Choking on plastic in Chennai

Mounds of plastic weigh down the city, as rules get flouted, despite several crackdowns by authorities. Photo: Shaju John  

Ten years ago, the Tamil Nadu government introduced the Tamil Nadu Plastic Articles (Prohibition of Sale, Storage, Transport and Use) Bill, which bans use of plastic that is less than 20 microns thick and those that cannot be recycled. At an exhibition organised by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board in Chennai, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa held up a coconut broom to demonstrate that it was better than plastic brooms.

Ten years and many more bans later, lack of awareness and failures in implementation has placed the city in the second position in the generation of plastic nationally, after New Delhi. “The issue lies with the manufacture and disposal of non-biodegradable plastics, mainly the kinds used as packaging material,” said Dharmesh Shah, environmental activist.

But it may not be easy to close down an industry with an annual turnover of Rs. 600 crores and employing thousands of people. Currently, around 900 plastic bag manufacturing units operate in the city and nearly 50 per cent of the plastic consumed is used for packing.

Activists point out that rules are openly flouted in Chennai and plastic bags thinner than 40 microns – a banned product – are widely used. The Chennai Corporation started a crackdown on manufacture, sale and use of thin plastic by raiding shops and factories across the city in 2012, seizing more than 50 tonnes of thin plastic. But in the absence of sustained action and public support, the drive barely made a dent in the use of thin plastic.

S. Mohan, an IIT- M professor who undertook a study on plastics in the city, said it is time to put a check on manufacturing of plastics that are not degradable. “Thick buckets are not much of a problem, thin polythene bags are,” he said. “They mix with municipal solid waste. As they are non-biodegradable, their disposal becomes a problem and they cause environmental pollution. These wastes are disposed either by burning or by land filling,” said Prof Mohan. The problem lies with thin foils of plastic given to pack food material, pet bottles, dry sachets, milk covers and others.

Until Chennai-specific studies are done, the health impact of plastic waste cannot be accurately gauged. But there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to show that immediate action is required, experts say.

Those in the plastic industry however say the way ahead is to look at managing plastics, rather than banning it. "Introducing cheap alternatives to the market is as important as banning plastic bags. Cloth and jute packaging would be too expensive and paper is not a good option as that would expose the groceries to moisture and lead to fungus and insects. Where is the rehabilitation policy for such people who will lose their livelihoods?" said a member of the All India Plastic Industries Association, who claims there are at least 20,000 people employed by the plastic industry.

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Printable version | Jan 16, 2022 9:43:42 PM |

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