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POLLUTING PLASTIC: PROGNOSIS AND PALLIATIVES

The Prime Minister rightly calls a ban on single use plastic. But the sobering truth is that it is easier said than done. Delhi generates more than 9,000 tonnes of garbage everyday, three forth of which is wrapped in banned plastic bags. Delhi generates about 600 tones of plastic waste everyday. India discards 15,000 tonnes of plastic daily, of which 43% is single use. Single use plastic are a sinister menace. Plastic has replaced aluminum, steel and natural fibers like jute and hemp. But it remains beyond the pale of established waste collection system for recycling purposes and floats on the earth for centuries. In turn it does damage to our marine life, fisheries, and farming.

According to a joint report by McKinsey, Ellen MacArthur and the World Economic Forum there are negative externalities worth a whopping $40 billion due to plastic usage, actually exceeding the manufacturers’ profits. In India, 25 out of 29 states have already partially or fully banned it; yet the PM has to raise his voice to create awareness about the damning effects. Though India is not a big plastic polluter, given its low consumption level, the plastic Industry is slated to grow at a steady rate of 10.5% annually over FY 15-FY 20. But the mismanaged plastic waste in the US is just 0.9% of the total waste generated versus nearly 2% for India. Lest we be complacent, the 2% figure translates to 33.1 million pounds of plastic everyday, of which only 19.8 million is collected and recycled.

All stakeholders – consumers, producers and the regulator have to contribute to tackle the horrifying spectacle. The Union Government, in March 2018, amended the Plastic Waste Management Rules 2016, aiming to completely phase out single use plastics by FY20. But remember that the industry employs 4 million people. Plus, if the consumers are not given affordable, easily available, and sustainable (in the long run), alternatives, expecting an anti-plastic revolution to succeed is like an attempt to wish away a chimera. Substituting single use plastics is easier said than done. Cotton bags have their own environment footprints. Cloth/Jute bags, corn starch bags, disposable plates and cutlery of soft/repurposed wood etc. are all talked about, but are either more expensive or are less easily available. For instance, the installed capacity for non-export jute in the country is 2,700 tonnes per annum vs. 10.3 million tonnes for plastic, a significant chunk of which caters for products that jute products can functionally substitute. Moreover, given how poorly recycling effects, from collection to actual recycling/repurposing/reuse are monitored in India, the problem poses a daunting challenge. Often, a high cost of use at the consumer level- like that done in Japan - is proposed (like cigarettes, alcohol…), but given the lack of substitutes, it is unlikely to work. Hence India has a twofold task: one, develop and promote use of cheaper, readily available substitute; and two, manage plastic waste better. A regulatory approach will not work.

Why does human mind not think consciously, and urgently about environmental damage, compared with say terrorism? Because as social mammals we only think about living beings and their evil designs. If global warning had been unleashed on us by a ruthless despot, we would have been more concerned. Second, if a violation fails to transgress moral boundaries, it may not alarm our brain. No human society has moral rules about atmospheric chemistry. Three, the threat is still lurking somewhere in future. We get concerned about a clear and contemporary attack, not to something which is not even in our line of vision. These, and some more, reasons then lead to at best green washing. We have to adopt a Marketing approach. Engagement with an active customer is needed. These necessitate knowing in relation to green products, what does he want, at which price preferences, with what price performance trade off, and with what kind of underlying appeal (functional, emotional, or social). Based on these answers, the marketer needs to create environmental improvement by innovations in market structures, material usage and scouting services. Customers intimacy and competitive advantage need to be looked at from new strategic frameworks and cooperation along the whole value chain needs to be ensured so as to incorporate the impact of climate on their changed shopping pattern.

Contributed by: K.K. Srivastava


KKS is an academic, author, writer, researcher, and corporate speaker. He writes regularly on Economics, Management, Technology, and others areas.

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