A First-Of-Its-Kind Magazine On Environment Which Is For Nature, Of Nature, By Us (RNI No.: UPBIL/2016/66220)

Support Us
Magazine Subcription

Single Use Plastic: India set to take first big step

TreeTake is a monthly bilingual colour magazine on environment that is fully committed to serving Mother Nature with well researched, interactive and engaging articles and lots of interesting info.

Single Use Plastic: India set to take first big step

Single Use Plastic: India set to take first big step

Single Use Plastic: India set to take first big step

In its most sweeping measure yet to stamp out single-use plastics from cities and villages that rank among the world’s most polluted, a nation-wide ban will be imposed on plastic bags, cups and straws from October 2. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is leading efforts to scrap such plastics by 2022, is set to launch the campaign with a ban on as many as six items on October 2, the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. These include plastic bags, cups, plates, small bottles, straws and certain types of sachets. The ban will be comprehensive and will cover manufacturing, usage and import of such items. The ban on the first six items of single-use plastics will clip 5% to 10% from India's annual consumption of about 14 million tonnes of plastic. The government also plans tougher environmental standards for plastic products and will insist on the use of recyclable plastic only. It will also ask e-commerce companies to cut back on plastic packaging that makes up nearly 40% of India’s annual plastic consumption…

Arunima SenGupta

Every product has a shelf life, but sadly that is not the case with plastics. The fact is that our planet cannot digest plastic. Plastics take around 500 to 1000 years to completely degrade due to the presence of complex polymers. As a result, till now whatever bit of plastic has ever been manufactured or used by us can be found in some form or the other on the planet. And now it has reached a crisis point. Currently, India generates around 56 lakh tonnes of plastic waste annually, where Delhi alone accounts for 9,600 metric tonnes per day. Plastic menace is also one of the major causes that is making waste management a Herculean task for the country. Experts have estimated that annual waste generation in India will increase to 165 million tonnes by 2030. This means that around 66,000 hectares of land is needed to set up a landfill site which is 10 metres high and can hold up to 20 years’ waste. That is almost 90% of Bengaluru’s area. If we do not change our waste practices now then we will soon be buried in our own muck.

In June 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced that India would eliminate single-use plastic by 2022. In keeping with this decision, he called for the first big step in the fight against disposable plastic to be taken on Oct 2 this year, the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. In a speech delivered on India's Independence Day, August 15, PM Modi had asked citizens to take the issue seriously and to help municipal authorities by cleaning up single-use plastic whenever they see it at home or on the road. He went on: “Let's make India free of single-use plastic, shall we? I urge the start-up founders, technicians and industrialists to find ways to recycle plastic. Single-use plastic is the root cause of many of our problems – but the solution has to come from within, from us.” The banned items are plastic bags, cups, plates, small bottles, straws and certain types of sachets. This initial phase of the ban is expected to reduce India’s annual plastic trash output by up to 10 percent, totaling 14 million tonnes of plastic. In a country that discards 70 percent of its plastic and does not process waste in most cities, this action – if implemented thoroughly and well – could add up to some real change. There will be a six-month grace period after the October 2 launch to allow people to adopt alternatives. Modi has said the country will pursue other plastic-reduction tactics, including tougher environmental standards (i.e. ensuring everything is recyclable) and asking e-commerce companies, such as Amazon, to minimize the plastic used to package purchase goods.

India generated 26,000 tonnes per day of plastic waste in 2017-18 (TPD), the latest year for which data is available. According to the Central Pollution Control Board, out of that, 15,600 TPD, or 60%, was recycled. The rest ended up as litter on roads, in landfills or in streams. Uncollected plastic waste poses a huge threat to species on land and water. Around eight million tonnes of plastic waste enters the ocean every year. The river Ganga alone took 1.15 lakh tonnes of plastic into the ocean, second only to China's Yangtze, according to a research paper. India's plastic recycling rate is 60%, three times higher than the global average of 20 %, and India's per capita plastic consumption- at 11kg in 2014-15- is less than half the global average of 28 kg. In 2016, India said it wanted to increase the per capita plastic use to 20 kg by 2022. Since half the now produced is meant to be used only once, India has to figure out what plastic it wants to use and ban- and how it will recycle all that trash.

“See, for packaging you have many alternatives made up of biological materials including tree leaves and bagasse. Leaves like Sal or Dhak do not affect tree cover. However, this is more related to what Sustainable Development Goal 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production) calls for. It seems possible with alternatives provided we consume things responsibly. More innovation and technological intervention coupled with traditional knowledge will be needed. They have to be achieved by 2030. Governments are taking them a bit more seriously now. Policy coupled with right programmes can make any target achievable. For example, minimalist life style is becoming popular in Japan. As a society we have to take the call collectively and responsibly,” says senior forest official Ramesh Pandey. “It is not to banish plastic in totality. The prime object is to cut the supply of plastic which is not recyclable or not practical to recycle hence assimilates in environment. Object is not to replace it with fresh paper. Alternatives may be crop grown fibre, tree leaves, cellulose products, even old wax-coated paper used in bread like food etc,” points out SR Sachan, another government official. “As long as the alternatives come from biodegradable forest products like banana leaves and they don’t hurt or change the natural surroundings they are fine, rather than the non biodegradable plastics that are extremely injurious to environment, maintains Vikram Singh, retired IPS officer and an expert on the subject of environment and nature with a doctorate.

As per a CNN report: “One famous trash mountain in the east of New Delhi, known as Ghazipur, is reportedly just months away from rising higher than the Taj Mahal, which stands at 73 meters (240 feet) tall.” This situation is dangerous and action is indeed required. “There was no plastic till as late as 1970. For daily use purposes like purchasing vegetables, discarding kitchen waste etc. we were using cloth/jute bags. The shopkeeper packed them in bags made of newspapers. We had it even in our curriculum how to make paper bags. Thus, we can always revert to plant based material like jute or cloth bags. For kitchen waste disposal, recycling should be encouraged to convert it to manure. All non-degradable waste can be disposed of in newspaper bags,” says VK Joshi, former GSI director and keen environmentalist. He adds: “Using plant based material will not reduce the green cover, because in jute and bamboo the more you extract, the more it grows. Polybags are the worst culprits, they take more than 1000 years to decompose. All waste plastic should used in making and repairing the roads. The plastic manufacturers have to be provided with alternative sources of income. They have to be taught skills which they can use to develop into a business. A tall order, but either they suffer for some time till an alternative for them is arranged or by then all of us suffer and suffocate and watch our milch cattle die with polybags in their tummies. Our rivers/oceans are all plastic now. That waste plastic has to be reused for some better purpose like making roads, as I said.”

The ban would mostly target plastic cutlery, straws, cups and glasses, which are mostly made by the unorganised sector. “There isn’t much clarity on how much single-use plastic a company puts out needs to be taken back by it,” says Afroz Shah, a lawyer and environment activist. Around 95% of the trash he and his volunteers pick up on beaches and public places is disposable plastic. There is also no clear evidence that curbs on plastic use have had the desired results in previous years. A 2018 analysis by the United Nations Environment Programme of bans and levies on plastic bags and Styrofoam in 60 countries found that there was not enough data available on their impact in half the cases. In 30% of cases, there was a drop in usage of those products, but in 20%, there was little to no impact.

The government plans to ban these six items to reduce the 14 million tons of annual consumption in India by 5-10%. Penalties for the violation of the ban will take effect after 6 months to provide people with ample time to adopt other alternatives. The government also plans to push for use of only recyclable plastic and will also ask E-commerce companies to cut back on the use of plastic. The plastic used by E-commerce companies for packaging amounts to 40% of India's annual consumption. Some states have already banned plastic products. The Maharashtra Plastic and Thermocol Products (Manufacture, Usage, Sale, Transport, Handling and Storage) Notification, was issued by the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board in March to ban manufacture, distribution, transport and usage of certain plastic products . The Hon'ble Bombay High Court provided a three-month extension after the notification was challenged and said that it will be difficult to implement the policy with immediate effect. The Nation Green Tribunal (NGT) and other state High Courts around the country have also passed a number of orders to impose fines on violation of bans, to prevent the disposal of plastic in water bodies and to reaffirm bans in different states. In Sandeep Lahariya v. State of Madhya Pradesh, the NGT (Central Zone), ordered the Pollution Control Board of Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh to take steps regarding plastic waste management. After the order, several steps were taken in these states and raids were conduct to stop manufacturing and distribution. Recently, the judgment of Chandigarh Consumer Forum dated April 9, 2019 imposed a penalty on the shoe store BATA, for charging its consumers INR 3 for a shopping bag to carry their purchases home. Pepsi, Coco Cola and other packaged drinks manufacturers have been asked to come up with an alternative packaging solution by Union Food and Consumer Affairs Minister Ram Vilas Paswan. To prepare ahead for the single-use plastic ban from Oct 2, Paswan held a meeting in New Delhi with bottled water manufacturers and various government departments to find a suitable alternative to single-use plastic bottles for selling drinking water.

Why Plastic is such a big menace

Plastic poses a major threat to us even in our day to day lives. Apart from the humongous effect it has on the animals, namely, being ingested by animals under the impression that it is food has led to death of many animals. It also however has detrimental effects on the heath of humans as plastics are made up of a variety of toxic chemicals. As such, its uses and exposure are associated with a number of human health concerns. Chemicals leached from the plastics contain compounds like polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE), bisphenol A (BPA), and phthalates. These chemicals have been established to upset the endocrine system and thyroid hormones and can be very destructive to women of reproductive age and young children. Therefore, it is the need of the hour to regulate plastic consumption in India and to protect water bodies from pollution cause by plastic products.

Single-use plastic items

The single-use plastic ban is expected to cover six single-use plastic items initially including plastic bags, straws, cups, plates, small bottles and certain types of sachets. The ban will cover manufacturing, usage and import of such items. The centre has asked all the Ministries to participate in the campaign. The campaign is a part of the central government’s ongoing Swatch Bharat Mission. Single-use plastic is a form of plastic that is disposable, which is only used once and then has to be thrown away or recycled. The single-use plastic items include plastic bags, water bottles, soda bottles, straws, plastic plates, cups, most food packaging and coffee stirrers. With climate and environment becoming a rising global concern, plastic pollution and plastic waste management have become the focal point of worry. Millions of tons of plastic is being produced every year, which is not biodegradable. Hence, the countries across the globe are adopting and implementing strategies aimed at eliminating the use of single-use plastic. As only 1-13 percent of the plastic items are recyclable, the rest ends up either buried in the land or water bodies, eventually reaching the oceans, leading to polluting of water bodies and killing of marine life. Most of the plastic is not biodegradable and over a period of time the plastic breaks up and releases toxic chemicals into the water bodies, which in turn make their way into food and water supplies. If the plastic does not end up in the water, it ends up as a huge pile of waste that is hard to dispose of. Many of the South Asian countries have become global dump yards of plastic. The plastic pile-up is not only affecting the human body but also choking the environment.

India’s effort to curb use of single-use plastic

India in the first phase of its campaign against single-use plastic will spread nation-wide awareness about harmful effects of single-use plastic. In the second phase, the government agencies will collect all the single-use plastic items and they will be recycled in the last phase. The government will be introducing penalties for violation of the single-use plastic ban but the penalties are expected to come into effect six months after the ban, in order to give people time to adopt alternatives to the single-use plastic items. Some states in India have already introduced a ban on sale, storage and use of single-use plastic items such as Sikkim, Delhi, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Nagaland and Jharkhand. Air India, national carrier also announced its plan of banning single-use plastic items in its flights from October 2, 2019. In the first phase, the airlines will implement the ban on all flights of Air India Express and Alliance air and in the second phase, the plan will be implemented in Air India flights.

Global single-use plastic ban

The European Union has targeted to eliminate single-use plastic items such as plastic straws, knives, forks and cotton buds by 2021. China is also gradually cutting down its use of single-use plastics. One of China's island provinces, Hainan, has already set its goal of eliminating single-use plastic by 2025. The Chinese Government also imposed a ban on the import of foreign plastic waste, forcing countries like the US and UK to find new outlets to dispose off their plastic trash. As a result, plastic waste was redirected in huge quantities to Southeast Asian nations.  Marriott International, one of the world's largest hotel chains, also announced that it would be eliminating the single-use toiletry bottles from its toiletry kit for guests. The move is a part of the hotel chain to reduce its environmental impact.

No more ‘foreign garbage’ for India

It has been just over a year since China banned imports of foreign plastic waste, and now India has followed in its footsteps. The move is meant to “close the gap between waste generation and recycling capacity,” and to help keep the country on track for its goal to phase out all single-use plastics by 2020. India produces nearly 26,000 tons of plastic waste daily and an estimated 40 percent of that remains uncollected, due to inadequate recycling facilities, so it makes sense that the country hardly needs more inputs. There were already some prohibitions in place, limiting plastic imports to companies in Special Economic Zones (SEZs), while allowing certain businesses to procure resources from abroad. But the provision of partial ban was misused by many companies on the pretext of being in an SEZ. India had begun taking in greater quantities of plastic following China's ban, but now that will shift to other, less regulated countries in Southeast Asia, including Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia. All of these have experienced a drastic increase in plastics imports in the past year. Malaysia is now receiving three times the trash it used to, Vietnam's imports have increased by 50 percent, and the amount of Thailand has gone up fifty-fold. After China’s announcement that it would no longer accept ‘foreign garbage’, environment secretary Michael Gove said the UK had to ‘stop off shoring our dirt’ and deal with its plastic waste at home. But at the time, India was mentioned as one destination for plastic rubbish as a ‘short term’ alternative destination to China. Clearly that short-term solution has come to an end.

Viable alternative to single-use plastic items

The alternative to single-use plastic items, especially single-use plastic bottles, which are used to sell packaged drinking water, needs to be affordable for the consumers. A drinking water bottle, which costs Rs 20 currently, cannot be priced higher than that. Further, customers have shown confidence in the sealed water bottles over the years and hence, the alternative should also be up to the mark.  Since recycling of plastic is not a permanent solution, manufacturers of single-use plastic have been asked to look for other alternatives that are biodegradable. In recent years, scientists have been racing to find an alternative to single-use plastic water bottles and have come up with some prototypes, often derived from plants that supposedly degrade in natural environments and pose no risk to animals. But there are three problems with these efforts, according to scientists have extensively studied and experimented with plastic bottle substitutes. First, these bottles can often only degrade in highly controlled environments; these bottles also often contain plastic linings or chemicals that are unable to naturally degrade; further, these bottles do nothing to break the reigning paradigm of single-use plastics. Railway ministry, which manufactures and sells packaged drinking water ‘Rail Neer’ is also looking for alternatives including polymers to make their packaging biodegradable.

What is bioplastic?

Bioplastic simply refers to plastic made from plant or other biological material instead of petroleum. It is also often called bio-based plastic. It can either be made by extracting sugar from plants like corn and sugarcane to convert into polylactic acids (PLAs), or it can be made from polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) engineered from microorganisms. PLA plastic is commonly used in food packaging, while PHA is often used in medical devices like sutures and cardiovascular patches. Because PLA often comes from the same large industrial facilities making products like ethanol, it’s the cheapest source of bioplastic. It’s the most common type and is also used in plastic bottles, utensils, and textiles. “The argument (for bio-based plastics) is the inherent value of reducing the carbon footprint,” says chemical engineer Ramani Narayan from Michigan State University, who researches bioplastic. About eight percent of the world’s oil is used to make plastic, and proponents of bioplastic often tout a reduction in this use as a major benefit. This argument rests on the idea that if a plastic item does release carbon once it’s discarded, as it degrades, bioplastics will add less carbon to the atmosphere because they’re simply returning the carbon the plants sucked up while growing (instead of releasing carbon that had previously been trapped underground in the form of oil). So why are we not hearing more about the potential for bioplastics to replace petrochemical plastics? The idea of bioplastics has been around since the 1920s and some have been commercially produced since the 1970s. The difficulty to date is that plastics made from renewable plant-based materials such as starch cost more to produce than oil-based plastics in a market driven by a low tech, high volume commodity produced cheaply.

Why ban of plastic has so far proved ineffective

Currently in India, there is only one law that is in place – No manufacturer or vendor can use a plastic bag which is below 50 microns as thinner bags pose a major threat to the environment due to its non-disposability. The usage of plastic bags is still high as the ban is not implemented on all plastic bags. Many big brands and vendors have started charging the customers for the polybags in order to commercially discourage them, but it is so far not been effective as there is no law or guidelines that says shopkeepers should charge money from the customers for the polybag. National Green Tribunal in Delhi NCR introduced a ban on disposable plastic like cutlery, bags and other plastic items amid concern over India’s growing waste. The ban came into effect on January 1, but, till now nothing has been done by the government. As a result, the production and usage of plastic persist in large amounts and India continues to be the top four producers of plastic waste in the world. Currently, cities including Delhi, Mumbai, Karwar, Tirumala, Vasco, Rajasthan, Kerala, Punjab and now Madhya Pradesh to name a few have the ban on the plastic bags in place. But, its enforcement and effective implementation is an issue.

What India can learn from the world

France: The country passed a ‘Plastic Ban’ law in 2016 to fight the growing problem of plastic pollution in the world which states all plastic plates, cups, and utensils will be banned by 2020. France is the first country to ban all the daily-usable products that are made of plastic. The added benefit of this law is that it also specifies that the replacements of these items will need to be made from biologically sourced materials that can be composted. The law also follows a total ban on plastic shopping bags. The law aims at cutting the usage of plastic bags in the country by half by 2025.

Rwanda: The country too suffered from plastic pollution like any other developing country, there were billions of plastic bags choking waterways and destroying entire ecosystems of Rwanda. To fight this scourge, the government launched a radical policy to ban all non-biodegradable plastic from the country. This developing country in Africa is plastic bag free since 2008. The country implemented a complete ban on plastic bags while other countries around the world were just starting to impose taxes on plastic bags. The ban is not effective just because of strict enforcement but also because of hefty penalties. According to the law, the offenders smuggling plastic bags can face jail time.

Sweden: Known as one of the worlds’s best recycling nations, Sweden is following the policy of ‘No Plastic Ban, Instead More Plastic Recycling.’ There is one simple reason behind this – Sweden has world’s best recycling system. Mostly all the trash in Sweden’s system gets burned in incinerators. The system is so strong and in place that less than one percent of Sweden’s household waste goes into the landfill dump. Recently, they also run out of trash. Now they are actually asking other countries for their garbage so that it can keep its recycling plants running.

Ireland: Ireland is the perfect example that shows how one can get rid of the ubiquitous symbol of urban life – Plastics. The country passed a plastic bag tax in 2002 – that means that consumers would have to actually purchase bags. It was so high that within weeks of its implementation there was a reduction of 94 percent in plastic bag use. And, now plastic bags are widely unacceptable there.

China: The country instated a law in 2008 to deal with its growing plastic woes. China made it illegal for stores (small or big vendors) to give out plastic bags for free. It also said that owners should start charging the consumers for the plastic bags and allowed them to keep any profit they made for themselves. End result, after two years of the law implementation, usage of plastic bags dropped by a whopping 50%. That means around 100 billion plastic bags were kept out of the landfills.

Vanuatu: World first diaper ban

The tiny Pacific island of Vanuatu, which is already feeling the disproportionate effects of the climate crisis as a result of rising seas, is also overburdened with plastic waste. Having imposed a strict ban on plastic bags, straws and polystyrene containers in July 2018, and expanding it to include items such as plastic plates, cups, stirrers, food containers this year, the island nation has now introduced a ban on disposable diapers, arguably the first of its kind in the world. With throw-away nappies made from a combination of plastic and wood pulp, they end up in landfill for a few hundred years. “Vanuatu is safeguarding its future. Eventually, plastics find their way into the water and the food chain,” said Mike Masauvakalo from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs after the ban was announced in June. With the nation also running out of landfill space, parents will now be forced to use washable cloth diapers, just like in the old days.

Canada: Bottles, bags and more

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he drew direct inspiration from the EU parliament when he announced a similar single-use plastics ban this month. Due to come into effect in 2021, it will be even more far-reaching than its European counterpart, with shopping bags and water bottles also among the gamut of products to be consigned to history. Canada estimates that it uses around 15 billion plastic bags annually, and roughly 57 million plastic straws daily, yet less than 10% of this plastic is recycled. Trudeau especially focused on the plastic blight on Canada's coastlines, which at around 202,000 kilometers (126,000 miles), are the longest in the world. “It’s tough trying to explain this to my kids. How do you explain dead whales washing up on beaches across the world, their stomachs jam packed with plastic bags?” Trudeau said, adding that plastic can be found at the “very deepest point of the Pacific Ocean.”

A simple piece of policy can achieve big results, these countries show that perfectly. The need of the hour in India is strict laws and its enforcement.

Worst single-use plastics & their eco-friendly alternatives

1. Plastic Straws: They’re lightweight, so once they’re dropped or discarded, plastic straws easily blow into waterways and enter our oceans. Once in our oceans, they’re extremely dangerous for our marine wildlife. There have been instances where sea turtles have had plastic straws lodged painfully in their nostrils. Plastic free alternatives: Stainless steel straws, bamboo straws, pasta straws and rice straws. For those that like the flexibility of plastic straws, there are other eco-friendly alternatives including paper straws, reusable silicone straws and compostable plant-based straws. Or best of all - and when possible, choose to go straw-free!

2. Plastic Drink Stirrers: Cocktail stirrers are a fun accessory for drinks, but most are made from plastic and only used once before the novelty of them fades and they’re thrown away. They end up in the trash, on our beaches and in our oceans. Plastic free alternatives: Reusable glass or bamboo stirrers, or spoons! Or try a stick of celery, carrot or cucumber. Why not go herbal and try a stick of rosemary?

3. Balloon Sticks: What goes up must eventually come down. While balloons are a nice decorative item for celebrations, they’re one of the highest-risk plastic debris items for seabirds. Not only are the balloons themselves deadly, but so are the plastic sticks that often come with them. Plastic free alternatives: Plan a planet-friendly party and skip the balloons. Opt for more eco-friendly decoration options like paper lanterns, recycled bunting, DIY bubble blowers and flowers.

4. Plastic Cotton Buds: Did you know that 1.5 billion cotton buds are produced every day, with the average person disposing of 415 a year? Sadly, many of these cotton buds end up in our oceans. Once the cotton tips dissolve, all that’s left is essentially a small, rigid plastic stick which is easily ingested by birds, fish and other marine wildlife. Plastic free alternatives: Fluid ear washes, bamboo cotton buds, organic cotton makeup pads or a reusable silicon swab. 

5 & 6. Coffee Cups & Lids: It’s important to note that most takeaway coffee cups can’t be recycled as they’re made with a plastic lining. Plastic free alternatives: Reusable glass. Keep cups, porcelain mugs with you.

7. Plastic Cutlery: Eating out and getting takeaway often comes with more than just food. Plastic cutlery and plastic bags often come in the mix. Eco-friendly alternatives: Next time you order takeaway, make a special request to say no to the additional plastic. Switch to reusable bamboo utensils, a travel cutlery set that you can take with you wherever you go or bring your own from home.

8. Plastic Cups: 500 billion disposable cups are consumed every year. That’s enough to go around the Earth 1,360 times! While lightweight and convenient, foam cups (made from polystyrene)  most often end up as trash in landfills. Plastic free alternatives: Bring your own reusable cup or a mason jar if you’re planning a trip to your favourite juice or smoothie shop. You can also help encourage your favourite cafes and food retailers to switch to eco-friendly and compostable alternatives.

9. Plastic Containers: Globally, over 78 million metric tonnes of plastic packaging is produced every year and it’s projected that plastic production will increase by 40% by 2030. The packaging industry is the largest converter of virgin plastics, and many of these are only used once for food packaging, shopping bags and beverage bottles. Plastic free alternatives: Avoid pre-packaged meals. Most food outlets will happily put the food directly into your own reusable container if you ask. Some options for containers include glass containers, stainless steel lunch boxes and mason jars. You can also shop at bulk food stores and bring your own containers to fill. If you’re eating out, ask your favourite outlets to switch to compostable and eco-friendly alternatives.

10. Plastic Plates: Plastic plates might be cheap and handy when hosting parties or at picnics or food courts, but once they’re thrown away, they often end up as trash in landfills. Most recycling centres are unable to sort these plates due to their shape. Plastic free alternatives: Glass or porcelain plates. Alternatively, palm leaf or bamboo pulp plates.

Bad Plastic Alternatives

1. Biodegradable single-use water bottles: Nearly half a trillion plastic water bottles are purchased and consumed each year, and fewer than 7% are recycled into new water bottles. You essentially need an environment that has high enough heat and moisture levels that allow microbes to break down the polymer, but outside of a carefully controlled environment, that degradation may not and most likely will not occur. The question is, are they telling the full story? If they’re saying it’s made from plants, that’s great, but what actually has to happen after it’s used for it to break down? What conditions are actually required? The most sustainable option is almost never going to be a single-use product. It’s dangerous if people equate ‘biodegradable’ — without knowing the time and conditions involved — with the idea that it's therefore OK to avoid changing habits. The most sustainable option is a reusable option and ideally we move towards that as much as possible.

2. Biodegradable plastic bags: Similar to water bottles derived from plant-based plastics, some companies have begun selling biodegradable plastic bags. Globally, more than 1 trillion single-use plastic bags are used each year, and less than 5% get recycled. The vast majority of these bags end up in landfills or contaminate environments, causing harm to animals. Paper bag production, meanwhile, often leads to deforestation and is not necessarily a sustainable alternative. Some companies claim that their biodegradable, single-use plastic bags are safe for animals to eat, but Richa Malik, the founder of the India-based start-up ‘The Happy Turtle’, which sells and advocates for alternatives to plastic, said these claims are inaccurate. “Studies have basically found out that the degradation of bioplastics in the guts of sea turtles is no different than plastic,” she said. Although these bags can sometimes be composted in the right conditions, Malik said too often they end up in landfills or ecosystems where they release greenhouse gas emissions into the environment. And, at the end of the day, these bags aren’t renewable, she said. “It’s a single-use product,” she said. “The moment you scale it up, you have to scale up resources and raw materials, from corn starch, algae, bamboo — it’s all coming from agricultural lands.” Rather than single-use bags, you can use tote bags that can be continually reused.

3. Bamboo straws: For many environmental advocates, plastic straws are simply a gateway to get people more interested in learning more about sustainable alternatives, because other forms of plastic, such as fishing nets, cause more harm to marine life. But in the rush to replace single-use straws, many supposedly sustainable alternatives have popped up. Bamboo straws, in particular, have become popular, but both Malik of Happy Turtle and of Levey of Naeco said they’re often not actually sustainable. Malik pointed to the carbon footprint of these products. “People use a lot of bamboo items in the US, but bamboo doesn’t grow in the US,” she said. “It grows in China, and the carbon footprint is phenomenal.” She stressed that companies and people should be investing in local alternatives, rather than looking for one-size-fits-all replacements. Levey said straws and other items made of bamboo often feature a lot of other materials. “There’s some bamboo materials that are marketed as naturally organic bamboo, but it’s not the whole story,” he said. “We had bamboo samples we were excited about, only to learn that this bamboo stuff looks and feels like plastic, and it’s actually 15% bamboo powder, maybe 20% cornstarch and then 60% resin, which is actually a chemically formed plastic that also contains formaldehyde.”  Ideally, you can go throughout life without using straws. But when you do reach for a straw, choose the most environmentally friendly option. Although bamboo, reusable straws are more sustainable than single-use plastics, and many brands sell 100% bamboo products, reusable steel straws generally make more sense for the environment because they last longer and can be sourced locally. Paper straws are also a better alternative for coffee shops and restaurants. This recommendation comes with a major caveat, because people with disabilities rely on straws and should be able to access the straw of their choice.

4. Clothes made with ‘recovered’ plastic: Each year, more than 8 million tons of plastic enter the world’s oceans. Marine animals, including whales and turtles, often consume this plastic by accident and become sick or die as a result. In recent years, many multinational clothing brands have responded to the growing epidemic of plastic waste by incorporating recovered plastic into their clothing lines. Overall, these efforts help to clean up the oceans, which is undoubtedly a good thing, but they end up releasing microplastics and other toxins into the environment over the long-term, and also don’t do anything to break the reign of fast fashion, according to experts. Since the fashion industry shifted toward a fast fashion model, it became immensely harmful to the global environment by consuming large amounts of resources, including water, and releasing harmful chemicals into the environment. Sustainable clothing advocates say that the best way to make the fashion industry more sustainable is for consumers and companies to invest in longer-lasting items made from sustainable materials that would lead to less clothing is bought overall.

5. Plastic roads: All around the world, entrepreneurs have started paving roads with plastic waste. It sounds like a compelling idea — taking the plastic waste that’s contaminating the environment and turning it into an asphalt that, in turn, conserves natural resources. But environmental activists have raised red flags, saying that as these roads wear down, they release fine plastic dust into the atmosphere that can cause harm to animals and even humans. Microplastics already pervade the air, bodies of water, and food sources. In fact, the average human ingests at least 70,000 microplastics annually. Road construction is inherently harmful to the environment — it involves materials such as concrete and petroleum that are often extracted in unsustainable ways, and they continually erode and release harmful materials into the atmosphere. Construction advocates suggest recycling degraded roads to conserve natural resources, and some environmentalists encourage the adoption of solar panels on roads to at least cultivate clean energy.

Tackling massive problems like climate change and plastic pollution ultimately depends on government and corporate action, but individuals also have a role to play. The purchasing decisions people make every day influence the economy, determining which businesses thrive and which falter. If enough people make similar decisions based on shared values, then sector-wide transformations can happen.

Leave a comment