Sunday, September 14, 2008

Playing with plastic waste in MP

“Plastic bags are choking the life out of India”, that is what The Ecologist magazine had said almost eight years ago. It further said, “Non-degradable plastic bags are poisoning and clogging up India’s towns and cities. But solutions are hard to come by largely due to the political influence of India's plastics industry”.


This may mot be entirely true today as many states have imposed bans on the plastic bags of less than 20 microns thickness with varying success. These bags are used in profusion by everybody for carrying edible and non-edible material and have since become a nuisance wherever the authorities have failed to act. They fly around in the breeze, are present in strength in garbage dumps and drains which they choke often resulting in floods causing loss of life and property.


The Government of India sanctioned a huge increase in the national production of plastic in the mid-1980s in pursuit of not only self-reliance but also of the global plastic market. Over 50% of all plastic produced in India is used for packaging. Most of this is discarded once used and has caused a massive environmental problem. The government and the plastics industry claim that between 40 per cent and 80 per cent of all plastics produced in India is recovered. That may be true but the flimsy carry-bags are not attractive enough for recovery and it is these that have now become a menace.


Alive to the problem, the Centre formed in 1996 a National Plastic Waste Management Task Force under the Ministry of Forests and Environment. It, however, achieved little, mostly because of the intransigence of the plastic industry. Nevertheless, on the advice of the Task Force the government issued a ‘notification’, to be implemented in all states, indicating that only bags of 20 microns thickness could be manufactured.


That is how the manufacture, trade and use of polythene bags of less than 20 microns thickness came to be banned in states like Maharashtra, Gujarat, Goa, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh etc. In Madhya Pradesh, however, the government has been playing footsy with the problem. It seems to have bowed down to the pressure of the plastic industry and has so far failed to impose the ban as required under the directive of the Centre.


On the World Environment Day in 2006 the chief minister had declared that his government was mulling a ban on polythene. After more than two years his government seems to be still undecided. Discarded plastic continues to be ubiquitous, littering the streets, choking up nallas and killing the omni-present stray cattle. This is not the problem of Bhopal alone; all cities in the state face it. Bhopal, however, witnessed heavy floods in 2006 causing loss of life and property. Among many reasons for the unprecedented floods, one that also stood out was plastic waste choking the drains and nallas.


Currently, the government seems to be moving away from imposition of a ban. Last February a report spoke of a memorandum of understanding with a private firm for manufacture of petrol from the discarded plastic. Nothing, however, has materialised so far as contracted firms, reportedly, had not responded positively. A fresh report indicates that under the “polythene-free Bhopal” initiative, the plastic waste will be carted 400 kms. away to a cement factory to be burned with coal. A truck with 10 tons of plastic has already been sent to the factory enabling the Chairman Pollution Control Board to claim that for the first time in the country plastic, a non-biodegradable material, was being destroyed in a “constructive way”.


Nothing could be more absurd than this. Using scarce, imported and subsidised diesel on disposal of a waste material, the creation of which is eminently preventable, seems to be pretty harebrained. Clearly, the plastic lobby has worked behind the scenes and has won the government over with inducements.


Technologically more advanced countries of the West would have opted long back to extract petrol out of the plastic waste or decided to incinerate it in the same manner had these been economically and/or environmentally viable. Clearly, they did not find them so. From the United States to China and even in the supposedly more backward Sub-Saharan Africa, therefore, countries have opted for banning these infernal bags.


Having a touch of uniqueness about them, our politicians, however, think differently. Reason, logic and larger public interests are seldom in their reckoning. The be all and end all of all their political shenanigans is to seek out resources by fair or foul means to fight elections, satisfy their perceived vote bank and sustain themselves in power. It is all so amazing to see the way they live and work for themselves – oblivious of the wellbeing of the country, its people and their future!