Plastic ban: The problem is not plastic, it’s single-use

This article originally appeared in The Times of India

Multi-use products, not the material they are made of, are the key

The nationwide ban on single-use plastic products (SUPs) that started yesterday comes on the heels of a two-decade-long effort. The first attempt was made in 1999 with the ban on thin polythene bags. Since then, three national and numerous state laws have been enacted to phase out SUPs. While every ban has been more stringent than the previous one, the result is that in the last 23 years, we have been unable to eliminate even one SUP product, including the thin polythene bag.

So, why haven’t bans worked? The reason is not poor enforcement. There are fundamental technical and socio-economic reasons.

  • First, the lack of alternatives in the market. SUPs are widely used because they are cheap and convenient. The market will shift completely if similar affordable and convenient options are available.
  • Second, this shift is not easy. Currently, SUPs account for about one-third of the plastic consumed in the country. In other words, 6-7 million tonnes of SUPs are consumed annually, placing it among the top industrial materials consumed in terms of volume. The market, therefore, requires alternatives to replace 6-7 million tonnes of materials. Unfortunately, SUP substitutes in such volumes are unavailable, mainly because the government has failed to promote the alternative industry.
  • Third, there’s the issue of providing alternative opportunities to millions of workers involved in producing SUPs in thousands of factories. In the past, no attempts were made to rehabilitate them; we simply made their business illegal. The result was that the industry bribed officials and continued producing and selling SUPs.
  • Fourth, as a result of all these, the market is unprepared for the ban, and consumers are not ready to sacrifice convenience. Most market surveys show that SUPs are widely sold, and alternatives are expensive or unavailable.

Therefore, the same fate awaits this nationwide ban as well. No plan has been put in place to support the industry, especially the MSME sector, to move to alternatives.

So, what kind of alternatives are we looking at? There are the fundamental questions we have not thought through.

  • Is kulhad (clay cups) a substitute for single-use plastic cups?
  • Should we encourage industries to produce single-use paper bags to replace thin polythene bags, or should we promote multi-use textile bags?
  • Are biodegradable plastics better than plastics currently available in the market?

The fact is that simply banning SUPs and switching to single-use products made of other materials is not the solution. Most life cycle analysis (LCA) of SUPs and their substitutes shows that the most significant environmental problems are due to the single-use nature of the products, not the material.

Here are some illustrations of this point.

  • LCA shows that a paper shopping bag must be used four to eight times to have a lower environmental impact than one single-use plastic bag.
  • Single-use kulhad cannot be a substitute for billions of plastic cups used every day for serving tea, simply because it would strip our soil bare.
  • Replacing SUPs with biodegradable SUPs will not eliminate the problem of microplastics that are now poisoning our food chain and are even being found in our bloodstream.

Therefore, the solution to SUPs is to create an industry that turns ‘single-use’ products into ‘multi-use’ and creates a circular economy. How do we get there?

  • Both manufacturing and service industries must promote and supply ‘multi-use’ products to all kinds of consumers – from street vendors to airline industry.
  • That means investments, R&D and policy support from governments.

None of this has happened because there’s a basic policy failure: All environmental policies are an intervention in the economy. The ultimate goal of all environmental policies is to create a new economy that is clean and green.
Therefore, a policy of the environment ministry must be complemented by an economic and industrial policy from the finance and industry-related ministries. Without this, the environmental policy is bound to fail, as has been the case with all past SUPs bans and will be with this one, too.

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Chandra Bhushan is one of India’s foremost public policy experts and the founder-CEO of International Forum for Environment, Sustainability & Technology (iFOREST).

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