The images were played across a number of TV networks. In February last year, a sick whale washed up to the shores near Bergen, Norway. Local citizens and vets tried to save her, but she died soon after. An autopsy revealed she had swallowed 30 varied plastic pieces and was in considerable pain before her death.
Closer home, Lucknow reported over a 1,000 cows dying every year from consuming non-degradable polythene bags. We have gotten used to mountains of plastic clogging our drains and nullahs without realising that throwaway plastic is blocking our water channels and creating flooding; and posing a danger to our lives and health.
Maharashtra’s ban thus on single-use plastic, that kicked in on June 23, did not come a day too soon. All non-recyclable bottles, plastic packaging, plastic cups and cutlery cannot be used anymore. Deterrent fines of `5,000 and `10,000 in the first and second instance of violation, and a three months jail term for repeat offences will provide the teeth to implement the ban.
THE SIKKIM EXAMPLE
There is skepticism, but a combination of support from civil society and deterrent punishment can work wonders as the example of Sikkim has shown. The Himalayan state earlier used cloth bags and banana leaves as the mode of wrapping fish, meat and other household purchases. Plastic wrapping entered in the 1980s. By the turn of the century, plastic wrappers were choking drains and even leading to landslides. Then the ban came and its implementation has been a huge success story.
It was a combination of the ‘Buddhist’ spirit in the people — the sacred regard for protecting nature and its lakes, rivers and forests — along with clever policing that worked wonders. People were not resistant to going back to using recyclable bags, and heavy fines and withdrawal of licences was imposed on shopkeepers who defied the ban.
On the other hand, the initiative of the Maharashtra government saw a softening of the initial terms within a week of the ban. In a fresh notification on June 30, the Maharashtra government exempted e-commerce companies from the single-use ban for three months. Packaging for medical equipment and drugs has also been exempted. No buyback rates have been specified for bottles used for beverages other than bottled water, making it easy for the big soft drink makers to beat the ban.
A Reuters report said the relaxation of ban norms followed intense lobbying and several rounds of meeting with the Maharashtra government by adversely-affected beverage companies Coca Cola and PepsiCo, e-retailers Amazon and H&M and a clutch of plastic producing companies.
This brings us to the crux of the problem: however much the common man wants to dispense with the use of plastic, do we have the guts to put a stop to the corporate polluters?
The fact is that the 7 billion population on earth is producing 320 million tonnes of plastic annually, and this will double by 2034. About 8 million tonnes a year, or a truck a minute, is being dumped into the ocean, where plastic through fish and plant life is finding its way into human food chains.
The main culprit is not the ill-mannered common man, as we believe. It is the corporate houses that find single-use plastic the cheapest alternative to get their goods to you and me. Coke produces 100 billion plastic units of single-use bottles a year. Together with the other biggies — Unilever, Starbucks, PepsiCo and Nestle — the big corporations produce 500 billion pieces of plastic cups, straws and bottles that are choking our beaches, waterways and oceans. You and I may change our ways to switch to a cloth shopping bag and to take a reusable bottle of water to work. But will that make a noticeable difference to the tonnes upon tonnes of plastic being churned out by the minute by the big corporations?
These days, we are treated to a lot of ‘plastic’ talk. On June 5, World Environment Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi pronounced that India would be free of all single-use plastic. As many as 25 states have sort of plastic ban in place. A Central Recycled Plastics Manufacture and Usage Rules were legislated as far back as 1999; these were modified many times and now, there is a comprehensive Plastics Waste Management Rules—2016. The laws are in place; but there is something deliberately amiss in the implementation mechanism. Unfortunately, the ‘plastic ban’ too will remain another of the many well-meaning slogans.