View: Government should stop dithering from banning single-use plastic. There are enough innovative alternatives
There are hundreds of solutions & alternatives to single-use plastics that are ready now, or in the pipeline.
Last month, while trekking the Himalayas, I saw a tea shop at 14,000 ft. The setting was stunning. There was a stream on one side, lush greenery on the other, and a spectacular mountain in the background.
But even here, to my disappointment, a pile of empty food wrappers and beverage bottles ruined the scenery — proof of how far plastic waste and pollution have pervaded India and the rest of the world.
If you look at it objectively, India is enriching other countries by buying their crude oil and ruining its own environment by converting it into plastic waste. It is time to find a better way. India has put off the ban on single-use plastic items, an announcement that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was earlier scheduled to make on October 2.
This is unfortunate, as it would have put India at the forefront of regulations to solve plastic pollution, well ahead of even the EU.
It seems that industry lobbies have been successful in pointing out all the ways a plastic ban would ‘harm the economy’. The fact remains that single-use plastic ban must be implemented and made to succeed by having local authorities with good training and effective supervision enforce a prohibition.
The pending ban, however, can only be the beginning, since along with single-use plastic usage, many widely littered items of plastic are also permitted. Here, industry should step up to show leadership.
It can create a golden opportunity for India to lead the world in innovations to solve plastic pollution. India Inc must embrace solutions rather than lobbying against regulations, since polluters will find their business and reputation under threat if they do not clean up their act.
The good news is that there are hundreds of solutions and alternatives to single-use plastics that are ready now, or in the pipeline. Many have been developed by startups led by environmentally focused entrepreneurs — ecopreneurs.
Some are being incubated in large progressive companies. All of them will need investments of time, effort and money to be scaled up. This requires visionary leadership in corporations, patient capital from investors, and collaborative efforts between competitors within industries.
The plastic circular economy touches a wide swathe of industries. This includes the petrochemical sector that produces the raw materials, processors that produce the plastics, converters who create finished products, brand-owners who use plastics in their packaging and, finally, the entire recycling and waste management industry.
There are innovations transforming all these sectors, upending old business models and raising hopes of a future where plastic pollution can be solved. Some examples of upstream innovations are bioplastics made from algae, waste agricultural and food residues, using bacteria or mushrooms as micro-converters.
Some bioplastics like PHAs (polyhydroxyalkanoates) are soil- and marine-safe — that is, they safely degrade in the environment within weeks or months, leaving no harmful residues. Some startups have already launched biodegradable straws made from PHA in other countries.
India has a long history of using natural materials for packaging. The paan is a mouth-freshener and digestive in an edible package made from betel leaves. My favourite meals are those eaten using banana leaf plates. A new breed of Indian entrepreneurs is applying technology to create edible and biodegradable disposable cutlery and utensils. There is a worldwide market for these solutions.
The best solutions are ones that eliminate packaging completely. A great example is the emergence of water dispensers and ‘water ATMs’ around the country. Thanks to new filtration technologies, Internet of Things (IoT) and other advancements, Indian entrepreneurs have created solutions that can replace packaged plastic bottled water in most locations.
This alone can reduce millions of tonnes of plastic waste. Where packaging cannot be eliminated, the next best option is reusability. Many of you will remember drinking soft drinks from glass bottles that were returned to the shopkeeper. These returnable glass bottles were replaced to a large extent by plastic because of convenience.
GoI should provide incentives to bring them back and help reduce plastic waste even more. Finally, where single-use plastic cannot be avoided, a plethora of tech nologies can help recover and sort the waste. Examples are smart bins, sorting machines, reverse vending machines and smart packaging technologies that make it easier to separate different materials.
Once sorted, there are many options to recover value from waste plastics, ranging from chemical recycling that produces virgin quality polymers, to ‘waste-to-energy’ solutions that produce fuels. Apart from that, waste plastics can also be converted into clothes, shoes, furniture, building materials and even roads.
With all these solutions in the pipeline, Indian industry need not worry about plastic bans. Instead, they should become part of the solution rather than perpetuate the problem. And since plastic is made from crude oil, reducing India’s dependence on the material will help reduce its import bill.
At the same time, the country can promote the efforts of homegrown entrepreneurs, find a use for waste agricultural materials and become a world leader in sustainable technologies.
The writer is former president, CocaCola India, and co-founder of Ubuntoo, an environmental solutions platform