Is Just A Ban On Plastic Enough?
It’s the 2080s and you’re sitting in the community park as your granddaughter plays catch with her friends. You look around — the pathway is tidy with green trees and clean dustbins, the lake flourishing with fish, swans and plants. How does the image make you feel? Well, for me, it feels like taking in a fresh breath of air and smelling the transformation.
We’ve done it. We saved ourselves and mother Earth.
The year 2080 is less than 60 years in the future and if we haven’t attempted to transform our lives, we will probably see something drastically different. We’ll be seeing 2080 not with community parks but with patches of greenery surrounded by sky-scraping garbage plies, not with freshwater but unfit water everywhere and not a drop to drink. Yes, it’s scary, a true image nonetheless.
What is this transformation? How do we go about transforming our lives?
Life And Plastic
Unless one is convinced of the “why”, they cannot comprehend the “how”, so let’s dwell into the former before we speak about the latter of our transformation. In my previous piece, I talk about why plastic and chemicals are such a huge problem and what makes me so particularly passionate about them. It’s not merely the litter, toxins or animal harm; it’s the sheer viciousness that’s scary.
Not to sound cliché, but can you believe that every toothbrush we ever used in our life is still alive somewhere, waiting for some animal to swallow it.
Plastic now is not just a problem of the roads; it’s leached into our waters along with poisonous toxins, breaking down into pieces so dangerously small (micro and nano plastics) that neither we nor the innocent animals can deal with. About 70% of the Earth’s surface is water. However, less than 1% of this abundance is fresh and accessible to us humans. Yes, the same 1% that we send our untreated sewage into, industries let their toxins into and the same 1% that we need to stay alive. More the addition of toxins into our waters, lesser the water we have and share.
It’s not just scarcity that’s alarming; the lives of people who live near these water bodies are unimaginably affected — diseases, livelihood and quenching their thirst.
Plastic is no longer just a nuisance. According to a study by the American Chemical Society, the presence of microplastics (Bisphenol A, used in food packaging) was found in the liver and fat tissues of 47 human samples. In another case, traces of microplastics were found in the human placenta. What is terrifying about this is that we still do not know about the harm these microplastics can cause to our bodies. But one thing is for sure, if we continue our lives and activities like we currently are, the Earth will be left with the bare minimum — flora, fauna, water, land and air.
Animal death is a multi-fold issue. Every ecosystem works on balance. Every extinct species leaves behind an imbalance that pushes the environment a step closer to catastrophe. This means we humans, regardless of age, class, gender and geographic location, will see a 2080 that’s not so pretty.
What Plastic Is To Consumers
With the passion for understanding plastic and its problems, I began to think about how we, as simple citizens, are contributing to it. We are the biggest consumers of chemicals and plastic — wrappers, soap, detergents and all other daily necessities either are plastic or come wrapped in them.
In order to understand what others think about this, I reached out to middle-class consumers through a survey. Out of the 32 who participated, 90% of them shared that they too are aware of the problems that plastic brings and the toxic nature of chemicals; they want to avoid them. However, their lifestyle does not make it easy. While in conversation with a friend, she told me that she wouldn’t ever give up eating chocolates just because they came wrapped in plastic, “It’s too big a compromise,” she said, and I agreed.
Plastic makes human life convenient, albeit at a cost. Looking at our lifestyle that’s filled with plastic in all shapes, forms and colours, boycotting it is not comprehensible. Life would come to a standstill — no chocolates that last for days, no sturdy yet inexpensive tables and chairs, no cheap and waterproof wrappers that don’t absorb water or oil. Plastic is so versatile that it’s nearly impossible to not use it anywhere.
Solution To The Plastic Problem
If saying no to plastic is not the solution, then what is? Humans and our problem-solving nature is probably one of the most fascinating things for me. This instinct has brought us into the plastic problem and will also take us out of it. We have creative minds coming up with alternative solutions to replace plastic and toxic essentials. If we have cracked the problem, why are we not making this switch yet? Or even if we are, why is it so slow?
To dig deeper, I asked the same consumers about these sustainable products. They say that although they have the awareness, it is currently not economical for them to make the switch. The products are too expensive to replace their toxic counterparts. They also shared that the accessibility of a product is equally important to its cost. “One needs to be able to step out of the house, go to the grocery store in the opposite lane and pick the product up,” says Mudit, my co-worker.
What The Do-Gooders Have To Say About Their Enemy — Plastic
After hearing from consumers about their hindrances, I decided to reach out to some of the sustainable brands to understand them as a business. I spoke to three businesses from different domains — eco-friendly stationery, eco-friendly personal care essentials and natural farm products. We spoke about challenges with regards to scaling, support and customer acquisition.
Saurab Mehta from BioQ shared that capacity is the biggest challenge for them. The dearth of capacity, both of financial and other resources, influences their pricing, taking the cost up. “We have to let go of customers because we cannot fulfil their requirements. Sometimes quantity and at times, stringent timelines,” says Mehta. Subhiksha F2C, a brand working with natural farmers in Karnataka, says that although their customers want their clean products, they do not seem to understand the importance of eco-friendly packaging.
Packaging is not an intuitive problem that people understandshares Gauri from Arani Ecosteps, a personal care brand.
Another interesting thing that came out of these conversations was the difficulty in running a sustainable business in the current market scenario. “We get treated like any other business when it comes to reporting, taxes, compliance. There are no favours for someone who is trying to do something for sustainability. Government rules do not have flexibility,” adds Gauri.
With the problems of doing a regular business, an added layer of sustainability changes things for the worse — making these already existing problems multifold. While in conversation, I also asked these business owners about the kind of support they would need in order to begin flourishing. Saurabh Mehta from BioQ said that a certification would not only help them get credibility but also, in the long run, assist in tax reductions.
“When you buy something eco-friendly, then you know it’s eco-friendly because the government has labelled it. This will give credibility to the product and confidence to the customer.” he says. Apart from certifications, favourable tax structures and logistics support would really help these do-gooders go a long way.
People In Power And Plastic
With the increased alarm, governments and organisations around the world are working towards solving the myriad problems relating to the environment. For example, the United Nations’ body, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), provides assessments of the scientific basis of climate change, its impacts and future risks, and options for adaptation and mitigation.
One problem the Government of India is currently trying to tackle is the use of fossil fuels. Through the Compensation Cess introduced in 2017, the government aims to put a compensatory penalty on the production of coal. Although this taxes the use of coal, it doesn’t tackle the issue of Carbon emission itself directly. Apart from the government, several other environmental activists, organisations and experts are engaging in clean-ups, awareness and research.
The government of India is also actively working towards regulating the use of plastic by bans, segregation and recycling. In light of this, they are also working towards phasing out single-use plastic by 2022. Effective from 1 July, 2022, the manufacturing, importing, distribution, stocking and sales of unnecessary single-use plastic are prohibited. In addition to this, it will also be strengthening the waste management systems and actively spreading awareness about single-use plastics and their harmful nature.
The Problem With A Ban And How We Can Tackle It
“A ban on plastic” — imagine a world without plastic, so pure and healthy. However, this sounds a little too romantic and idealistic without discussing what the ban would do.
A ban on single-use cutlery would undoubtedly reduce our waste, but what about the bhelpuri waala/waali whose business they are a major part of? What would their customers eat with? Will their livelihoods be affected? How will they keep “business-as-usual” with the ban on a major part of their inventory?
This is what makes me question the sole banning of single-use plastic. It is important to acknowledge that plastic has penetrated our lives so much that handpicking it is just not sustainable. Can we really eliminate a major part of our lives without a placeholder? I think not.
Although the government will do its part in waste reduction and management with this ban, they should also actively work towards promoting the alternatives. Currently, in order to promote environmentally friendly products and influence consumers’ actions, the Government of India has the ecomark scheme, introduced in 1991. Under the scheme, companies can voluntarily apply to get a certification that suggests the environmental goodness of their consumer products.
Unfortunately, this initiative has not seen much success. A report by the Center for International Trade, Economics and Environment speaks detailedly about the pitfalls of the ecomark. Poor implementation, regulations and the lack of responsibility were the major drivers for the same. According to one of the suggestions provided by the report, the revitalisation of the eco-labelling board to include all stakeholders, from consumers to the ministry of finance, will act as a great promotional tool for the certification.
With India striving to achieve carbon neutrality by 2070, promoting positive externality will accelerate the process. Although tremendous achievements have been made in spreading awareness, we have a long way to go in terms of active implementations. Ecolabelling is one such implementation step we have already taken but haven’t been able to reap the benefits. With a better structuring of the scheme, not only will the consumers get a choice, but sustainable brands will get ways to achieve credibility, and hopefully, in the long run, other benefits through the certification.