Over the last two years the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) has conducted a sustained campaign to heighten public awareness about the dangers of using plastics. Its Chairperson Sheela Rani Chunkath is widely perceived as having played a crucial role in preparing the Tamil Nadu government's Bill seeking a ban on "non-reusable" plastics. Excerpts from an interview she gave V. Sridhar:
How effective is the TNPCB's public campaign against the dangers posed by the usage and disposal of plastics?
The government has conducted this campaign against plastics in a systematic manner. Some time ago the Chief Minister inaugurated an exhibition on the alternatives to plastics (where she demonstrated the use of traditional brooms made of coconut fibre instead of plastic brooms). We needed to demonstrate alternatives before introducing legislation so that people are reassured. Such exhibitions have been conducted in all districts of the State. The TNPCB has been advertising effectively on this issue through boards at the back of city buses in Chennai. This has raised awareness considerably. We have also conducted awareness programmes in schools across the State. The initiatives taken by the district administrations in hill stations such as Udhagamandalam and Kodaikanal have also produced stunning results. People have voluntarily participated in the campaign and it has taken the shape of a popular movement. People's participation is more important; the legislation is more in the nature of a deterrent.
In what way is the Bill a model for the rest of the country?
I think it is a model for the rest of the world. Most other places have already got into a throwaway culture. We are used to a re-use culture. We have to show the rest of the world that we do not have to follow a throwaway culture.
How do the provisions of the Bill specifically address the problem of plastic waste? And, how are the proposals different from measures taken in other parts of the country?
The Bill seeks to ban the sale, storage and transport of articles, specifically carrybags, cups, tumblers and plates, that are made of non-reusable plastics. But it does not ban the manufacture of these items. In addition, it bans the use of a range of articles made of non-reusable plastics in eating establishments.
The Government of India has only banned carrybags made of plastics with a thickness less than 20 microns. The ridiculous thing is that manufacturers are now making bags with 21 micron plastics. If the maximum permissible thickness is increased, it will only bring more plastic into the environment. Thicker bags would only mean more plastic and a bigger problem of disposal. We need to ban plastic throwaway carrybags irrespective of their thickness. This is the reason why the Tamil Nadu Bill makes no reference to the thickness of the plastic used. The Bill was criticised by some people as being unscientific because it made no reference to the thickness of the plastic used. I do not agree with this.
The only inconvenience for the public may be that they will have to carry their own cloth bags while shopping. Doing this is not something new for Indians; we used to do this 20 years ago and we can do it again now. The moment we declare that plastics are not allowed, people will come up with innovative ideas (demonstrates a disposable container made of paper coated with aluminium, which has been introduced by a leading hotel chain in Chennai). Paper is biodegradable and aluminium can be recycled back into the same form, unlike plastic, which can only be "down-cycled". "Down-cycled" plastic carrybags cannot be used for carrying foodstuffs or making kudams (pots) or toys. So what do you do with this waste?
There has been some apprehension that the Bill will ban plastic pots and other articles that are highly popular.
The Bill is very clear. It only bans certain plastic articles in eating establishments. There is no question of the plastic kudam being banned. However, the plastic kudam actually contains mercury, cadmium and lead, mainly because of the colours that are used. Plastic pots are highly poisonous and are not meant for storing drinking water. Kudam manufacturers claim that they affix stickers warning that the kudams are not meant to store water, but nobody notices them.
Is it difficult to ban the manufacturing of these plastics? Will it not be more effective because it will attack the source of the problem?
Manufacturing cannot be banned because it is interpreted as an infringement of fundamental rights. Such a ban can only be initiated by the Union government or with its concurrence.
What has been the reaction of the plastic industry?
The reaction is not surprising. The figures issued by the Tamil Nadu Plastics Manufacturers Association to back their claim that lakhs of people will be adversely affected are highly exaggerated. A recent advertisement issued by it claims that four lakh persons are directly employed in 5,000 plastic manufacturing and recycling units in the State. Our own figures show that there are only about 500 plastic manufacturing units in the State, employing a little over 6,000 persons.
What are the measures that would have to be taken to supplement the provisions of the Bill?
The concept of Extended Producer Responsibility has gained currency in the West. Ten States in the United States have legislation requiring bottlers to arrange for the collection and disposal of plastic bottles for recycling. A lot of this waste is entering India.