The plastic monster

Last week, activists from Greenpeace Africa delivered to the Nestle factory serving East Africa a giant plastic monster made of the company’s brand packaging. This was an effective way of conveying that much of the needed action on restricting the prevalence of single-use plastic throughout the world will need to be taken by the big fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies. It is certainly an important and urgent issue — according to the United Nations Environment Programme, over 8 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced since the 1950s and that might increase to as much as 34 billion tonnes by 2050. Plastic production could rise by 40 per cent a year over the next decade, further increasing dependence on fossil fuels. This growth is clearly unsustainable and driven in large part by an unnecessary dependence on plastic products that can only be used once — such as plastic packaging.

India has also taken this issue on board. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has declared that India seeks to be free of single-use plastic by 2022, though this may be a somewhat ambitious timeframe. Some states, however, have been moving faster than others. It is easier to do so if the state in question is smaller, or if it has a more effective government machinery. More than half of India’s states and Union Territories now have legislated or plan to legislate restrictions on single-use plastic. But, as Delhi’s failure to crack down on plastic shopping bags has shown, this is not always the most effective way to go about things. Some states, like Tamil Nadu, have the administrative competence and capacity required. Others, especially, in the Gangetic plain, do not. 

The Ganga valley creates vast amounts of plastic, much of which finds its way to the river. It was estimated, in a study published in the journal Nature, that the Ganga moves 110,000 tonnes of plastic to the sea every year, the second-highest such amount for any world river — second only to the Yangtze. Nor does India do well enough in recycling or collecting plastic. It is true that India, because of its poverty, has a large informal network of “ragpickers” who are effective recyclers. But there is little demand for thin, single-use plastic in that market. As a consequence, about 40 per cent of the plastic sold in India is neither recycled nor collected.

As a consequence of this set of circumstances, much is expected of larger companies. The state cannot do everything and does not have the capacity to do so. The large informal sector is cost-sensitive and it is difficult to create incentives to change its behaviour. As a result, the responsibility devolves upon the organised private sector — particularly those companies in sectors that create large amounts of single-use plastic, such as FMCG. If the large companies selling packaged goods and consumables change their behaviour, the informal sector that depends upon them will do so as well. E-commerce will have a major role to play. Currently, packaging charges are an insignificant proportion of the cost — only 3 per cent or so — but do not take into account sustainability. This will have to change. 

Food processing as a sector, if it moves to non-plastic solutions, will have to invest in other methods to ensure that food spoilage does not increase commensurately. But the big target will be, as it is for Greenpeace Africa, the FMCG majors. Nestle India says it has reduced the use of plastic by 1,500 tonnes last year. But this is but a drop in the metaphorical bucket. Much more will need to be done by the corporate giants in India, or a giant plastic monster is likely to arrive at their headquarters as well.  

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