February 15, 2020
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The Immortal Beast

Condemned world over, plastics find lavish acclaim in national policy

The Immortal Beast
Jitender Gupta
The Immortal Beast
Plastic has become the modern world's most versatile man-made material. But it's also its worst environmental nightmare. The use of plastic has been roundly condemned the world over by environmentalists and there is a vigorous campaign to limit its use. It is non-biodegradable, hazardous and drastically toxic. But the NDA government seems to have conveniently ignored these glaring facts. Or, how do you explain the Draft National Policy on Petrochemicals submitted to the cabinet by the ministry of chemicals and fertilisers, which aims to "raise its consumption more than three-folds to make India the third largest plastic consumer by 2010?"

The Draft National Policy (a copy of which is in Outlook's possession) makes a strong case for the use of plastics and synthetic fibres. Since India's per capita consumption of polymers is 3.6 kg per annum, when the world average is 24.6 kg, the task force which framed the draft policy would like to see the per capita intake raised to 12 kg by 2010. And this, it says, can be achieved by setting up a special fund for "upgradation of plastic processing to reduce cost, improve quality and strengthen the manufacturing base". It also proposes that the Jute Packaging Materials Act (JPMA) 1987, which makes it mandatory to pack foodgrains and sugar in jute bags, be scrapped. This, the policy says, will provide a ready market for plastic woven sacks.

In fact, the ministry's draft note is not short on praise for plastics. It says:

  • Plastics conserve natural resources.

  • It reduces energy consumption.

  • It generates additional employment opportunities in new application areas in agriculture, irrigation, food and water, shelter, clothing, healthcare, transportation and communication.

But what about the environmental damage? The policy puts all the blame on the consumers and not on the polymers. "Plastics are recyclable and not harmful as such. It is the indiscriminate littering habits and improper waste management which cause negative perception about plastics," notes the draft report.

This has shocked environmentalists. Wildlife enthusiast and environment activist Bittoo Sehgal is stunned. "What can I say to this? Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do." Ravi Agarwal of the Delhi-based Toxics Link said he failed to understand why the government should promote the use of plastics. "It is not the role of the government to promote one product against another. This should be left to the market, and it should be decided by the peoples' preference. On the one hand, we don't have an environmental policy with regard to plastics and on the other, we promote something that has drastic environmental impact," he says.

Conservationist Dunu Roy is openly caustic: "They want us to 'feel good' about everything. We are getting poisoned and they want us to feel good. These are moves made by the plastic lobby. They are like cigarette sellers. All those who sell poison say 'we're not responsible; it's the users who are to blame.' This is a ridiculous move, what more can one say?" Adds Sunita Narain of Delhi's Centre for Science and Environment: "We should not take any step or push any policy unless we have a proper plastic waste disposal mechanism."

According to environmentalists, the Indian government's proposals come at a time when the global recycling industry is desperately battling the plastic disposal scourge. As it is, India is the dumping ground for plastic wastes from the first world. The government's own import figures show that in 1999-2000, 1,20,000 tonnes of plastic waste found its way into the country. "We are finding it difficult to deal with the foreign plastic waste. How are we to handle more and more domestic plastic?" asks an official in the ministry of environment and forests.Adds Bittoo Sehgal: "Any sane government would go for less persistent (biodegradable) raw materials."

Most environmentalists Outlook spoke to saw the vested interests of the petrochemical and plastic manufacturers lobby behind the draft policy. The timing is also suspect—just when the entire nation is preoccupied with elections, the proposals, which if implemented could have farreaching environmental impact, are before the cabinet. Points out environmental lawyer and activist M.C. Mehta: "This is going to benefit some private business houses. Even if they make rules, how will they make people adhere to them? They will say we have enough rules. What can rules do after all ?"

As for phasing out JPMA, Mehta feels it will be a counterproductive move since the jute industry provides employment to many. But the draft policy implies that organisations like the Food Corporation of India must shift to plastic bags to promote the industry. Says Mehta: "Jute should be encouraged. It gives employment and is also environment-friendly. But despite this, jute bags are difficult to come by."

But the government draft insists that plastics are recyclable. The thrust of its argument seems to be aimed at promoting the plastic industry's interest under the cloak of it being environmentally friendly. The draft proposes certain new initiatives that will make it safer:

  • Improve waste collection system

  • Support r&d for development of biodegradable plastics

  • Industry and government participation for implementation of laws with the support of local bodies, ngos and the public.

  • Encourage recycling of all kinds of plastic waste and assist in developing better recycling technology.

Bittoo Sehgal dismisses these proposals. "Plastic cannot be recycled. It can only be down-cycled. At the end of the day, you have to either burn it or dump it. After the third, fourth or even fifth recycling, it has to be buried or burnt. You will not have enough pits to dump it in, and by burning you will leave a legacy of ill health, cancer, birth deformities, falling sperm counts, at the hands of dioxins, furans, phthalics and heavy metals," he says. Adds Dunu Roy, "The concept of sustainable development is to leave something good for future generations. Now we want to leave them with garbage."
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