Beat Plastic Pollution, the theme for World Environment Day 2018, is a call to action for all of us to come together to combat one of the biggest environmental challenges of our time. It invites us to consider how we can make changes in our everyday lives to reduce the heavy burden of plastic pollution on our natural places, our wildlife – and our own health. While there are no reservations on the importance and relevance of this call for action, a critical examination of ‘whom’ it is being addressed to, especially in the light of the subtext, is in order. It is now a bitter reality of our times that plastic is the most pervasive debris found in the ocean, and with eight million more tonnes being added each year, it may be more prevalent in weight than fish by 2050. Many of the food, household and personal care products we use in our everyday lives are packaged in plastic, designed and destined for one use. This waste ultimately gets leaked into the coastal or marine environment.
Sherilyn Mcgregor explains that while part of the explanation for this rising tide of waste is behavioural and generational (use-and-throw generation), the problem is also structural, which is why campaigns, which focus on consumer behaviour change, are flawed. She explains that “Litter is at the end of a process that involves production, consumption, and disposal, and this is a chain in which the consumer (and potential litterer) is the weakest link, with the least bargaining power. Yet most of the discourse on waste in general and plastic waste, in particular, has been restricted to behavioural problem of the consumers and the responses have, naturally, followed this path”. For many years now, giant multinational businesses have funded and run campaigns to manipulate consumers into thinking that ‘litter’ is solely a consumer behaviour problem. Their strategy has been typically to guilt-trip common citizens and consumers, absolving themselves of their responsibility to ‘clean up the mess produced by them’. By calling out to the common people to ‘make changes to their everyday lives’, the pivotal messaging surrounding this year’s theme is no different from these devious campaigns in implicating consumers.
Recycling: Part of the problem or the solution?
As the problem of marine plastic pollution gains greater public attention, it is critical to examine the response of the other two powerful actors- municipal authorities and businesses. Examples from around the world have shown that businesses -manufacturers of plastics and products- successfully distanced themselves from the problem their packaging causes. The plastic and the FMCG industry which is one of the biggest consumers of the problematic plastics such as single-use, multi-layers and composites have often used ‘recycling’ as a crutch to dodge the task of reducing the production of these problematic materials. However, research shows that recycling is a distraction from the task of reducing the production of disposable goods and often not an effective environmental solution. A study by Greenpeace found that 50% of plastic sent overseas was too contaminated to be recycled. A recent study by GAIA has affirmed that recycling will never compensate for the high use of plastic on its own. It has established with compelling data that only 9% of all plastic ever discarded since 1950 has been recycled, and the rest became pollution in landfills, dumpsites, incinerator emissions, or oceans, where it will remain for millennia. Thus, there is an urgent need to remove the moral and legal sanctity around the kind of recycling that offers ‘cushion’ to the industries to continue business as usual. It seemed as though India’s SWM and PWM Rules of 2016 were cut out to achieve this, until the amendment in April 2018.
Pan-India waste and brand audits
To highlight the pervasiveness of plastics and to ascertain the responsibility for the proliferation of problematic plastic in the environment, twelve organisations conducted waste and brand audits in fifteen cities across India between May 16 and May 30, 2018. The participating groups conducted audits in different sites such as public parks, water bodies, recreational centres such as malls and cinemas, and resource recovery centres. Waste was classified into seven main categories (unbranded plastics, branded plastics, polystyrene, rubber, glass/metal, textile, and paper/ cardboard), then measured by weight and volume. Random samples of branded plastics were further categorized into product types (food, household, and personal care), and type of plastic packaging (single layer, multilayer, polystyrene, expanded polystyrene, hard plastics, polyethylene, foil and others) and audited to record the brand and identity of the producer. The waste was classified by product categories, packaging, manufacturer, and brands.
On the eve of World Environment Day, while Delhi was preparing to host delegates from different parts of the world for World Environment Day conference, GAIA India hosted a press meet to share the findings of the audit. The event comprised two sessions, with the first session breaking down the audit report and the second session on the recommendations and the way forward, based on the experiential success of all the partner organisations present at the event. Mr. Jairam Ramesh, former Minister of Environment and Forest, graced the event as the guest of honour and delivered the keynote address. In his talk, he cautiously problematised plastics from the standpoint of poor management rather than its toxicity and other inherent issues. Nonetheless, he advocated for a careful phase-out of the single-use plastics and other problematic pieces. He released the report and hailed the recommendations as ‘eminently reasonable and doable’.
Image 1. Jairam Ramesh releasing the report along with members of GAIA India members
Is an alternative possible?
Despite the crisis proportion, the plastic trend has not yet peaked, and is even reported to worsen - plastics producers are planning to flood the markets with a massive scale-up over the coming decades. It is projected that, by 2050, the total volume of plastic ever produced will reach 34,000 million tons—over four times what has been produced so far. Despite some efforts to curb plastic pollution through mechanisms like bans and fees, overall, governments have been unable to staunch the increasing flow of plastic. At the moment, the plastic war, also perceived as the war against municipal authorities and businesses, is being waged by voluntary organisations and committed citizens. As the audit results have shown, companies are not only designing plastic to be difficult or impossible to recycle, but the overwhelming flood of new plastic into the market thwarts any chance of recycling keeping up. Given the current trend of the global waste crisis and the projections for the future, it is important for policymakers to acknowledge that recycling will never be able to absorb the existing and expanding production of plastics. Their primary emphasis must be on large scale reduction of plastic.