What does it take to be an Eco-Friendly Government?
As the industry is aware of global pressure on plastics to address the littering issue, different countries are trying to tackle the issue differently. Some countries, especially in Europe, are proactive in bringing structured regulations combined with a good sense of infrastructure availability to eliminate regular plastics. Plastics are one of the greatest innovations of the previous century and continue to be gaining more and more grip on our lifestyles. But a small portion of plastics creates a big issue only due to mismanagement of disposal. Addressing the disposal in the right way is the only way.
Let's see the alternatives to single-use or disposable plastics like glass, paper, & natural products like bagasse, compostable plastics etc. If we see some statistics, about five trillion plastic bags are produced every year and about 14 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year (courtesy: https://www.earthday.org/fact-sheet-single-use-plastics/). Can any of these be really an alternative? The answer is No. Then how to solve it?
The solution needs to be holistic with multiple technologies, especially recycle & Compost. Let's review the single-use applications and what options are available to address this. While we consider reduce and reuse options as critical, there are some must-use scenarios. Applications like hospital waste disposal, gloves, or even tea cups in a hospital environment, food carry bags in railway stations etc. force us to look for hygiene first than anything else. So, there is a definite need for an alternate solution.
Out of the available alternatives, the most convenient yet suitable for disposable applications are compostable plastics. Because it’s scalable, doesn’t harm the environment and completes the carbon cycle (returns to nature) in a limited time (less than 180 days after disposal), against plastics that remain 400 years. Wow, sounds good. So, it remains the most promising alternative compared to glass or paper etc. The downside is competitiveness compared to plastic. This is where governments must play a role in positioning it and enforcing the ban on certain applications more stricter. Plastics should not be left in the environment because it remains for centuries. Plastics should be used where it’s collected and recycled after the end of life. The policies of the governments must take into consideration that wherever recycling is feasible, promote policies for recycling. Wherever recycling is not happening promote compostable or similar alternates.
The challenge in India is the regulatory framework with clear rules. Today, there is tremendous confusion about what’s allowed and what’s not. There are tentative standards misleading the industry to implement wrong solutions without legal approvals. Moreover, there is poor enforcement of the ban. The Indian government banned single-use plastics on July 1, 2022. But a few meters away from the parliament building, one can have a nice cup of tea in a banned plastic today. Of late there have been several efforts from different government bodies in educating the public on the issue but it's insignificant in such a populated country.
The bigger problem is the legal manufacturers versus illegal manufacturers of banned plastics. Several MSMEs are shut down to follow the rules and few are still producing and enjoying huge market share selling illegal products. Though several complaints have been registered, it’s difficult to track down and stop the production. Today, in most cities we still see plastic bags of much lower thickness than the legal thickness of 75 microns. What’s the way out?
It’s in the hands of government authorities to make a feasible framework considering of all stakeholders. Devise technologically sound and clear policies involving Indian and Global players in the industry. Provide support to the industry to sustain the ban and shift to alternates. Enforce the ban in phases than a bulk ban. It’s still okay to allow certain packaging that requires high functional properties like cigarette wrap for a few years to come up with alternatives and address the possible applications today. Device guidelines for eliminating unwanted packaging, design for recyclability, collection mechanism, segregation mechanisms or even investment in segregation at municipal facilities which can become a profit centre.
It is going to be a long way for the government to be an Eco-Friendly government. Public-private partnerships can make a big difference in the way the problem can be addressed.