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India’s campaign against single-use plastic suffers a big jolt

July 31st, 2020
topic:Pollution
by:Shuriah Niazi
located in:India
tags:COVID-19, environment, plastic pollution, single use plastic

Environmentalists in India are worried that single-use plastic has made a big comeback with coronavirus in the country, giving a major blow to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's initiative to curb its usage.

Environmentalist Anoop Nautiyal said recently that the prolonged lockdown in the country has had a good impact on the environment and reduced pollution levels, but increased use of masks, gloves, face shields, PPE kits and sanitiser bottles, made of plastic, to fight the epidemic has led to new worries. According to Nautiyal, the campaign against the single-use plastic is now out of people’s minds as the Covid-19 cases continue to surge across the country.

The campaign gained momentum on 15 August, 2019 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while addressing the nation from the rampart of Red Fort in New Delhi on the occasion of the country’s 73rd Independence Day, made a call to shun plastic. Modi urged people to stop using single-use plastic bags so that India could start phasing them out from October 2, 2019. October 2 is the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, considered the Father of the Nation. An atmosphere was built across the country to end the use of plastic. Soon the movement against plastic built widespread popular support and a massive drive called “Swachhata Hi Seva” or “Cleanliness is Service” was started to end plastic use. Nearly 100,000 people formed a human chain in Dehradun, capital of northern Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, to extend their support to the campaign.

Environmentalists say that after the pandemic hit the country all this came to a halt as masks, gloves, face shields and PPE kits are made of plastic for protection against the virus. Wearing a kit is necessary for doctors and paramedic staff and right now health and safety have taken precedence over the environment. With stress on disposable PPE kits, face masks and gloves, a serious climatic catastrophe is unfolding for the post-Covid-19 era, warn experts.

Need to revive campaign against plastic

Nautiyal said the campaign against single use plastic must be revived as the nation entered the second phase of unlocking after lockdown ended and Unlock-2 began on July 1. Asked how this can happen when the use of masks, sanitisers, gloves and PPE kits is necessary, Nautiyal said that collective efforts should be made to make reusable masks and gloves and other items in place of existing ones.

Experts feel that many laws that prohibit or limit use of single use plastic are now becoming ineffective in the present challenging circumstances. From 2018 onwards, many state governments had started restricting single-use plastic items such as disposable cups and plates, along with thin polyethylene bags. By early 2019, more than half of the states in the country had enacted laws to ban or limit use of single-use plastic. Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave several speeches in 2019 on the importance of giving up plastic.

But due to the coronavirus epidemic, the demand for single use plastic has increased. Only a few months back, ecologists were dreaming of a plastic-free India. During lockdown, food and other essential items were supplied to the migrant workers and other people stuck during shutdown in plastic bags. In Gujarat’s red zone (where the number of Covid-19 cases is high), the use of disposable cups and plates was made mandatory. Use of disposable plastic cups, plastic cutlery, plates and bowls, thin plastic carry bags, garbage bags has increased at many places as a precautionary measure against spread of virus.

Plastic is not only being widely used for relief work, but people in cities are also using it to keep household items. Many people prefer plastic bags as they are discarded after single use, while jute and cloth bags are used over and over again giving rise to the apprehension that they could be helpful in the spread of the virus. Eateries and other shops are also using plastic for home-delivery. Plastic waste is being disposed of recklessly across public places in the urban areas.

Officials say use of plastic has been allowed

BH Anil Kumar, the commissioner of the civic body of Bengaluru in southern India, said the use of plastic had been allowed in Bengaluru in view of the current circumstances. In the national capital, an official of the North Delhi Municipal Corporation said, “Covid-19 is the main concern right now and the authorities do not have the means to take action to restrict plastic use right now.”

The government in the southern state of Kerala had prohibited use of plastic in January 2020 but after the virus outbreak it purchased plastic products in large quantities to help in relief work and supply of free food through thousands of community kitchens.

Currently, only face masks used by the general public in India for protection from virus are made from a variety of common fabrics and are reusable and are quite economical. However, plastic is used in making face shields, gloves, head covers, shoe covers, sanitiser bottles etc. Currently, there is no substitute to plastic in making these items. The public can use reusable cloth masks but doctors and frontline workers have no alternative except using plastic items.

According to experts, people can certainly wear the reusable cloth masks and even frontline workers can use them after duty. The PPE kits cannot be reused but masks should be reused wherever possible to help the environment, say ecologists.

Alternatives to plastic are costly

The campaign against the single-use plastic got people’s support before Covid-19 hit the country. As the government banned plastic carry bags, people started using canvas bags, denim bags and jute bags. But the shop owners usually do not provide them free of cost to the customers, unlike plastic bags. Many people started taking steel tiffins to their offices, and when their kids followed the suit by using steel tiffins and bottles instead of those made of plastic. The managements of schools also encouraged kids and their guardians to use non-plastic products. But many families in India found the alternatives to plastic were much costlier. After Prime Minister Modi announced the government’s intention to phase out plastic, the Indian Railways also planned to serve tea and other hot beverages in kulhads or earthen cups instead of those plastic cups and glasses. But the plan never materialised as earthen cups were found to be both costly and inconvenient. Similarly, people started using banana leaves and stitched plates made from peepal tree leaves instead of plastics for serving food at many places especially at wedding ceremonies, parties and other functions. But such efforts remained very limited as leaves are not easily available and are expensive. Similarly, steel cutlery is also expensive and must be cleaned and washed after use adding to the cost.

Plastic has become an indispensable part of an average Indian’s life. Before the advent of plastic, milk was distributed in glass bottles which were exchanged the next day for fresh ones. But today, milk comes packaged in plastic as people don’t have the time to exchange glass bottles every day. Earlier, while travelling in trains or buses, drinking water was usually carried in clay jars. But today people find the clay jars are costly as they are inconvenient to carry around and must be discarded at the end of the journey. So carrying water in plastic bottled during journeys is both cheap and convenient.

The government is silent about banning multi-layered packaging in which refreshments like chips, candies and other snacks are sold, which is not recycled. As most people are cost sensitive, the alternatives to plastics have not become very popular as they are expensive compared to single-use plastic.

Article written by:
Shuriah Niazi
Shuriah Niazi
Author
India
The prolonged lockdown in the country has had a good impact on the environment and reduced pollution levels.
According to Nautiyal, the campaign against the single-use plastic is now out of people’s minds as the Covid-19 cases continue to surge across the country.
As most people are cost sensitive, the alternatives to plastics have not become very popular as they are expensive compared to single-use plastic.