Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Ban Plastics ! (Solution or compounding the problem?)

Politicians of our day have became very creative.. to every complex problem they seem to have a very effective solutions.

There are some controversial words - Ban the song/film
There is a public / mass violence – Call for a military action
There is a bomb blast – Blame Pakistan

Similarly, there is an environmental problem – BAN PLASTICS

Several states in India have ban on the thin plastic bags and Kerala now wants to Ban all types of plastic bags. If the solutions is so simple why is it not working when there is already a ban on plastics in several other states. There are still problems with water blockages (due to plastic rags), there are still animal deaths (due to plastic digestion) and so on

This is simply because, the problem lies somewhere else than the plastics. All over the world not more than 3% of crude oil is used to make the plastics. So we have to understand that that plastic is NOT a dirty polluting material. Most of the other remaining 87% is used as a fuel and that’s what is creating the problem for the air pollution.

Now, Let us look at Indian per capita plastics consumption. The average Indian consumption of virgin plastics per capita reached 3.2 kg in 2000/20011 (5 kg if recycled material is included) from a mere 0.8 kg in 1990/1991. However, this is only one-fourth of the consumption in China (12 kg/capita, 1998) and one sixth of the world average (18 kg/capita).

Now let us turn towards the degradability of plastics. Agreed, that plastics don’t degrade and only can be reused. But situation in India is not bad there either. Percentage of plastics recycling in India is much higher than that in most developed and in many developing countries e.g. China 10%, South Africa 16%, compared to about 47% in India. This too is not due to any governmental regulation (which is the usual case in developed world). The recycling sector in India has developed autonomously because of the particularly low cost of labor and on account of the fairly large market for second-grade (lower-quality) products.

So we saw that our consumptions are low, our recycling industry is doing well then where the REAL problem? And it turns out to be Solid Waste Management.

According to an estimate, the percentage of plastics in municipal solid waste (MSW) increased from 0.7% in 1971 to 4% in 1995. This translates to about 5400 tonnes of plastics in more than 125000 tonnes of waste that is generated daily. This looks to be a small number but let us look at the other factor: Volume

Density of the MSW is about 4 – 5 gm/cc where as average density of the plastic waste is 1 gm/cc. This translates to volumetrically 15 – 20 % of the total MSW. The problem starts at the bad waste management / handling and gets compounded by the poor civilian habits.

When banning the plastics, we should also keep in mind what is the alternative to plastic bangs. Most usual (and obvious) answer is Paper. Now think twice. The making of paper can waste many thousands of gallons of water, as can the recycling of paper. The human and mechanical efforts and costs are very high, not forgetting the physical cost to loggers and those who work around the numerous chemicals. Plastic is, by comparison, efficient and low energy to produce, and, easily and efficiently recycled. Plastic reduces, recycles marvelously, and in that, is reused. After contrasting the efforts behind the making of paper and plastic, it is our unbiased opinion that plastic is indeed more beneficial to the environment, in that it is less harmful. The next time you are asked the dreaded question, "Paper or plastic?, you can answer knowing that you are making the informed choice. (read more:

Now coming back to the original problem. Majority of the solid plastic waste is a packaging waste is very difficult to recycle if not handled properly. Situation will be worse if the thicker plastics bags are put to use. It will do nothing but increase amount of plastic in the solid waste.

So the real solution is not banning the plastics but judicious handling of the plastics waste.
1. The segregation of the waste at the source is most important factor that should be looked into when deciding the policy on the plastics waste
2. The policy makers should not get bogged down by the propaganda and arrive at the solutions that can not be justified (and also can not be enforced properly)
3. Plastics manufacturers and NGOs should work together to teach good waste handling practices to citizens


loganathan said...

Nice work dude!!! Let the people understand atleast now.....
Plastics is not at all harmfull. Only awareness of how to dispose plastics wastes should be created among the public.

Sameer said...

Well researched article indeed.
Plastics are not the proble.The actual problem lies in how we use them. A little responsibility in usage and a little resourcefulness shown by everyone will definitely help alleviate the problem.