Plastic has been drastic! …both in terms of the convenience it has conveyed to daily life as well as the way, it is now, transforming into an apprehensive apocalypse. With a whopping 6.3 billion metric tons of trash globally ‘plastic’ is now plaguing the planet with a catastrophic climax.
While the world today takes cognizance of this new menace, clogging waterways, burying beaches, blocking groundwater, dumping up into non-degradable garbage, and making its way into animal consumption, India too confirms the urgencies of galvanizing the garbage management. This is where the echoes of a clarion call for anti-plastic law gains significance.
Having said that, before we articulate the possibilities of an anti-plastic legislation, the ground research in terms of an alternative to plastic is of crucial importance. This is so because plastic is a huge industrial sector that employs four million people in India alone and we consume 13 million tons of plastic every year. Therefore it becomes imperative that plastic has become indispensable and we can afford to do away with it only if we have an alternative to replace plastic in our daily lives.
This is where the jargon term ‘bio-degradable plastic’ ropes in. This though is not a cakewalk as the cognizance and recognition of Bio-degradable plastic as the uncontested answer to plastic –substitution, should be backed and preceded by authentication in terms of its environmental sustainability and economic viability.
Is bio-degradable plastic benign?
Bio-degradable plastic is composed and made by adding a few plant-based additives that can be broken down, degraded, reduced by natural phenomena. Yes, bio-degradable plastic is degradable, but if we read between the lines, the breakdown of these plastic demands controlled conditions like specific temperatures, specific pressure, certain chemical ratios and other dimensions.
Bio-degradable plastic thus can decompose and dis-integrate if subjected to artificially created treatment avenues. The bottom line, therefore, is the Bio-degradable plastic is not degradable under normal natural conditions.
This threatening revelation adds to the woes of the nuances of plastic waste management because in the absence of a controlled environment this plastic lay exposed unattended in open. It is more concerning to realize that bio-degradable plastic takes months to disintegrate.
Thus, when left unattended in open, if the half-decomposed bio-degradable plastic comes in contact with the water body, the carbon –dioxide released from the partial decomposition and the micro-plastic released in water after disintegration, can contaminate the water causing more harm than good.
Moreover, as remnants of this plastic after partial decomposition will be in the form of micro-plastic pieces, it will be more difficult to clean than plastic and recycle it. All of these pose a big interrogation on the environ-friendliness of bio-degradable plastic and invoke a technical limitation on the waste management tactics of bio-degradable plastic.
A study conducted by the Pollution Control Board and Central Institute of Plastic and Engineering Technology corroborates the fact that additives used in biodegradable plastic may be harmful to the environment when left unattended. This brings us back to square one in the entire scheme of things.
Plastic was polluting because of its non-synthesis with nature. If bio-degradable plastic retains the same plastic-like limitations, the entire process of finding alternatives in bio-degradable PET becomes a futile and vile exercise.
Thus, it is equally important to know the effect of degradation residues on wildlife, plants, marine life, groundwater, vegetation, air, soil quality and the overall surrounding ecosystem.
Therefore, before barging in with ‘bio-degradable plastic’ as the one-stop solution, a host of dimensions like a method of production, cost of production, pre-requisites of safe and toxic-free production, bio-degradable standards and certification system, adequacy of compost facilities to treat bio-degradable plastic, regulations of bio-degradable plastic and micro-economic affordability (as Bio-Plastic is 2-10 times costlier than conventional plastic)of bio-degradable plastic are to be verified and re-visited.
There is also a need to establish or create testing facilities for the testing of biodegradable plastics as per BIS Standard IS/ISO: 17088:2008. Simultaneously eco-labeling of bio-degradable plastic is also important to segregate them from the conventional ones in the stream of municipal solid waste.
A stringent, substantial and procedural law to set the regulations and standards of labeling is also important. This is crucial because of the fact that the existing chunk of plastic waste and the new chunk of bio-plastic waste will need differential treatment.
A bird’s eye view of the entire scheme of things suggests a meticulous and exhaustive approach to understand and address the intricacies and complexities of the anti-plastic regime, backed by a full-proof administrative master-plan to pass the baton. In absence of robust and holistic pursuance, a sudden transition to a bio-plastic regime might just prove to be a slip between the lip and the cup.
Kangkana Goswami Bharadwaz is an advocate at Gauhati High Court. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org