Urban Drive Environment

COVID-19 and the plastic comeback

Getty Images/iStockphoto   | Photo Credit: Aleksej Sarifulin

Last week, I managed to catch a virtual screening of the 2019 documentary, The Story of Plastic. I’ll be honest – I expected the usual format: a bunch of alarming statistics, gloomy visuals from underdeveloped communities, and activists educating consumers. But what director Deia Schlosberg has brilliantly put together focuses not on the consumers, but largely on the corporations that are profiting off the environmental crisis.

Thanks to an avalanche of PPE suits, masks and sanitiser bottles in our landfills brought about by Covid, the war against single-use plastic has been reversed. These products are no doubt beneficial during a medical emergency of such scale, but what we’re seeing now is how companies are exploiting yet another crisis. Zoe Carpenter, a journalist featured in The Story of Plastic, made a case for why the crisis needs everyone’s attention. “So many parts of our economy, so many places around the world are dependent on this relatively small group of corporations who are making a tremendous amount of money by poisoning the rest of us. Figuring out how to break out of the cycle is the project of our lifetime,” she says. Had the documentary been filmed today, I am certain the alarm bells would be ringing louder.

The plastic carry bag has made its comeback worldwide as supermarkets have banned reusable bags and biggies like Starbucks have discontinued reusable cups. While we can understand the possible concerns surrounding restaurant take-outs (a majority of them come only in plastic), now that we are a few months into the pandemic it is time to look up facts and make our own judgements. More often than not, the studies that propagate plastics are funded by the plastic industry.

In March this year, The Plastics Industry Association in the US wrote to the country’s Department of Health and Human Services asking them to publicly declare the ‘health and safety benefits seen in single-use plastics’ and ‘speak out against bans on these products as a public safety risk and help stop the rush to ban these products.’ This is just one example of several other bodies in every country pushing their plastic agenda. There are many such organisations in India too that are ensuring that plastic makes a comeback by building fear in our minds. While the debate around reusable bags and paper packaging being contagious is still on, we of course need to be careful no matter what we use but, most importantly, not blindly follow Whatsapp forwards or random experiments on social media.

A recent piece in The New York Times quoted an oft-cited study by researchers at the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University. The study found that reusable plastic bags can contain bacteria and that users don’t wash reusable bags very often. “The study was funded, however, by the American Chemistry Council, which represents major plastics and chemicals manufacturers. The study recommends that shoppers simply wash their reusable bags, not replace them,” states the report.

The documentary also speaks of Extended Producer’s Responsibility (EPR), which holds the producer accountable for the environmentally sound management of the product until the end of its life. In India, the Environment Ministry’s guidelines on EPR for producers of plastic were announced last month. Among other things, the rules mandate that producers have to work out modalities for waste collection systems based on EPR and involve local authorities. The manufacture and use of multi-layered plastic (which is non-recyclable or non-energy recoverable or with no alternate use) must be phased out in the next two years.

A welcome change, but how many of these rules will take off is what we need to see. Most countries offload their waste on poorer nations (including India) – when does that stop? It may take months for manufacturers to even consider these mandates so what do we do until then? The present dumping of biomedical waste, most of it plastic, is bound to lead to bigger health hazards. In Chennai, the founder of conservation organisation Walk for Plastic, tells me how he found a goat with a disposable mask planted on its head. We’ve seen dead whales washed ashore, their stomachs filled with plastic debris and a turtle with a straw fatally stuck up its nose – are we soon going to find cows and dogs chewing on discarded gloves and masks?

The Story of Plastic ends by addressing how plastic is treated like a product that miraculously appears out of nowhere and goes nowhere. This invisibility, that magic nature of plastic, is something the oil and natural gas industry has perpetuated and promoted very effectively for decades. “But what was once invisible, is becoming visible. The plastic crisis doesn’t start when the plastics enter the ocean. It starts when the oil and gas leave the wellhead and it keeps on being a problem at every step along the way.”

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Printable version | Dec 5, 2021 3:49:03 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/how-companies-are-trying-to-sneak-single-use-plastics-back-into-the-economy/article32202636.ece

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