Suresh KumarDoctors of Tamil Nadu Veterinary and Animal Sciences University (TANUVAS) are reported to have operated upon a cow to remove 52 kg of plastic from its stomach. It may appear a strange feat, but it signifies widespread misery caused by plastic pollution. Plastic pollution is threatening human and animal life in equal measure. It is so rampant these days that plastic waste – bottles, bags and other packaging material – are seen all across highways, oceans, rivers and canals. As per a report of the Union Ministry of Environment, 25,940 tonnes of plastic waste is produced in the country everyday. Plastic is ubiquitous and has entered all aspects of our life, including clothing, water, sanitation, engineering, medicine and healthcare. It has played an important role in delivering most, if not all, socio-economic comforts of the present way of living. The production of plastic has outpaced that of almost every other material during the past five decades. It is so because plastic is versatile, light-weight, durable, cheap and easily adaptable. As per a report of the Tata Management Study Group (2018), plastic consumption in India is rising at about 16 per cent, while it is 10 per cent in China and 2.5 per cent in the UK. The plastic industry occupies a substantial space in India’s industrial sector with an investment of over $25 billion in over 30,000 plastic manufacturing and processing units. It is providing employment to over 4 million people. The growth of plastic industries is almost double the growth rate of the national GDP. Plastic pollution is seen as a waste management problem. True, it is a wealthy waste. About 70 per cent of plastic emerges as waste on highways, in rivers and oceans, posing a challenge to animals, marine life and future generations of humans. Plastics and micro- plastic waste can easily be found in the remotest corners of human habitations in the country. A UN report of 2016 concludes that even biodegradable plastic is not a solution to plastic litter in waters such as oceans and rivers. These enter marine life and through marine food in human bodies, causing many health issues. Thus, even the policy prescriptions to allow biodegradable plastic made of petrochemicals may not succeed in addressing the larger issue of plastic pollution. Plastics also entail a livelihood issue for millions of people and has serious social implications. It is a poor man’s delight for being cost-effective and price-elastic. It offers ease of living at a very low cost; the poor use most of the cheap plastic, and as a result, suffer its ill-effects in much larger proportions than the rich. Slum-dwellers and those living in other unclean areas face major health hazards caused by plastic pollution. In fact, the situation is a paradox. On the one hand, plastic is seen as a medium of ease in living and on the other, it is prophesised as threatening our life. Plastic pollution, however, is so grave that the Centre that had earlier factored in a growth of about 10 per cent in the plastic industry in its endeavour to raise the country’s GDP, is now contemplating to ban single- use non-biodegradable plastic material. But the ban on the use of plastics is easy to proclaim than to enforce. Not many provinces in India have been able to walk the talk in this direction. This seems to be happening because there is no common understanding whether plastic is good or bad. Ecologists surely consider it a major source of environmental degradation affecting our life. But should environmental performance of plastic be the only criterion to proclaim it as bad? The capitalists, more importantly the industrialists, claim that plastic should be assessed on the basis of its multiple effects on human life. They feel that it cannot be treated as a primary reason for the problem of waste management being realised in most parts of the country. Solid waste management is a serious issue in our country because the city management systems and structures have almost collapsed. Not enough investment and efforts are made by the urban local bodies and Panchayati Raj institutions for disposal, management and processing of waste. ‘Waste to wealth’ has remained an illusory slogan and the system of waste management and processing are largely non-existent. Varying efforts, ranging from immediate remediation tactics to long-term strategies, have been attempted to respond to the problem of plastic pollution. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, in collaboration with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), has evolved a new hypothesis titled the ‘New Plastics Economy: Global Commitment’. The basic premise of the proposed new plastic economy is: Eliminate-Innovate-Circulate. However, efforts to manage plastic waste in India have been too meagre. As a result, the problem has become too big for any immediate solution, though it is not insurmountable. It requires some serious thought and positive public action.
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