The 20th century saw the rise and rise of plastic bags distributed either free of cost or on nominal payment, with the merchandise at shops, grocery stores, pharmacies and other commercial outlets all over the world. However, the dawn of the 21st century marked the beginning of the steep decline in the bag’s fortunes or supremacy as one of the most popular tools of utility for the customer as well as the seller. The innovation of plastic carrier bags and one-time use bags made a big splash in the way shopping was done like never before. The plastic bags were found very useful, versatile, and economical for the carrying of purchases home, easy transportation, and convenient storage. They were considered durable, suitable for carrying heavy purchases, hygienic, waterproof, sleek and attractive with bright and animated logos and names of stores printed that endeared them to the consumer by their immediate visual appeal.
Myriad were the uses which an Indian housewife could think of putting the bag to, ranging from wrapping her office-going husband’s lunch, to sending samples of some delectable culinary invention of hers, a compact disc of her very favourite ghazal maestro or a handy potato peeler bought at some charity bazaar or an exotic souvenir bought on her latest holiday trip abroad, to a dear friend living a couple of blocks away or soiled clothes for washing to the cleaners. Identify a possible use for any odd object lying around at home begging for your attention and there it was, the humble plastic bag at your service. If you could not think of possible use for the thing that you do not want to throw away in haste, lest it should be badly wanted at a later date, there was nothing too much to worry about. Just put it in a plastic bag waiting at your elbow for such occasions and shove it away in the storage compartment for a leisurely review on a later date.
After the lapse of considerable spells of time, when you open on a lazy sunny afternoon such packages of odds and ends kept in the loft, neatly wrapped in faithful plastic bags, the child in you starts hoping against hopes to discover some treasured and useful stuff that you had always wanted! You open the bag and find some photo frame made of cardboard by your child with a lovely birthday greeting scrawled all over. Oh, joy! You are transported back in time and end up spending the rest of the afternoon mooning over pleasant memories of the days gone by! The object that brought warm memories back had been preserved in its pristine glory by the humble and self-effacing plastic bag. Ever ready for use, the bag became part of every householder’s day-to-day life and was considered a boon that made one’s life easier. Besides, plastic grocery bags reportedly take 70% less energy to manufacture than the paper grocery bags. Therefore, the plastic bag is resource-efficient, comes practically free of cost and involves no maintenance despite its utility and longevity for extended periods of time. However, the versatility of the champion bag was marred by a flipside.
Flipside of the Versatile Plastic Bag
The problem with the plastic bag is about its disposal once it has served its originally intended purpose of manufacture as well as the numerous other purposes that ingenious housewives and their ilk think of putting it to, although its life seems endless or interminable. Litterbugs cause mayhem when they thoughtlessly throw the worn out plastic bag away anywhere and everywhere. Roadsides and public places become an eyesore with the unseemly sight of plastic bags, especially the single-use ones, dispensed by chemists, fruit and vegetable vendors or kiosks with odd purchases, flying around in sudden gusts of wind. Such bags consigned to garbage dumps tend to be airborne at the faintest trace of wind, thanks to the aerodynamic attribute that went into its making, albeit unintentionally. And in the course of their aimless drifting around in open places, they may occasionally wrap themselves around the face of an unwary biker or scooterist passing by, momentarily throwing him off balance, which may lead to nasty traffic accidents. Pedestrians are not spared either. Unwanted plastic bags strewn around, sidle up to them when there is a sandstorm and refuse to go away.
Thus, the general public has no end of problems with the ubiquitous plastic bag that makes its nuisance value felt in several other ways. A carelessly flung plastic bag clogs the drain or gets stuck in the sewer, resulting in flooding during a downpour. Clogged drains and sewers breed mosquitoes that cause malaria. There have also been weird and freak incidents of babies and toddlers putting on a plastic bag over their head, unwittingly or for fun, and suffocating to death. The sight of stray cattle munching away plastic bags, which had once contained eatables and subsequently landed in garbage dumps, is not uncommon. The poor animals end up with serious health issues, with the plastic waste that had got into their digestive system not finding it possible to exit their body, having to be surgically removed. Reports estimate that around 20 cows die per day in India as a result of ingesting plastic bags. Veterinarians are mute witnesses to such cases of random cruelty to animals, caused by the careless disposing off of plastic bags by thoughtless persons with no civic responsibility.
Plastic bags also tend to trap birds in flight. When birds find plastic bags blown on to trees, they mistake them for some exotic fruit and merrily eat them to disastrous consequences. When the bags find their way to the rivers and the sea, they become a hazard to the marine life. According to the UN Environment Program, scientists estimate that every square mile of the oceans contains approximately 46,000 pieces of plastic floating in them. Around 10% of the plastics produced every year worldwide ends up in the sea, with 70% of it finding its way to the ocean floor, where it will likely never degrade or, in any case, not earlier than a minimum of 500 years. The Ocean Conservancy’s annual International Coastal Cleanups rate plastic bags consistently among the top ten pieces of trash collected on beaches across the globe. The distressingly slow decomposition rate of plastic bags leaves them to drift on the ocean for years on end.
Sea creatures like sea turtles, seals and whales that feed on fish often mistake the glazy plastic bag for jellyfish and devour it, which results in disastrous consequences. According to an estimate of the World Wide Fund for Nature, every year over 100,000 whales, seals and turtles die after eating plastic bags or because of getting trapped in them. The media has reported several instances over the years when whales have died because of being unable to eat after ingesting plastic bags, apparently mistaking them for jellyfish. Whales cannot digest plastic bags; furthermore, the chemicals react very negatively in their internal organs. Suffice it to quote a report of 4th January 2015, from the Virgin Islands Conservation Society, to get an idea of the extent of the menace of plastic bags (and other plastic waste) that pollute the oceans:
“A recent Scientific American article stated the world creates 260 million tons of plastic each year, and much of it winds up in the oceans. We can do our part by not using plastic shopping bags.”
Predicament of Civic Authorities
Civic authorities are often clueless about the proper disposal of the plastic waste. The plastic bag, which was considered a boon to man’s modern lifestyle on its advent, has now turned out to be a bane. The bags are made of polyethylene with the use of natural gas and oil. Manufacture of vast quantities of plastic bags puts considerable pressure on the extraction of precious non-reusable energy sources such as natural gas and oil. According to an estimate by the Wall Street Journal, 100 billion plastic bags are used and thrown away every year in the US alone, which requires 12 million barrels of oil to manufacture. According to China Trade News, three billion plastic bags are used daily in that country. About two million plastic bags are used around the world every minute and over one trillion single-use plastic bags are used every year, in terms of an estimate by the Earth Policy Institute.
Furthermore, plastic bags are not biodegradable. Although the bags are recyclable, which is the safest and most ideal way for disposing off the worn out bags, in reality they end up in landfills where it takes them hundreds of years to break down, thus making it the kind of stuff that an environmentalist’s nightmares are made of. An estimated 3,960,000 tons of plastic bags, besides sack and wraps, are produced annually out of which 90% are discarded. When plastics break down, normally they don’t biodegrade but they tend to photodegrade, which means the materials tend to break down to smaller fragments and readily soak up toxins. They then contaminate soil, waterways, and animals upon digestion, according to Earth911, the international organization that connects people with information about helping the earth and also enable them to reduce their daily waste.
The Only Way Out
Plastic bags are made of grade 2 and grade 4 plastic. Easily recyclable, these are often turned into composite lumber whereas a variety of products could easily be fabricated. Until the international scientific community comes up with a suitable alternative, recycling is the only way for effectively disposing off worn out plastic bags. However, the BBC and the CNN estimate that only 3-5% bags produced are recycled.
The menace of the non-biodegradable plastic bags being a global phenomenon, governments all over the world have been taking steps to tackle the situation depending on the seriousness of the situation on the ground. Some countries like Bangladesh, Rwanda, China, Taiwan and Macedonia, have already imposed a total ban on lightweight bags. Some others have followed suit by either charging customers for lightweight bags or generating taxes from the stores who sell them. In the United States, last year California became the first and only state to ban the use of plastic bags. Otherwise, only some cities and counties of that country have outlawed their use.
Plastic Bags in India as of Now
On account of the practically non-existent recycling facilities, India has already banned plastic bags with the thickness of less than 20 microns. The States of Goa and Delhi and the city of Mumbai have also banned bags, but with different specifications. The problem with the Legislations of these bans is with regard to their implementation.
What Should the Government Do?
From the customers’ point of view, the alternatives to plastic bags that are currently available in India are restricted to paper bags or jute bags. As the production costs of these bags coupled with the transportation costs are considerably higher than those of the plastic bags, the possibility of their catching up with the latter and ending their monopoly seems farfetched. Nevertheless, the days of the one-use plastic bags are practically over. The need for the proscribing of its use has been increasingly felt especially in view of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ongoing Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. But more and more sustained efforts are called for on the part of the Central and State Governments as well as NGOs, and other pressure groups like the student community, sportspersons, artists, media and the like to create awareness among the people of the country to the problematic situations that arise due to the continued use of plastic shopping bags, causing inestimable damage to the environment, hygiene, safety of birds, livestock and marine life, and to the uninterrupted flow of rivers and other water bodies.
People need to realize that environmental pollution is a time-bomb ticking away while much more needs to be done than debating the need to ban plastic bags. On the part of the government, there should be a ban on all plastic shopping bags; and such ban should be implemented in all seriousness. The problem should be tackled at its very source by ensuring that the bags are not produced on pain of closure of the production unit. Offending companies and stores should be levied hefty penalties and repeat offenders handed out exemplary punishment. There should be laws with teeth to prevent breaches of pollution control. Simultaneously, the government should make ample provision for the setting up of recycling units where members of the public could have their worn out plastic bags recycled. It should be made mandatory for large stores to have their own recycling units where the customers should be encouraged to deposit their worn out bags. The government could also levy a tax at the sale point every time a new plastic bag is given and the fund thus collected could be used to constitute an environment fund meant for fighting environmental pollution. Above all, the plastic industry should be exhorted to be accountable for the disposal of the plastic waste by contributing to the setting up of a dedicated cleaning force of employees for the collecting of plastic waste. The starting point is the imposition of a blanket ban on the manufacture, sale and use of plastic shopping bags.
(The article published in weekly magazine Uday India in December 20-26, 2015 edition)