India generates 25,940 tonnes of plastic waste per day, according to a 2019 study by Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). Plastic pollution has always been the cause of growing concern, particularly the pollution of soil and oceans. Studies show that nearly 50% of single use plastic (SUP) end up killing marine life and entering the human food chain. India had committed to phase out the use of single-use plastic by 2022. But in the time of coronavirus pandemic, the use of plastic products in the form of gloves, face shields, packaging and others has increased. With all this, it looks like there is a new challenge at hand.
India’s plastic waste story
India generates nearly 25,940 tonnes of plastic waste every day. This is close to the weight of 9,000 Asian elephants. Like much of the world, India is struggling to dispose its growing quantities of plastic waste given how ubiquitous it has become — from our tooth brushes to debit cards. Worse, a little over 10,000 tonnes a day of plastic waste remains uncollected.
The Government announced its plan (Swachchta hi Seva) to phase out Single Use Plastic by 2022. It did not, however, put in place a clear roadmap with timelines to meet the 2022 deadline for eliminating single-use plastics. The Guidelines of Single-Use Plastics issued by the environment ministry in January only set out actions that states may take, leaving the decision to ban single-use plastics completely up to the respective government. Without a clear roadmap, the target date of 2022 looked more aspirational than achievable in nature. With the current pandemic in place, the target appears to have moved farther away.
SUP makes a comeback with Covid-19
Single-use plastic (SUP) has made a big comeback in the country as COVID-19 deals a fatal blow to the campaign launched under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s aspiration to discard it by 2022. The prolonged lockdown has had a good effect on the environment in general by bringing down pollution levels, but the increased use of masks, gloves, face shields, PPE kits, and sanitizer bottles to fight the pandemic has given rise to new concerns.
The following factors are held responsible for the spurted usage of SUP in the country amidst the Covid-19 situation:
Use of masks, gloves & PPE Kits
Masks, hand gloves, shoe covers and PPE kits are vital in battling the COVID-19 battle, but they need to be disposed daily, especially by healthcare workers. This waste is slowly piling up into an environmental crisis. Most Indian States are still lagging in the systematic collection and disposal of this waste, which further poses a risk to the health of sanitation workers.
Restaurants have been playing a huge role in the promotion of the usage of plastic products too. India’s biggest online food delivery start-ups Swiggy and Zomato each deliver about 28 million orders a month. Zomato CEO, in a September 2018 blog, estimated that orders through food delivery aggregators were adding up to 22,000 tonnes of plastic waste created every month in India. Sales of e-commerce platforms such as Amazon, Flipkart and Grofers have witnessed a rapid increase owing to travel restrictions and safety concerns. The use of plastic for packaging products has been a growing concern.
At a time where Coronavirus is terrorizing the entire world and people are unsure of how long the coronavirus stays on objects, Single Use Plastic seems like the best case scenario to maintain safety.
Donation drives and food distribution
Owing to the ease of use and low cost, Single Use plastic in a ‘Use and Throw’ fashion has occupied the centre stage of food and other essential donation drives. Thanks to these plastics, donation drives are made infinitely easier and cheaper. It has, however, caused widespread problems from a waste management perspective.
The Way Ahead
The biggest villain in the environment story, plastic has fast grown to become the hero of Coronavirus. City corporations are already in a fix over face masks, shields, protective gear and other hazardous waste finding their way into regular piles of garbage, which enhances the risk of the infection spreading. Piling up of plastic disposables has added to the strain on the already inadequate garbage disposal and recycling infrastructure.
The Government has been keen in its efforts to gradually phase out the use of SUP several times in the past. However, the moves have never been backed by serious legislations. The Indian state of Maharashtra proves that bans are not the way forward for a country like India because we have weak regulation and enforcement system. Anything that depends on a weak system is bound to fail.
Experts suggest that there are still ways in which the usage of Single Use Plastic can be minimised amidst the Covid-19 crisis. We can start by using reusable water bottles and minimizing plastic usage that can be done away with, even during the pandemic. Shopping bags may be washed and reused for grocery shopping. The use of compostable gloves or reusing by simply washing them, wherever possible, must be promoted. Washable Canvas may be used to minimise the usage of plastic. Every effort counts.