Let’s talk about plastic waste

Call me Pack-Pooh. I’m the new sustainability mascot for WhatPackaging? — here to tell you why must we talk about sustainability, and the myriad issues surrounding it.

24 Jul 2021 | By PrintWeek Team

Rachel Carson
Let’s start at the beginning. I’m sure you’ve heard of Rachel Carson? No? Then you must absolutely read her masterpiece Silent Spring (1962). In the days before sustainability was a buzzword, Ms Carson waged a war singlehandedly against the chemical companies in the US about the harmful effect of DDT. Silent Spring laid bare the harmful effects of pesticides on the environment and in turn, inspired a grassroots environmental movement that led to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency. In short, Carson started a movement which is more relevant than ever.  

Plastic waste in India
Especially in India, where the country is at the risk of being drowned in plastic waste. For example, according to the Central Pollution Control Board, plastic waste generated in 2018-19 was 3,360,043 tonnes per year (roughly 9,200 tonnes per day). You can only imagine the number today; it’s pretty huge. Okay, more numbers — plastic waste contributes about 5-6% of total solid waste generated in India. But they can be recycled, isn’t it? According to a 2017 study, only 9% of all plastic waste has ever been recycled; 12% has been burnt, while the remaining 79% has accumulated in landfills.

Now you know why we must talk about plastic waste.

Plastic in a cow
Not convinced yet? How about this? Recently, a veterinary doctor in Chikkamagaluru district in Karnataka saved a cow by removing 21-kg of plastic from its stomach. The cow, being a cow, had consumed the plastics while hogging for food on the streets, and over a period of time, it had accumulated in its stomach. The poor cow had to undergo a four-hour surgery in which all the plastic was removed. The owners had spotted that something was wrong with it when the cow started bloating and its digestion capacity went down.

So, next time you litter the street, think of the poor cow. Science fact: Cows that eat plastic eventually stop eating their regular food. Plastic affects their internal organs and gets collected inside their body. Eventually, they are not able to give milk, and even if they do, it’s loaded with toxic chemicals like dioxins.

Plastic waste returns to Pune
But that’s just a single cow, you say? In that case, let’s go to Pune, where the city is generating more trash before plastic was banned. Why? Blame it on the lockdown and the takeaway food. As per a recent report by SWaCH, multi-layered plastics are the most common type of plastic in the city’s trash — 44% — followed by single-layered LDPE at 27%. 76% of all plastic waste was from food packaging.  

The report also said total plastic accumulation today indicates the same situation prevalent in 2016-2017 when consumption of plastic was at its peak. And heat this. Over 39% of the waste is non-recyclable or not viable in the recycling sector.

The situation is far grimmer than you think. 

Campaign on single-use plastics
There are things to be done and there must be a sustained effort.

The government is doing its bit. On 8 June, the ministry of environment, forest, and climate change launched a campaign to create awareness against the use of single-use plastics. It reiterates the government’s commitment to phase out identified single-use plastic items which have low utility and high adverse environmental impact.

Why single-use plastics? United Nations data says that since the 1950s, the production of plastics has outpaced that of almost every other material. In 2015, 400-million tonnes of plastics were produced in the world, of which 36% constituted plastic packaging. Moreover, the total plastic packaging waste accounted for 141 million tonnes in 2015.

Every minute, truckloads of plastic are immersed into our oceans. As per a UN report, in a year, 13-million metric tonnes of plastic are dumped into the oceans. With global plastic production expected to skyrocket in the next 10-15 years, the already grim condition may deteriorate further.

In view of the situation, the government has already banned the import of plastic waste in the country. It also banned the use of plastic carry bags below 50 microns. The ministry has also issued the draft Plastic Waste Management (Amendment) Rules 2021 which proposes a blanket ban on several plastic items.

In September 2019, a blanket ban on all types of single-use plastic products in the ministry of consumer affairs, food and public distribution, and all its PSUs, including Food Corporation of India (FCI) was put in place. The ministry of railways has also directed all its railway units to enforce a ban on single-use plastic material, with less than 50 microns thickness from 2 October 2019.

But can we survive without plastic? Of course, there are other sustainable ways, and we will talk all about it the next time.

For now, stay sustainable.