Editorial: The cost of convenience of plastic bags

Despite several committees constituted by the Union government highlighting the many problems posed by thin, non-biodegradable, single-use plastic bags, and a body of evidence also indicating their ill-effects, the government emphatically stated recently that there would be “no ban on manufacture and use of plastic bags” in the country. But such a ban is already in place in a few States. Unfortunately, the other viable alternative of levying charges or raising taxes to curb its use was overlooked. The stand taken by the government is in stark contrast to the European Union’s decision. In a commendable move, EU member-states decided last month to cut the number of lightweight plastic bags consumed per person in a year. The member-countries would either limit the number of bags used to 90 per person a year by 2019 and 40 bags by 2025, or charge for all bags by 2018. Even in a country where plastic manufacturers constitute a powerful lot, in September this year California decided to ban single-use plastic bags from July 2015; though many cities have a similar ban, California is the first State in the U.S. to do so. Several countries that have either banned it or made it chargeable have seen a precipitous drop within a short time in the number of thin bags used. For instance, in 2002, Ireland witnessed a 95 per cent reduction in plastic bag litter once tax on such material was levied. It is proven beyond doubt that mandatory charge on single-use bags is a potent tool to reduce consumption. There is no reason why India cannot look at this option. After all, reducing litter should be the first goal under the Swachh Bharat Mission.

For a few minutes of convenience, people mindlessly turn to single-use plastic bags, apparently oblivious to its persistence in the environment, both on land and in the oceans, for hundreds of years. Besides ending up in landfills or as litter in all possible places, they very often clog drainage systems and even prevent the recharge of groundwater aquifers. The bigger ramification is the death of cattle and a huge number of marine animals every year due to plastic bag ingestion. The production process is energy-intensive. It is for these reasons that in 2012 the Supreme Court observed that in the absence of tough measures, the “next generation will be threatened with something more serious than the atom bomb”. It is strange and surprising that in a country where reuse and recycling are part of the ethos, the rampant use of disposable plastic bags has become second nature. At a time when solid waste management even for biodegradable waste is non-existent, it is naive to think of ever managing single-use bag waste.

Published in The Hindu on December 18, 2014