Expert Comment

Impractical comprehensive plastics ban

In the classic 1967 Mike Nichols movie, The Graduate, a fresh-out-of-college Dustin Hoffman asks his father’s business partner what advice he can give the young Hoffman on which career to pursue. “I just want to say one word to you,” is the businessman’s sage reply, “Plastics.”

This scene came back to me while reading about the recent ban that the Maharashtra government has imposed on the use of plastics in our day-to-day lives. Other states have also tried to ban the use of plastic packaging with mixed results, but Maharashtra is serious about it. Hundreds of citizens have been fined for carrying plastic bags, traders and shop-keepers for storing or transporting goods in plastic containers, with the plastics industry warned that their manufacturing licences will be cancelled unless they produce acceptable bio-degradable plastic. Almost 400 plastic and thermocol manufacturing units have already shut down and the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) has issued closure notices to another 265 factories producing various types of plastic goods. This despite awareness that this industry provides 4 million jobs countrywide and plastic exports accounted for 3 percent of India’s exports in 2015-16 (value: $7.64 billion or Rs.52,490 crore). 

Several decades ago, plastic was indeed the miracle material of the time and the advice given to Hoffman in the film was undoubtedly good. Plastics, mostly derived from petrochemicals, have become virtually indispensable over the years. Its uses are multiple: as packaging for all types of goods especially food, water and soft drinks, and being so much lighter than glass and virtually unbreakable, for shopping bags and transportation. 

However in recent years, plastic has become anathema to environmentalists and consumer activists because it’s mostly non bio-degradable waste, and is also reportedly poisonous, even carcinogenic. In particular it has become a nightmare for local and municipal governments as it cannot be disposed easily. Burning waste plastic releases toxic fumes that pollute the air. Animals and marine life ingest it, often with fatal results. Stray cows, which abound in our towns and cities, have been found dead after consuming huge amounts of thrown-away plastic bags. Ninety percent of sea birds worldwide ingest plastic debris. From the 1950s to this year, an astounding 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced worldwide. Worse, some types of plastic can last 400 years. Research has also revealed that plastic bottles leech into the liquids stored in them. And since plastic is carcinogenic, drinking such liquids poses the threat of cancer.

Clearly, there is a strong case for phasing out plastics from our lives, or changing its composition to make it safer for people and the environment. But the Maharashtra government’s stringent ban is reckless and irresponsible. For one, all plastic containers and packaging is not anti-social. Plastic packaging of a certain thickness, or only used once, is biodegradable. But how is thickness to be checked and how can it be ensured that ‘once-used’ bottles and containers are actually discarded and not reused? Though a high-powered committee of government officials to monitor the comprehensive plastics ban has been established, I suspect the Maharashtra government hasn’t given sufficient thought to this issue. 

For instance, the ban covers every type of plastic packaging, no matter how thick it is, as well as “non-woven polypropylene bags” (don’t ask me what that means). Disposable items made of thermocol, such as plates, cups, spoons, bowls, straws, forks, etc, can only be used once. Plastic sheets and all kinds of plastic film are also banned. But milk pouches and mineral water bottles are exempt, provided the pouches and bottles are returned to the vendor (for which there’s a nominal charge) for recycling. Stringent fines are payable for using banned plastics and flouting regulations. 

Given how notoriously corrupt our police and civic officials are, can you imagine the field day they are having — and will continue to have — with such an obviously unimplementable ban with its various provisos and exceptions? MPCB has stopped renewing licences of plastics manufacturing units and advised them to produce “eco-friendly” products. Meanwhile, the All-India Plastic Manufacturers’ Association has estimated that about half a million jobs will be lost in the state and the plastics industry will suffer a Rs.4,000 crore revenue loss annually due to the ban. It’s pertinent to note that very few countries worldwide including industrially developed Western democracies have decreed a blanket ban on plastics. 

Surely, it would have been more sensible for the Maharashtra government to focus on basic issues related to public health, such as providing clean drinking water to citizens, depleting the high levels of air pollution in cities, and regular clearing of garbage from towns and cities, instead of going in for a ban that may be politically correct, but hugely impractical.

(Rahul Singh is a former editor of the Reader’s Digest and Indian Express)