Saturday, August 16, 2008

The plastic bags problem

Does the rampant use of plastic bags bother you? It certainly bothers me, which is what prompted me to write this piece, which was published in a modified form in Deccan Herald a couple of months ago. It was really nice talking to Mr Khan of KK Plastics. I'm glad to see his plastic roads are really taking off in Bangalore now.

“Can I have another plastic bag, please?” And with that, you may have just sounded the death knell for a fish, seabird, whale, cow, lion or sea turtle. Not only do discarded plastic bags decimate animals in the wild, they accumulate in the environment, pollute, cause floods, are aesthetical eyesores, and are filling up overflowing landfills. This week, Britain joined a growing list of countries that have started weaning themselves off plastic bags. It is time we in India did the same.
Plastics are synthetic polymers made from hydrocarbons. They are durable, cheap, strong and lightweight so that an extraordinary range of items is made of this versatile and valuable product. Though they have been around for over a century, it is only in the last few decades that their consumption has skyrocketed. Worldwide plastic production was a mere 1.5 million tons in 1950, but 245 million tons in 2006. Per capita use ranges from approximately 100 kg each year in Europe and North America to 20 kg in most of Asia.
Of all the plastic in the world, none is more ubiquitous than the lowly plastic bag. So widespread is its use that in parts of Africa, it has earned the sarcastic sobriquet ‘national flower,’ while in China it is called white pollution. Worldwide, the number of plastic bags used is a staggering 4 to 5 trillion every year, and growing. The tragedy is that most are discarded after a single use. A report in the British newspaper Daily Mail recently estimated that in Britain, the average bag was used for 20 minutes before being thrown. Apart from the waste of fossil fuel – approximately 480 to 600 million barrels of oil are used to produce those bags – a more serious problem derives from plastic’s durability. Experts estimate it takes from 200 to 1000 years to degrade. Which means that all the plastic bags ever manufactured are potentially still around. And therein lies the problem.
Improperly discarded plastic bags are just about everywhere – dumped by the road, adorning trees and telephone wires, floating down rivers. And they wreak havoc. Mumbai’s disastrous floods of 2005 and Bangladesh’s floods of 2002 were partially linked to discarded bags blocking drains. They provide a breeding ground for mosquitoes. They can be fatal to animal life. In India, we have grown inured to the sight of domestic animals chewing plastic bags, but several animals in the wild, including African lions, succumb to this menace.
Perhaps the most vulnerable are marine animals. Sea turtles mistake floating bags for jellyfish and end up swallowing them, as do several species of fish and whales. Researchers have recovered trash can liners, bread wrappers, chips bags, plastic sheeting, plastic cups, plastic thread and assorted trash from the stomachs of dead whales and fish around the world. Ingested plastic interferes with fat deposition, blocks gastric enzyme secretion, leads to reproductive failure, reduces food uptake, or blocks intestines, resulting inevitably in death. Seabirds and mammals also get entangled and trapped in plastic bags and then either drown or starve to death. Researchers estimate that at least 267 marine species are affected by plastic bag debris.
A safe solution to disposing bags has yet to be found. Incineration is suspected to release toxins into the air, while their sheer volumes simply choke landfills.
Recognising the environmental threat, several countries have adopted measures to curb plastic bag use. In 2002, Ireland introduced the popular PlasTax, a 15 cent tax on shopping bags, previously available free at most shops. The effect was dramatic – a 90% reduction in the use of plastic bags and a concomitant reduction in littering. South Africa introduced similar measures in 2003. Bangladesh, Rwanda and China have banned the bag. Italy and France propose to ban them by 2010. Britain joined the ban bandwagon last week when it announced legislation would be introduced by 2009 imposing a charge on shopping bags if retailers do not take action voluntarily. Meanwhile, communities in several towns around the world have successfully campaigned for bags being phased out.
Such eco-consciousness has caught on in Bangalore in very small ways. Lalbagh is to become plastic-free from 24 March, but meanwhile, most people seem content dumping their waste in empty plots. Almitra Patel, an expert on solid waste management whose PIL resulted in the Government formulating the Municipal Solid Waste (Management & Handling) Rules 2000, says “Plastic carrybags are too useful for bans to work. But charging for them will have a wonderful impact, as will dropoff bins where clean bags can be returned for reuse”.
Meanwhile, two enterprising Bangaloreans with a social conscience may have a solution. Says Ahmed Khan, who along with brother Rasool, founded KK Plastic Waste Management, “We felt a social obligation to end this menace.” The brothers have devised a patented process for plastic roads. Waste plastic is cleaned, shredded and added to the bitumen used to lay roads. The resulting roads are said to be smoother and more crack-resistant than ordinary roads. After getting their method evaluated and endorsed by the Central Road Research Institute, Delhi, and the Department of Civil Engineering, Bangalore University, the brothers have now tied up with the BBMP. They now collect and use 2-3 tons of the 35 tons of plastic waste that Bangalore generates everyday, paying Rs. 6 per kilogram of waste. According to Ahmed Khan, Bangalore has 1600 km of roads, of which 5-600 km are re-laid every year. The plastic-road method uses 2-2.5 tons of plastic for every kilometre of single-lane road, which means, says Khan, “ultimately, we can use all the plastic waste that Bangalore generates.”
Meanwhile, there are things we can all do to reduce plastic bag abuse. First and foremost, avoid using them in the first place. Cloth bags are trendy, sturdy, washable and environment-friendly. Carry them with you whenever you go shopping. If you must use a plastic bag, re-use it, for lining the dustbin, for example. Several stores use bags made of newspapers, often made by destitute women. Talk to your favourite store’s owners and see if you can convince them to make the switch. Ask for a dropoff bin where clean bags can be returned for reuse. Try and organise your community to segregate wastes – organic material can eventually be composted while the plastics can be reused in roads. Together, we can keep our environment and our city safe and beautiful.