Plastic pollution is one of fast growing concern in current times. It has a very drastic effect on environment, thereby rendering it unsafe for survival of living organisms. Jammu and Kashmir state is becoming engaged in the huge humps of plastic material since the domestic use of this product is alarmingly high.The growing population is directly adding to the stress on the local resources, resulting in mounting pressure on the environment. The changing consumption pattern is also driving significant impacts on the environment. The burgeoning retail sector (supermarkets, grocery stores and weekly haats) is probably one of the major reasons for the wide usage of plastic bags in the state.
The increasing population and consumerism has added to the existing burden of industrial and agricultural waste and pollution, with the state struggling with not only agricultural and industrial waste, but also household hazardous and non-hazardous waste. A major component of the non-hazardous waste stream comprises plastic waste, including plastic carry bags, sachets, chips packets and magazine covers. Due to the poor waste management system in the state, the problem of plastic waste disposal has become grave. The environmental externality of solid waste associated with plastic bag consumption illustrates the classic tragedy of commons. Individual consumers benefit from the use of plastic bags because of their convenience, while the whole society bears the collective cost of their disposal. The public costs of plastic bag usage are well established. They are environmentally unfriendly, take hundreds of years to degrade and fill up landfills. Plastic litter has led to clogged drains resulting in sanitation and sewage problems; it clogs the soil, hampering tree growth; it often gets ingested by animals; its indiscriminate disposal by incineration pollutes the air and releases toxic substances.
The government of Jammu and Kashmir first notified a blanket ban on polythene carry bags in June 2008, under J & K Non-biodegradable Material (Management, Handling and Disposal) Act, 2007. In March 2016,ban on polythene bags having thickness above 50 micron was lifted and permitted for manufacturing and usage. Due to growing concern of environmental degradation by polythene, the government re-imposed blanket ban on below 50 micron thickness polythene carry bags in April 2017. It has been nine years since the first notification came into force in 2008 and, hence, it is important to understand whether the ban has been effective in controlling this menace. It is also important to comprehend the reasons for its success or failure as this will help in further improving the system. In order to check the effectiveness of the ban by the Jammu and Kashmir government on the manufacturing, sale, storage, import, usage and disposal of polythene/plastic carry bags by any person including a shopkeeper, vendor, wholesaler or retailer, and trader, we have to take into consideration the targeted two most important stakeholders in this—vendors and consumers.
Despite a ban on plastic carry bags in J & K, a majority of vendors and consumers are still using these environmental unfriendly bags. Usage of plastic carry bags varied widely across segments, with a large percentage of vegetable and fruit, and meat and fish vendors using these bags and a very small percentage of large food joints and multi-brands using it. The usage was also high among the small food joints like rehriwalas (roadside temporary food vendors) and dhabas, with large percent found using plastic bags. Interestingly, very few milk booths, chemist and stationery shops were found using plastic carry bags. Among the clothing and shoe shops included, the effectiveness of the ban was mixed. Though all the international and Indian clothing stores had stopped using plastic bags, the local brands were still using plastic bags. The multi-brand and large food vendors have, however, eliminated the use of plastic bags completely. Amongst the consumers, most of them were using plastic bags. The usage pattern is similar across all the sectors except milk booths, large food joints and multi-brand shops, where plastic carry bags are not provided.
Plastic carry bags are generally for one-time use, with most of them ending up in the dustbins or landfills. In the absence of a proper waste disposal system, waste ends up being dumped in the open and in streams, drains and jhoras. Rural areas which are not serviced by waste vehicles have a major problem in the disposal of plastic bags. These bags clog drains and streams, sometimes leading to landslides, pollute farmlands; and are harmful to animals, thereby posing a great threat to the biodiversity and prestige nature of the environment in Jammu & Kashmir. Currently, the state does not have an efficient and environmentally safe system of waste disposal. In the capital cities, mixed household waste is collected on a daily basis by waste collectors and collection vehicles. These people or vehicles arrive at designated spots in the morning and either blow a whistle or ring a bell, signalling the residents to come out and deliver their waste to the waste collector or the waste vehicle. The mixed waste is taken to and dumped at the waste dumping sites located along the banks of rivers.
In J & K, only small fraction of the waste is recycled through the informal sector. Unlike other places, plastic bags are not being picked up by the informal sector and it finally ends up at the landfill, posing a serious hazard to both human health and the environment. While conditions in the cities are relatively better, towns and villages poorly serviced. Large quantities of plastic get openly burned. Plastics are also commonly used for starting the morning wood fires in villages. A lot of waste gets washed down the streams and rivers and enters the Jhelum, which is the largest river in J &K.In Jammu, lot of waste is being dumped at various sites along the banks of Tawi river, thus causing a mal-environment around.
??Strict monitoring and application of the law: Strict monitoring is required for the ban to be effective. Random checks, spot fines and seizures of the plastic bags—these measures, on a regular basis, can act as a deterrent, especially for the small vendors. The penalty amount should be sizeable and could be raised on repeat offences, thereby discouraging usage.
??Participatory approach: The regulatory agencies should invite different groups and assess their problems in the implementation of the ban. It is important to understand the user perspective and in this case it will be important to understand the resistance from the vendors. This will help in planning action as well as resolve the bottlenecks.
??Alternatives to plastic bags: For the purpose of establishing sustainable practices, the true goal is to eliminate all single-use practices, whatever the use, whatever the material being used. Towards this end, practices that encourage multi-use materials, such as reusable bags made of cloth or other durable materials help decrease dependence on non-renewable resources, while contributing towards the overall zero waste goal. Serious efforts should be made to find sustainable and eco-friendly alternatives to plastic bags. The following are some of the feasible alternatives:
Reusable bags: This is an alternative to single-use paper or plastic bags, which can be reused many times for shopping. These come in canvas, woven plastic fibre, hemp, cotton and even leather.
Biodegradable plastics: Bio-plastics or organic plastics are a form of plastic derived from renewable organic sources, such as vegetable oil, corn starch and pea starch. The basic characteristic of these plastics is that they are capable of being decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms. The government can promote the alternatives through financial and other incentives. It is recommended that a detailed feasibility study on alternatives be carried out and the best types earmarked for mass production and distribution.
??Check on inter-state movement: Though the production, sale and usage of plastic bags are banned in the three regions of the state, plastic bags continue to come in from other states where there is no ban. A stricter monitoring of this will be highly effective in curbing the usage.
??Comprehensive waste management policy: The plastic bags ban should not exist in isolation. Instead, the ban should be part of a well thought out futuristic Solid Waste Management Policy that aims to substantially reduce and recycle plastics, while eliminating those types that cannot be recycled.
??Awareness and education: The most effective strategy to reduce the use of plastic bags and plastic wastes is to bring about behavioural changes in people. Continuous use of promotional material such as posters and hoardings should be put in appropriate public places. Consumers should be encouraged and motivated to always carry their own reusable shopping bags. Civil society organisations should be engaged for the IEC programmes.
(The author is a Medical Practioner at Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Narayana Super Speciality Hospital, Jammu besides a Motivational
Speaker/Activist/Columnist/Journalist/Top Educator Awardee. E-mail: [email protected])