Explainer: What is single-use plastic and why does PM Modi want it banned in India?

So what is the big deal with single-use plastic products? Is it really that problematic? More importantly, is it going to affect our day-to-day life if the ban becomes a reality? Here is a quick guide

Published: 30th August 2019 12:03 PM  |   Last Updated: 30th August 2019 03:05 PM   |  A+A-

dumpyard_PTI

Rag pickers look for recyclable materials at a garbage dump site in Guwahati (File Photo | PTI)

Online Desk

Prime Minister Modi had urged people and various government bodies to initiate India's drive towards making a disposable plastic-free nation during his Independence Day speech. Six single-use plastic items are expected to face ban in the country from October 2 - the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi.

So what is the big deal with single-use plastic products? Is it really that problematic? More importantly, is it going to affect our day to day life if the ban becomes a reality? Here is a quick guide.

What is single-use plastic?

As the name indicates all sorts of low-quality plastic products that are not made to be reused can be categorised as single-use plastic. Also known as disposable plastic, it constitutes more than 50% of the total plastic produced in the world.

How is it produced?

These inorganic materials are made out of fossil fuels - a precious and limited natural resource. Reports say if we fail to cut down the current rate of disposable plastics, it will account for 20% of the world’s total oil consumption.

What are the single-use plastic items that we commonly use?

Name the first five plastic products you can think of at the moment and at least three them will fall under this category. Grocery bags, water bottles, coffee cups, straws, toothbrush…  Do I need to mention more?

Plastic bags, cups, plates, small bottles, straws and certain types of sachets, have been identified as the items to get the axe in India from October 2. 

Plastic packaging waste generation, 2014 (million metric tons)

Courtesy: UN Environment

Where does the problem start?

Here is the main problem. Since they are inorganic substances, they are resistant to natural decomposition even after spending hundreds of years in the ground. The problem starts in the fact that, though we have all studied this at school, seldom do we care.

So how bad is the situation?

According to a report by the UN Environment, over five trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide every year. This means if tied together, they would go around the world seven times every hour and cover an area twice the size of France.

Annual single-use plastic production

CIGARETTE BUTTS  580 billion
BOTTLES  46 billion
DRINKING STRAWS 36.4 billion
CUPS  16 billion

Sans proper disposal, these products can not only cause environmental degradation but can also be hazardous to life in other ways. For example. the unchecked piling up of plastic bags resulted in the clogging of the public drainage system in Bangladesh in the 1980s and intensified a flood situation that killed several people in 1988. 

According to the UN, high concentrations of plastic materials, particularly plastic bags, have been found blocking the breathing passages and stomachs of hundreds of different species. 

Distribution of single-use plastic production by region, 2014

Courtesy: UN Environment

Water contamination

Most of the plastic littering the earth eventually finds its way to the oceans. According to data, another 8 million tons of plastic is directly dumped into the seas every year. Once it reaches there, the life of almost all organisms attached to the ecosystem is at risk. For example, plastic bags in the ocean resemble jellyfish and are often consumed by the creature's natural predators like turtles and dolphins. 

Similarly, the plastic products that are disposed of in the form of landfills contaminate groundwater sources. This is because, when broken down into microscopic particles, it produces toxic chemicals which can cause hormonal problems and cancer in humans.

Like it or not, we are eating it too

That's right. So if dolphins and turtles are eating plastic, why would other marine animals not? Nature's food chain keep us connected to these animals, who in some stage consume these hazardous materials. If you like seafood, it is almost certain that microplastic components are already in your system.

So why do we keep making them?

Because of its

  1. Cheap cost
  2. Durability
  3. Resistance
  4. Lightweight.  Convinced?

What is the solution?

The answer is another cliched General Science lesson from our school days: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Only 9% of the total plastic produced globally gets recycled, while close 12% is incinerated. You can start from there.

Global plastic production by industrial sector, 2015

Courtesy: UN Environment

What is India doing to fight the issue?

Like in many other things, this issue too cannot be addressed effectively without the wholehearted participation of the US, China and the EU. However, India has started taking baby steps towards complete scrapping of single-use plastic. Here are a few updates that you don't want to miss after PM Modi's landmark Independence Day declaration:

  • Traders' body Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT) in an open letter has urged corporates and manufactures to discontinue using single-use plastic in their packaging.
     
  • Delhi Lieutenant Governor (LG), Anil Baijal has asked his administration to prepare for its scrapping in the city.  
     
  • Air India has declared that they will impose a ban on single-use plastic products like bags, cups and straws on all its flights from the same date.
  • Amul brand has said it will continue to recycled plastic for its milk packets.
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