Charging for plastic and how it changes the planet

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Volunteers try to clear a dam which is filled with discarded plastic bottles and other garbage, blocking Vacha Dam, near the town of Krichim on April 25, 2009. AFP PHOTO / DIMITAR DILKOFF

Till about 2 years back when I used to walk into a retail store and was charged for a shopping bag I always thought this is huge scam and retailers are just charging us to make money from a forced sale. I wasn’t completely wrong because it is true, a lot of retailers do make a lot of money on the sale of plastic bags but this practice is a blessing in disguise for us.

I remember many years back my grandmother would go for grocery shopping and she carried a bag along with her. This was a habit she had because during majority of the years that she bought vegetables, plastic bags had not become a common give away, and you had to bring you own bags. Then of course times changed and every vendor had polythene bags that were being thrown in with every purchase you made.

This caused a massive rise in pollution. We got so caught up in convenience that we turned a complete blind eye to the problems that could come due to this excessive use of plastics. As a result we ended up in the soup we are in. Today it is estimated that every year nearly 100,000 sea turtles, seals and whales die as a result of eating plastic bags or getting trapped in them.

And this environmental problem is not due to abuse of polythene bags alone. Any form of disposable plastics are causing huge loss of life and land to us today.

This is the image of how a seabird catches fish.

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But if this is how the ocean surface looks.

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Then this is what the seabirds stomach looks like by the time it dies.

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Think about the number of vacations you have taken. Every time a tourist spot is messy many blame some uneducated tourists who we don’t know, to be responsible for it.

The menace plastic creates in inescapable. Because we are seeing it everywhere. Trains tracks are full of it, and the draining system is full of it. During monsoons when I pass by Worli Sea face I see the waves shooting out plastic bags and bottles back on the streets. It is a huge pollution problem.

Plastics which entered the oceans many years back have now broken down into micro-plastics which are entering our food-chain and causing serious health problems. It is invisible, but it exists and is still dangerous. And if that isn’t already a big enough waste hazard alarm, consider this.

Disposables don’t come out of thin air, and they definitely don’t end that way either. There is a lot of fuel, water, and energy that goes into producing one product. Extracting oil from the ground, shipping it to a refinery, turning it into plastic, moulding it, re-transporting everything just so we can get this disposable.

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The product also never breaks down and does not have the ability to release this energy stored in it back to the surroundings. So all that energy content stays locked inside the product for eternity. But there is something about this problem which I want to throw light on, and why I say that charging for plastic bags is a blessing in disguise.

Most plastic pollution comes out of single use products or disposables as we call them. This includes coffee cups, thermocol plates, food boxes, ketchup sachets, straws, plastic bags etc. Most consumption of disposables comes from functions like weddings, parties, office conferences, and so on. Then there are fast food joints, road side food vendors, and food courts in malls also where the usage of disposables is high. In such places disposables are never chargeable- we get them for free.

As we are not paying for the disposables today we are not really valuing the products. Sellers are asking manufacturer to produce disposables as cheap as possible, and thus manufacturers are making it from very cheap plastics. This is the main resistance sustainable production faces. No matter how sustainable my company’s production is we will always fail to beat the plastic price barrier, and just because of this “Free Product” mentality the market never solves this problem of plastic pollution.

Sellers want to sell their products cheap and thus they want to keep costs as low as possible. Which is fair. But at what costs to the environment?

Let us analyse.

Every year nearly 50 Billion bottles of water are consumed while a Million plastic bags are used around the world every minute.

Most of this plastic is not recycled and ends up being dumped in landfills, or left floating on oceans. And this is a problem because of the dumped plastic does not biodegrade. Nature works on the principle of : Build Up and Break Down. Which means that it will build materials like our bodies, the trees, plants, animals etc and upon the end of their life cycle that is after death nature will break down the body and absorb it’s material content back. It is just like digestion.

But nature can only break things that it knows how to make. Plastics are made by man and they have very complex and strong chemical bonds. The bacteria on our planet which does the digestion does not know how to break these bonds and digest plastics. Thus plastic gets dumped in oceans and on land and they never really break down.

Every disposable cup, plate we use is on an average used for not more than 7 minutes but it stays in the environment for more than 1000 years. So if you think about it the product is useful for only 0.000001% of its life. Rest of the time it is a garbage. In perspective the human body takes around 8-10 years to degrade.  So we essentially have an economy dedicated to manufacturing garbage.  While we live in a world where waste is the biggest problem.

So how do we combat this? 

On Feb 4th, 2011, the ministry of Environment and Forest in India gave a notification that made it compulsory for retailers to charge customers for shopping bags. As a result today we see a lot of people carrying their own shopping bags to stores. In England Tesco stores have seen a more than 75% decline in the use of plastic bags since the introduction of a charge as per the sales figures released by Tesco in 2015. Wales and Northern Ireland have seen a 78% and an 81% decline in plastic bag use respectively since the introduction of a similar charge.

In many ways this charge is just a small token fee. We can afford to buy all the plastic bags we need in the year or just a few hundred rupees. The charge is to make you stop at the checkout and give yourself that moment to ask – Do I really need this? It is about reforming habits and changing behaviours.

For so long we as consumers have never been put in that spot, we have never been asked “Sir, how many tissues will you need?” or “is it ok if I serve you this in a plastic plate?”

Introducing a charge allows for this confrontation. Which I believe is the key to solving the problem. We also need to pay so the market can afford to provide us with products made from better materials instead of cheap plastics. Our problem is not the plastic and it is not the price alone. It is our learnt attitude towards cheaper products like disposables and carry bags that we need to change.

Yes we need to value our resources and yes we need to consume less. But at the same time till we do not start paying for that throwaway we are consuming we will not think that it was our choice to use but that it was given to us. This is why I think we need to charge consumers for everything like straws, tissues and even food boxes just like we do for carry bags. The key to reducing the waste is to become mindful of the consumption and this can only happen through the confrontation happening through charging the consumer.

Screen Shot 2016-08-29 at 5.30.34 pmAbhishek Agarwal, co-founder of Pappco a sustainable packaging company.

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2 thoughts on “Charging for plastic and how it changes the planet

  1. Hello Abhishek,

    FIrst of all, I must say this post is very systematically put forward. However, I have a contradiction to what you have said here. Plastics, according to me, don’t need any substitution as of now. The reason being their numerous applications at a very low cost. The problems(environmental) which you have here certainly can’t be solved by just charging some extra amount of money for their use. That surely means we have a right to pollute or degrade the environment by paying some amount, isn’t it? And what if we don’t find and substitute to plastics very soon? Although we might keep paying some extra money for the use of plastics, we are still polluting the environment. And we have no right to do so. So, I feel that the mentioned problem would be solved, in a better way by using proper disposal methods of plastics. Recycling is one way to do it. Educating the crowd can be a part of that process as well.

    Just my point of view.
    Akhilesh

    Liked by 1 person

    • So, in all cases charging for single use products, and not just ones made from plastics but also say tissues, ketchup sachets, has shown a significant drop in the consumption which is what we need to solve the waste problem. Lower consumption equals lower waste.

      The charge at no point gives you the right to pollute, like you mention, as it is not a license you are buying. The charge is just there so you and I can be more aware of that product we come in contact with. This awareness is what leads to lower consumption. The facts suggest that charging is lowering the wasteful circulation of single use products. People have started saying no to plastic bags. At many restaurants around the world extra ketchup is chargeable and people refuse refills just because of that. Again do not think of this charge as a license to pollute. The relation is not that if you pay you can pollute as you mention, it is more like – if you have to pay then you don’t consume.

      Thus the charge works. Also it is necessary as why should we train ourselves to be happy with getting stuff complementary when we live in a world of limited resources and in times when those limits are under serious stress. Even if it is 100% environment friendly I think every product should be charged for separately wherever possible.

      On proper disposable – Yes I absolutely agree. The situation we are in needs fixing from many angles and proper end of life solutions are a key. Recycling plays a huge role with regards to that but again at some point recycled plastics become waste too. So it is important we tackle this issue at the generation level just as well.

      Liked by 1 person

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