Led by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), World Environment Day is observed annually on 5th June and is the largest global awareness campaign for environmental action and protection. The theme for this year's (2023) WED focuses on to find solutions for plastic pollution under the title "Beat Plastic Pollution".
Plastic pollution is one of fast growing environmental threat during current times. Despite having a very drastic effect on environment and posing unsafe for survival of living organisms, the domestic use of this product is alarmingly high. As per recent data by UNEP, more than 400 million tonnes of plastic is produced every year worldwide, half of which is designed to be used only once with only less than 10 per cent being recycled, and an estimated 19-23 million tonnes end up in lakes, rivers and seas annually.
Generally, the waste comprises of agricultural and industrial waste, biomedical waste, besides household hazardous and non-hazardous waste, including plastic waste.Plastics are the largest, most harmful and persistent fraction of marine litter, accounting for at least 85 per cent of total marine waste.Due to the improper and poor waste management system– existing rightfrom home to industry, the problem of plastic waste disposal has become a grave concern. While individual consumers benefit from the use of plastic bags because of their convenience, the whole society bears the collective cost of their disposal.
The public costs of plastic bag usage are well established -- being environmentally unfriendly and take hundreds of years to degrade and fill up landfills. As a result, plastic litter has led to clogged drains resulting in sanitation and sewage problems; soil gets clogged thus hampering treegrowth; often gets ingested by animals; and its indiscriminate disposal by incineration pollutes the air and releases toxic substances.
Moreover, micro plastics -- tiny plastic particles up to 5mm in diameter – find their way into food, water and air. It is estimated that each person on the planet consumes more than 50,000 plastic particles per year and even more, if inhalation is considered. Discarded or burnt single-use plastic harms human health and biodiversity and pollutes every corner of the ecosystem.
In J & K, lot of waste gets washed down the streams and rivers -- enters the Jhelum, the largest river in J & K. In Jammu, lot of waste is being dumped at various sitesalong the banks of Tawi river.The waste finally ends up at the landfill -- posing a serious hazard to both human health and the environment.
Despite the blanket ban on polythene carry bags since its first notification in 2008under J & K Non-biodegradable Material (Management, Handling and Disposal) Act, 2007, with amendments from time to time --it is important to understand whether the ban has been effective in controlling the problem. And it is also important to comprehend the reasons for its success or failure as this will help in further improving the system.
The Way Forward
First of all strict monitoring and application of the law is required for the banon plastic carry bags to be effective. Random checks, spot fines and seizures of the plastic bags on a regular basis are key.
Secondly, participatory approach should be encouraged-- the regulatory agencies should invite different groups and assess their problems in the implementation of the ban. Asit is important to understand the user perspective, that will help in planning action as well as to resolve the issues.
Thirdly, for the purpose of establishing sustainable practices, the true goal should be to eliminate all single-use practices -- whatever the use, whatever the material being used, and encourage the use of alternatives to plastic bags only. Practices that encourage multi-use materials, such as reusable bags made of cloth or other durable materials help decrease dependence on non-renewable resources, while contributing towards the overall zero waste goal. Serious efforts should be made to find sustainable and eco-friendly alternatives to plastic bags.The following are some of the feasible alternatives:
▪Reusable bags -- this is an alternative to single-use paper or plastic bags, which can be reused many times for shopping. These come in canvas, woven plastic fibre, hemp, cotton and even leather.
▪Biodegradable plastics -- bio-plastics or organic plastics are a form of plastic derived from renewable organicsources -- such as vegetable oil, corn starch and pea starch.
The basic characteristic of these plastics is that they are capable of being decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms. The government can promote the alternatives through financial and other incentives. It is recommended that a detailed feasibility study on alternatives be carried out and the best types earmarked for mass production and distribution.
Fourthly, framing and adoption of a comprehensive waste management policy is the need -- the plastic bags ban should not exist in isolation. Instead, the ban should be part of a well thought out futuristicscientific 'Solid Waste Management Policy' that aims to substantially reduce and recycle plastics, while eliminating the types that cannot be recycled.
Finally, the most effective strategy to reduce the use of plastic bags and plastic wastes is to bring about behavioural changes in people and promote education and awareness. Continuous use of promotional material such as posters and hoardings should be put in appropriate public places. Moreover, consumers should be encouraged and motivated to always carry their own reusable shopping bags.
More to say, to persuade and sensitize our current generation towards environmental conservation -- mass environmental awareness campaigns are key. The campaigns are as much important because environmental health is directly or indirectly related to health of every living being. Epidemiology also dictates a triad of Environment, Agent and Host. These three components of the triad are dependent upon each other in progression of a disease. So while the basic component 'Environment' is safe, there is zero chance of any development of a pathological agent. No Host then.
Government, civil society, non-profit organizations including others have a role to play in fostering environmental awareness in general, and addressing the plastic pollution in particular. And multi-sectoral coordination and togetherness to guide towards environmental sanitation, conservation of biodiversity and water bodies – is crucial.
(The Author is a medico/educator/columnist/public speaker. Email: email@example.com)