Seeking a cure for the plastic pandemic

By Ishan Chauhan

Large sections of the Indian subcontinent starting from Balochistan and Sindh in Pakistan all the way to Odisha and Bihar in eastern India are experiencing extreme heat. Such heat waves in India are expected to increase in duration and become three to four times more common in the future. This marker of climate catastrophe has not spared the Earth’s poles, the Arctic and Antarctic regions are getting more heat than ever before, even though it is the beginning of winter in the south polar region. One of the most visible examples of this climate calamity and the havoc being caused to the planet is identified as plastic pollution, so much so that recently a majority of the world concentrated solely on plastic and adopted a resolution to curb its spread.
Heads of State, environment ministers and other representatives from 175 nations focussed on the threat of plastic and endorsed a historic resolution at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi in March this year to end plastic pollution. The resolution, based on three initial draft resolutions from various nations, addressed the full lifecycle of plastic, its production, design and disposal and established an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) which will work on a legally binding instrument looking at diverse alternatives to address the problem of plastics. Also looked at will be the design of reusable, recyclable products and materials with international collaboration facilitating access to technology. In conjunction with the first session of the INC by this year-end, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) will convene a forum to share knowledge and best practices in different parts of the world.
Plastics have a strong relationship with climate change. They contribute about 3.8% of global emissions, nearly double that of the aviation sector. In a fairly short period of time from 1907 to the present day, it has travelled from a wondrous discovery to a poisonous reality.
From local beaches to the distant Arctic, plastic products are choking the oceans and killing wildlife. The pervasiveness of the pollution caused by plastic, WWF says, is at a point where by 2050 there may be more plastic than fish in the ocean. More recently, there have been images of divers fishing up plastic masks dumped in the ocean, many of them single-use plastics, worn during the Covid pandemic. India has been identified at the helm of the top ten countries polluting the oceans with plastic. A recent study done by the UK-based packaging group RAJA (an amalgam of the founders’ names Rachel Marcovici and Janine Rocher) found India to be the worst country for plastic waste in the oceans in 2020, with some 126.5 million kg of plastic per year being dumped. The weight of plastic waste dumped by India is equivalent to the weight of over 250 thousand bottlenose dolphins, one of the most commonly found dolphin species in the ocean. Despite the United States producing double the amount of India’s plastic waste annually (42 billion kg), only 2.4 million kg of it ends up in the oceans. But this could be on account of the US exporting its plastic waste to African or South East Asian countries.
The Indian government did admit to the country’s part in the plastic problem saying India’s plastic waste generation has more than doubled in the last five years with an average annual increase of 21.8 per cent. Responding to a query raised in the Lok Sabha in December 2021 Minister of State for Environment Ashwini Choubey said that more than 34 lakh tons of plastic waste was generated in 2019-20 and 30.59 lakh tons in 2018-19. This is more than double the quantity of plastic waste produced -15.89 lakh tons – in 2015-16. A frightening 79% of the plastic produced the world over, enters the environment as waste and a miniscule 9% is all that is recycled.
In an earlier study published in the Science Journal, researchers quantified the amount of plastic entering oceans from the coastlines of 192 countries. Of the 275 million metric tons (MT) of plastic waste generated by 192 countries in 2010, nearly 8.8 million MT entered the world’s oceans and seas. The study placed India (rank 12) in the list of top 20 disbursers of plastic waste into the high seas from their coastlines. China ranked first, followed by countries in Southeast, South Asia and Africa, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh among them. “The top 20 countries, including India, account for 83% of all the mismanaged waste available to enter the ocean,” according to Dr.Jenna Jambeck, lead author of the study and professor of environmental engineering at the University of Georgia, US. Dr. Jambeck is internationally recognised for her research on plastic waste in the ocean.
Though India holds a prominent position among plastic waste generators the country has not taken a strong position in the battle against polluting plastic. Although among the 175 countries that adopted an end to plastic pollution resolution, India seemed to hold back stating that countries should be allowed to decide the actions to be taken voluntarily. India also said that amidst this push for reduction of plastic, developing countries should be allowed to set down their own goals in line with their development plans. This stand is in contrast with India’s past efforts to bring the problem to the fore, especially in 2019 at the United Nations Environment Assembly.
While it is unclear how effective the move initiated in Nairobi will be, India must take a stronger role in curbing plastic waste especially as it is a frontline producer.The collective push against plastic comes against a backdrop of conflict and geopolitical turmoil and can be showcased as “multilateral cooperation at its best,” as President of the UN Environment Assembly and Norway’s Minister for Climate and the Environment, Espen Barth Eide puts it. “Plastic pollution has grown into an epidemic. With today’s resolution we are officially on track for a cure,” says Eide. He and others from the participating nations classify the groundbreaking resolution taken in Nairobi entitled “End Plastic Pollution: Towards an internationally legally binding instrument” as “historic”. India must play a more central role in this historic effort.
(The writer is an independent researcher and author) (Syndicate: The Billion Press) (email: [email protected])

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