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  • Ekta Kumar

The love hate relationship with plastic

We’ve heard the term ‘new normal’ repeatedly over the past few months. The phrase embodies all the uncertainties around change, and nudges us to accept, and adjust to it. What is unusual, will soon become standard. What is surprising, will be expected.

We are getting used to questioning long-held ideas, values, and truths we once took for granted. Obviously, it will sometimes lead to confusion. As in the case of single-use plastics – it has been much maligned in the past, rightly blamed for being an environmental hazard, for clogging our rivers and choking our seas. But now, given its essential role in dealing with Covid19, is it creeping back into our lives, as a saviour?

The defining image of the pandemic is the PPE uniform – our corona warriors, covered from head to toe – in plastic. The use is not limited to masks, gloves, visors, gowns, shoe liners, and body bags. Plastic is playing a key role across the world in fighting the virus. Public health concerns and the fear of infection are prompting retail stores and shops to use plastics instead of recyclable materials. Plastic is being used to protect food and groceries (which form a bulk of the e-commerce deliveries) from contamination. As consumers, many of us are choosing to use plastic products, a lesser immediate evil perhaps, rather than risk contracting the virus.

India had committed to phasing out the use of single-use plastic by 2022. But in the present scenario, that looks unlikely. As per the Central Pollution Control Board, we generate 25,940 tonnes of plastic waste per day (2019). Plastic packaging accounted for 43% of the total plastic waste. Given the surge of e-commerce deliveries and the excessive packaging used for each product, that number will only go up.

Strict restrictions that had once been imposed on the manufacture, sale and use of SUP’s, in states like Maharastra and Tamil Nadu, have now been paused or rolled back. It was tricky to enforce in any case, given our history of weak regulation and enforcement system, and now with growing demand and acceptability, it is getting even tougher to implement.

On the supply side, plummeting oil prices has made it cheaper to produce. Which means the incentive to recycle goes down. There are laws in place regarding disposal, but given the humongous amount of waste being generated, we are struggling. How can our waste management and recycling system ever keep up.

Uncontrolled burning of plastic is creating a bio-hazard as it releases toxic nano and microparticles in the air and water bodies. Incinerators in large cities are running to capacity already. We need to develop better business models for the collection and disposal of waste. The sanitation workers face an increase in the risk of exposure given the volume of hazardous waste they need to segregate, often with barely-there safety measures. The closure of recycling plants and Raddi wallahs is adding to the crisis. And it will only get worse.

As per Grand View Research, the global disposable face mask market will grow from less than 1 billion dollars in 2019 to 166 billion dollars in 2020. And this is just masks. There are about 1 million plastic bags being used every minute. Add gloves, gowns, cups, packets, equipment…the amount is staggeringly huge.

Plastic has been the most visible symbol of consumerism. It exploded on the global scene after the second world war, fundamentally changing how we live. It took a long time for us to acknowledge the risks. For the past three decades activists and experts have been educating us, and sensitising us to the danger it presents to our planet. Hopefully, all the years and effort spent trying to change public opinion and behaviour towards single-use plastic will not be lost.

Today as we receive yet another delivery wrapped in plastic, or reach for a disposable cup, or trash a bag, we must be fully conscious of our decision. The anxiety around hygiene has led to a change of our behaviour and increase in demand. Hopefully, this phenomenon is temporary. Habits are hard to break. Plastic must not insidiously creep back into our lives. It must find no place in our ‘new normal’.

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