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The ‘plastic problem’ & what we can do about it

By Anoop Nautiyal | Jun 12, 2023

Plastic use and its ubiquity in everyday life has increased across India along with the rest of the world.  In spite of the ‘plastic problem’ spiraling out of control, we are yet to see major outcomes in finding a range of concrete solutions. In light of these challenges, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) aptly selected plastic waste as its theme for the recently concluded World Environment Day.

Seeking solutions, we can approach the challenge of plastic waste management from three perspectives that are global, national and personal.  When we talk about plastic waste, it is often thought of merely as garbage to be collected and disposed of. We are yet to begin comprehending plastic waste as a major factor responsible for climate change.

99% of all plastic produced in the world is made from fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas. The extraction, manufacturing, transportation, use and disposal  associated with plastic contributes heavily to climate change. UNEP estimates that greenhouse gas emissions from plastic could account for 19% of the total global carbon budget by 2040.

Apart from climate change, we must attend to the fallacy of modern-day recycling and our perceptions of it. The reality is that since the 1950s, only 9% of plastic waste generated globally has been recycled. Plastic recycling has its own limitations. It can mostly be recycled once and sometimes twice. 

Speaking from a national perspective, the central government notified the Plastic Waste Management Rules 2016 and banned several types of single-use plastic items from July 1, 2022. According to experts, the banned items account for only 2-3% of the total plastic waste. Sachets and multi-layer packaged products like chips and biscuits do not come under the purview of the ban. Many banned items continue to be available in abundance in the open market. 

By and large, the methods that will enable us to be free from plastic have neither been taken seriously at the global or national level, nor a concrete strategy devised at the corporate, social or community level. There remain large sections of society oblivious to the dangers of single-use plastics. Perhaps even more problematic are the actions of global corporate plastic polluters who largely seem to be indulging in greenwashing. Most have not taken adequate measures in making quicker transition towards circular solutions.

Though there is no denying that the situation looks grim, the global community is engaged in efforts to be free from plastic. As many as 175 countries endorsed a historic resolution at the UN Environment assembly in Kenya in 2022 to forge an internationally legally-binding agreement by 2024. The resolution addressed the full lifecycle of plastic, including its production, design and disposal. The global community took the next steps, having assembled as recently as last week in Paris to advance the Global Plastic Treaty. 

Just a few days earlier, a rather significant report was released by UNEP.  “Turning off the Tap” states global plastic pollution can be reduced by up to 80% by 2040 by using existing technologies and ensuring major policy changes. Promoting concepts of circular economy, the report focuses on recycling, reuse and reorientation from macro and micro lenses for countries and corporates to apply. 

Globally, a large number of groups are engaging in heightened advocacy and activism.  Many others are coming together to fight climate change and improve the deteriorating environment. We are all a part of the problem but can become a part of the solution, and that is what is now required of us if we wish to save our planet from the perils of plastic pollution. 

The writer is a social worker

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