An estimated 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are used worldwide every year. Plastic is not biodegradable. So the plastic bags we carelessly throw away remain intact for hundreds of years. They do not break down into smaller molecules and join nature.
They release toxic fumes into the air when burnt, and the residual ash pollutes the environment. When mixed with wet waste in landfills, they release gases including ammonia and methane, which is toxic and foul smelling. Even the biodegradable garbage bags are just degradable. They physically disintegrate and remain in nature as small plastic particles.
The price of plastic
Plastics are expensive to manufacture. A car could drive about 11 metres on the amount of petroleum used to make a single plastic bag. According to a study by Salon, the colour used in manufacturing some of these bags even contains lead. They are hard to recycle too. Even in developed countries like the US, 90% of the bags are not recycled.
The World Wide Fund for Nature has estimated that over 100,000 whales, seals, and turtles die every year as a result of eating or being trapped in plastic bags. According to the famous environmentalist Rebecca Hosking, 100 million tons of plastic has already entered our oceans, and the amount of new plastic debris entering the oceans doubles in every three years. 46,000 – 1,000,000 pieces of plastic debris is estimated to be floating near the shores of every square mile of oceans today.
The problem is prevalent even in the developing world. It is common across India to find sewers and drain systems clogged by bags which cause severe cases of malaria and dengue due to the increased population of mosquitoes that breed on these flooded sewers. White pollution is so rampant in India that an estimated number of 20 cows die per day as a result of ingesting plastic bags and having their digestive systems clogged by them.
According to Toxics Link, an environmental NGO, Delhi alone generates almost 250,000 tons of plastic waste every year. If we go by the data made available by BBMP, of the 5,000 tonnes of waste generated every day in Bangalore, 3,000 tonnes is dry waste including 15-20 tonnes of plastic. Bangalore’s recent garbage crisis is a testament to why waste segregation is important.
Activism versus greed
Driven by environmental concerns raised by NGOs and activists, some laws are already in place in India, but enforcement has been a major concern. Production of plastics below 20 microns was banned in 2002. Later, Plastic Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2011 was formulated, but due to lack of political will, it was never implemented.
The bans failed to get enforced due to lawsuits filed by the plastic manufacturers, which are still awaiting final judgement. Different states have fixed different standards as minimum thickness for the plastic produced. In Kerala it is 30 microns, while in Himachal it is 70 microns. In Karnataka, it is 40 microns.
The alternatives which are being discussed in India are jute, cloth and paper bags. While cloth and jute are expensive, paper would expose groceries to moisture and lead to fungus and insects. Modern science offers other alternatives as well, including starch-based polymers which are biodegradable, low-cost, renewable and natural.
The problem is much more serious than we believe it to be. In her recent book This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein argues that climate change isn’t just another issue to be neatly filed between taxes and health care. It’s an alarm that calls us to fix an economic system that is already failing us in many ways.
Imposing ban on plastic is not impossible. Governments across the world have taken actions to either ban the sale of these bags, charge customers for them, or generate huge taxes from the stores who sell them.
Countries like Rwanda, Eritrea, Kenya, Mauritania, Tanzania, China, Taiwan and Macedonia have a total ban on plastic bags. Most European countries have strict rules against plastic, by either taxing the manufacturers heavily or imposing a ban on its usage.
In the United States, cities and counties have outlawed their use. In September 2014, California became the first state to pass a law imposing a ban. While in India, we still struggle to frame rules and roll them out.
Apart from fuelling the political will to bring about legislative changes to ban plastic, we citizens have got some serious work to do. We need to take a bottom up approach and start saying no to plastic. Carrying a jute bag when we shop, segregating waste, reusing plastic at home, giving up plastic utensils, straws and chewing gum are some of the many things we can do.
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