Is Plastic Free July still significant when companies see possibility in plastic?
Plastic-free July had many individuals, celebrities, governments, and most importantly businesses pledging to end the problem of plastic pollution. From alternatives to recycling, a variety of zero-waste solutions floated around cyberspace and mainstream media. Polluters conveniently passed on the baton of responsibility to consumers - individuals who often don’t have a choice to live sustainably. Responsible consumption became the forefront of the movement, which was propagated by companies, governments, and individuals. So why was responsible production MIA, and why did every environmentalist eat up this marketing gimmick?
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There are 3 reasons why Plastic Free July was a farce:
1. Corporations Continue to See Opportunity in Plastic
Indian corporations and MNCs based in India see a world of unexploited opportunities in the plastics industry. The Deputy Secretary General of the Federation of Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Vinay Mathur, prefaces a report titled ‘Plastic Packaging - The sustainable choice’ with:
While the usage and benefits of plastics are manifold, it invariably gets branded as a polluting material. The facts or myth regarding the polluting characteristic of plastic needs to be addressed in a scientific manner. Plastics are chemically inert substances and they do not cause either environmental or health hazards. If plastics can be collected and disposed of or recycled as per laid down guidelines/rules then the issue of plastic waste can be suitably addressed. In fact there is wide scope for industries based on recycling of plastics waste. I am sure the deliberations of this conference will bring out good results.
Mathur not only goes out of his way to misrepresent facts about plastic, but also he oversimplifies the problem of plastic pollution. Plastics degrade into microplastics, which are microscopic pollutants. Today, microplastic contaminants are found in almost all air, water, and soil. Figure 1 illustrates the sources of microplastics.
It is unclear what are the exact impacts of microplastics on our health. However, microplastics may interact with other toxins in the environment such as heavy metals or pathogens, and act as vectors that bring these chemicals into our bodies. The problem of microplastic is not as simple as just responsible recycling of waste, because virgin plastic can be recycled a maximum of 1-2 times, and even then as little as 9% of plastic since its inception has been recycled.
2. The Systems to Deal with Plastics Remain Inadequate
Plastic recycling is the supposed solution to the plastic crisis, but it only delays the plastic being landfilled and inevitably ocean bound. The responsibility and accountability for the plastic problem have been passed around like a game of passing the parcel; governments hold businesses accountable, businesses hold consumers responsible, and consumers demand actions from governments. The further politicization of the plastic problem has led to many empty promises being made on all sides, such as plastic bags or greenwashed packaging. With consumers being the least responsible for creating this mess, they are taking up the most action on this problem with initiatives such as Plastic Free July.
Plastic Free July would not be this problem had it been holding all types of polluters responsible and accounted for the magnitude of pollution from each party. It is unfair to say that consumers are not responsible for plastic pollution just because they are the least responsible. There is definitely great scope for consumer behaviour to be more sustainable. Nevertheless, if we continue to blame one party or one actor for the mistakes of a collective, we will never address the multifacetedness of the issue at hand. Oversimplifying the problem will never solve the problem.
3. Plastic Free July is Elitist
In the graph below, there is a clear trend between higher plastic consumption with greater GDP per capita. In other words, the wealthier your country is the higher your average plastic consumption is. India falls into the bottom third of countries producing waste per capita. It can be argued that the sheer volume of plastic waste produced by our entire country is much higher than that of the Netherlands or the UK, but this is injustice from a global perspective. Waste is also a by-product of a linear economy, so economic growth produces waste in different forms. Why should Indians not enjoy the same economic development as those in Europe?
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These are all valid questions, and they are relevant because Plastic Free July is an Australian movement. The problems of Australia are distinctly different from India’s, and that’s why the movement works there. In India, the movement falls flat and even looks ridiculous. It is being propagated by upper-class and upper-caste people who are producing a great deal of plastic waste, while 134 million Indians continue to live under the poverty line, which is approximately 10% of the population. The disparity is also widening in India, with 80.7% of wealth sitting with the top 10% and 19.3% with the other 90%. These privileged people must recognize that they are contributing to a global problem and they address it, but not under the guise that every Indian consumes and pollutes as much as themselves.
Will Plastic Free July ever have a meaningful impact on India?
It is unlikely that Plastic Free July will ever represent the true, insidious nature of the plastic pollution problem in India because it is oriented towards consumers. To have a deeper intervention in this crisis, we must hold all parties accountable, improve our capacity across sectors of handling plastic waste, and address both responsible consumption and production. We must be cognizant of who the real polluters are instead of passing on the responsibility to those who have little choice and economic opportunity or face systemic oppression. Most importantly, we should stop oversimplifying the problem to create a narrative.
(Also Read: Trash Talk: A Toxic Trade)
Mahapatra, R. (2021, April 7). Mass poverty is back in India. Down to Earth.
Chaudhari, D., & Ghosh, P. (2021, March 5). Why inequality is India’s worst enemy. Down to Earth.
Ficci. (2016, January). Plastic Packaging - The Sustainable Choice.
Plastic Free July. (2021, July 27). Plastic Free July.
Karbalaei, S., Hanachi, P., Walker, T.R. et al. Occurrence, sources, human health impacts and mitigation of microplastic pollution. Environ Sci Pollut Res25, 36046–36063 (2018).
National Geographic Society / Laura Parker. (2019, July 5). A Whopping 91 Percent of Plastic Isn’t Recycled. National Geographic Society.