Plastic hazards

Published : May 25, 2002 00:00 IST

The Tamil Nadu government makes a pioneering legislative move to curb the menace of plastic waste. But the absence of cheap and convenient alternatives and the Bill's possible adverse effect on employment lead to widespread apprehensions.

THE Tamil Nadu Plastic Articles (Prohibition of Sale, Storage, Transport and Use) Bill, the first piece of legislation by any State government in India to curb the menace of plastic waste, has aroused keen public interest and evoked conflicting reactions. While social activists and environmental groups have hailed the move as a bold and decisive one, industry has warned that it would lead to large-scale unemployment in plastic manufacturing units. The proposed legislation has also aroused apprehension about the fate of thousands of small catering establishments that use plastic articles to serve customers. The major Opposition parties have criticised the move on the grounds that the government has not provided cheap and convenient alternatives to people before introducing the legislation.

In a move widely construed as a retreat in the face of pressure from the industrial lobby, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa announced on May 8 that the Bill, introduced in the Assembly a day earlier, would be referred to a House Select Committee for further discussion. Environmental groups have, however, not lost hope that the government will move ahead and enforce a ban on non-reusable plastic, whose increasing use poses a threat to the environment with serious consequences for public health.

The Bill seeks to ban the use of "non-recyclable" plastic carrybags, cups, plates and tumblers and a range of plastic articles in food establishments. Under the legislation, the use of articles made of non-reusable plastic such as forks, spoons, cords or strings, sheets and mats and the distribution of newspapers and periodicals in plastic wrappers will be banned. Any violation of the ban on the sale, storage and use of prohibited plastic articles will attract fines of up to Rs. 25,000. The preamble to the Bill states that the "rapid increase" in the use of "non-reusable" throwaway plastic articles, particularly in eating establishments, canteens and marriage halls, "causes significant environment(al) risk and health hazards". It observes that the presence of substantial quantities of non-biodegradeable materials in municipal solid waste that are stored in landfills contaminates ground water. Moreover, the plastic waste prevents the seepage of rainwater and thus hampers the recharge of ground water sources.

One of the first queries raised by the people was whether the ban will apply to the ubiquitous plastic 'kudam', or pot, which has literally lessened the burden of the womenfolk in the State in the past two decades. The wonder material of the 20th century has invaded every aspect of life primarily because of its flexibility and relative lightness. However, plastic's non-biodegradability poses serious environmental and health problems. In addition, the additives used in processing plastics results in the presence of substances that are a serious health hazard. The popular plastic pots are actually unsuitable for storing drinking water because of the presence in them of cadmium, mercury and lead, which are mainly used to impart colours to them.

In India, the load of plastic waste on the environment has increased dramatically in the last two decades. Consumption of plastic has more than doubled since 1995-96 - from about 1.8 million tonnes to about five million tonnes.

The disposal of plastic waste is a growing problem across the country. The plastic carrybag, often made of thin plastic, best symbolises all that is wrong with the growing plastic culture. Municipal administrators across the country view the carrybag as the chief culprit behind choked drains. The accumulation of plastic in municipal waste poses serious problems in the management of waste. Municipal waste cannot be incinerated because of the presence of plastic in it. Burning the waste releases dioxin - a class of 75 chemicals - which is carcinogenic and causes birth defects and other serious ailments.

The Bill has been criticised for not having defined the physical properties of the plastic articles it seeks to ban. Particularly, the Bill does not define the thickness of the plastic to be banned. Also, the most lethal plastics, such as poly vinyl chloride (PVC), a known carcinogen, is not sought to be banned by the Bill. PVC is toxic at every stage - during production, use and disposal. PVC articles invariably require plasticisers as additives, which means the presence in them of lead and other toxic substances.

Sheela Rani Chunkath, Chairperson of the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB), agrees that while "PVC is the real culprit", the government needs to proceed "step by step". Implicit in this approach is the government's perception that what is justifiable in environmental terms needs to be balanced by social realities and a tinge of pragmatism. Chunkath argues that greater awareness needs to be created before banning PVC. The TNPCB, Chunkath points out, has conducted a sustained awareness campaign on plastics. For instance, hoardings mounted at the rear of buses plying in Chennai carry a warning.

The official viewpoint, based on pragmatism, is that in the first stage, throwaway plastics have been targeted. Chunkath said that the attempt was "to attack particular uses of plastics rather than specific plastics". Although she admitted that this was "certainly a compromise", she said that the government targeted throwaway plastic articles because "easy alternatives are available". Chunkath said that in the case of PVC, which is used heavily in the construction industry, the high cost of the alternatives was a deterrent. Alternatives such as GI (galvanised iron) pipes were substantially more expensive options. Chunkath said: "We took the plastic road for making these materials because it was convenient and cheap. But we have got stuck on that road. But we do not have immediate solutions now to replace PVC."

Environmental activists argue that a ban based on specific characteristics of plastic is likely to be ineffective. They point to the provisions of the Recycled Plastics (Manufacture and Usage) Rules, issued by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests, 1999. The Rules banned the use of plastic carrybags with a thickness less than 20 microns. Rajesh Rangarajan, the Chennai coordinator of Toxics Link, a non-governmental organisation, told Frontline that the spirit of the ban was undermined as manufacturers introduced lightly corrugated bags with a thickness of 21 microns to escape the provisions of the Rules. He argued that merely increasing the permissible limit of plastic bags would only bring greater volumes of plastic into circulation. Moreover, it would lead to the production of greater volumes of virgin plastic.

The Bill attempts to control the use of plastics in three areas - eating and food establishments, households and packaging. Banning the use of plastics in other areas would be more difficult because the alternatives are either yet to evolve or are very expensive. For instance, if the use of plastics in computers is banned, it would be difficult to use alternative materials. Chunkath explained that the government had targeted plastic packaging materials because people could easily switch to other materials.

She suggested that by offering tax incentives and increasing awareness, people could be motivated to adopt these alternatives. In the hill stations of Kodaikanal and Udhagamandalam, for instance, sustained campaign and increased awareness have resulted in shops refraining from serving customers in plastic carrybags. This indicated that popular participation, rather than mere legislative deterrents, had greater potential to bring about a change, she said.

The government believes that the ban will reduce the generation of plastics in municipal solid waste. The ban on the use of non-reusable plastics in marriage halls, for instance, is likely to be effective because they are a significant source of waste generation. The presence of plastics in municipal solid waste poses serious problems because incineration is not possible without risks for public health. Biocomposting of waste is rendered difficult because the plastics have to be first separated from the waste.

THE most strident criticism of the Bill came from the Tamil Nadu Plastic Manufacturers Association. It issued an advertisement claiming that more than four lakh workers employed in 5,000 plastic manufacturing units in the State are in danger of losing their jobs as a result of the ban. It has welcomed the government's decision to refer the Bill to a Select Committee.

Chunkath dismisses the Association's claim as "grossly exaggerated". Figures issued by the TNPCB show that there are only 504 plastic manufacturing and recycling units in the State, employing 6,454 workers.

Environmental groups claim that much of the "recycling" that is done in small units is actually "down-cycling" of used plastic.

Rajesh Rangarajan said that the plastics industry in India had not "discussed the problems associated with plastic waste in any serious manner". "Down-cycling," he argued, "invariably means the conversion of plastic waste into inferior forms." Carrybags are often made from "down-cycled" plastic.

Critics of the plastic industry point to the hazardous operations of the many "down-cycling" units located on the northern fringes of Chennai, near Manali. Casual workers employed in these units earn between Rs. 30 and Rs.50 a day and work in hazardous conditions. Chunkath said that these units were poorly ventilated and that workers constantly inhaled toxic fumes. The TNPCB has issued notices to several units.

About the manufacturers' "concern" for ragpickers, who are employed in the collection of the plastic waste, Chunkath said: "The quality of employment is very poor. If they were employed for making paper bags, they would probably be better off."

Chunkath said that the manufacturers had not responded to her suggestion that they adopt a redemption scheme for plastic bottles collected by ragpickers. "Perhaps paying 50 paise for a PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottle is not economically viable. They would rather import the waste. India is actually importing plastic waste. The plastic manufacturers have not established the logistics for collecting, storing and converting the waste plastic."

Among the plastics, PET is more amenable to recycling. T. Gangadharan, director, Futura Polymers, a company that has successfully established a capacity to recycle PET bottles at its plant near Chennai, says that a "generalised approach" to the problem of plastic waste will not be enough. "We have to examine and identify the specific kinds of plastics that are generated in particular communities and then attack the problem," he says. This is particularly important because mixed and dissimilar plastics cannot easily be recycled. This requires the establishment of logistics for the collection, sorting and storage of plastic waste.

Environmental groups have advocated the concept of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) as a solution to the mounting problem of plastic waste. This requires that plastic producers take responsibility for the waste that is generated in communities after the products are discarded. In a publication issued recently, Toxics Link suggested the establishment of a Deposit Fund Scheme, which will work much the same way as sales schemes involved in the sale of mineral water in cans. This will encourage the reuse of plastic containers. Introducing take-back schemes is another option, with manufacturers paying consumers for every bottle that is returned to them at their collection centres. Futura Polymers has three collection centres across the country and it recycles 1,000 tonnes of PET a month, converting it into textile-grade yarn.

Gangadharan believes that efforts must be made to recycle as much plastic as possible. At the same time, alternative materials must be developed for plastics that cannot be recycled. He points to the fact that many of the alternatives suggested for plastics are materials based on wood resources - paper, for instance. "There is a danger of greater denudation (of forests) if we try and save on plastics," he said.

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