world a sense of relief. Every piece of plastic we pick-up and dispose off responsibly strengthens our belief that we can and will combat this crisis.

Everyone can play a part in ensuring norms and standards are put in place by governments, cities, towns, panchayats, businesses and the finance sector to eliminate unnecessary plastics. They must also put in place legislation that incentivise reduction in plastic consumption, encourage plastic reuse, invest in recycling, commit to partnerships that tackle plastic pollution and ensure the ban on the 21 items of single-use plastic is implemented.

Working to move from a linear plastics economy to a circular approach to eliminate, innovate and circulate existing plastics is a tangible way forward but requires our collective participation.

The good news is that countries across the globe, including India, joined hands at the 2022 UN Environment Assembly and have come up with a resolution to end plastic pollution. In addition, over 100 countries have adopted legislation on plastic bags, and many have introduced rules on single-use plastics more generally. New regulations include bans on the use of specific products such as straws, packaging materials such as polystyrene. Some countries have opted for taxes or waste-disposal fees on single-use plastics, introduced extended producer responsibility requirements, recycling targets, or bans on plastic waste imports.

But all of these measures will be incomplete if ‘we’, the citizens, don’t adopt a low resource-intensive lifestyle. It is important to remind ourselves that concepts of refuse and reduce precede reuse, recycle and repair. And the best place to start at is in our own lives. Our homes, our celebrations, our travel, our work can all become ‘Single-use Plastic Free’ and we can together ‘Beat Plastic Pollution’.

Dia Mirza is an actor and climate advocate.

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