Author: J R Bhatt and Ashish Chaturvedi
A cursory look at the history of development shows that economic growth invariably comes at the cost of environmental degradation. Beginning from the Industrial Revolution in England to the present day, most countries around the world have gained economic prosperity by putting an excessive burden on natural resources or ecosystems. These natural resources and ecosystems, either located in-country or abroad, served as a source of raw materials and sink for all kinds of environmentally burdensome effluents generated in pursuit of rapid growth.
The global experience also shows another trend – grow first and then manage the environmental degradation. For instance, the air quality in the already developed countries such as England and Germany suffered immensely in the pursuit of economic development. With sustained growth, there was enhanced economic space for investing in environmental policies and infrastructure to tackle degradation. Of course, citizens who had achieved the economic prosperity were also desirous of a better quality of life and put pressure on the policymakers to clean up the damages due to a single-minded pursuit of economic growth.
However, the experience of the already developed countries does not have to serve as the blueprint for countries that are still developing and trying to enhance the quality of life for their citizens. In fact, growth first and then clean-up later would be catastrophic for least-developed and developing countries for three reasons.
First, a majority of their citizens are dependent on natural resources for livelihoods and the opportunities in the manufacturing and service sector are still at a nascent stage. The costs of following models of growth of the already developed countries would be disproportionately borne by the most vulnerable and marginalized communities.
Second, the very idea of generating waste is antithetical to progress. It makes economic and ecological sense to not create waste. While this idea of not creating waste is currently gaining currency around the world under the broad rubric of “circular economy/ zero waste/ resource efficiency”, it has been a way of life for several generations in rural India.
Third, the experiences of the already developed countries are already before us. The same path does not have to be followed by the developing countries. Thus, sharing of experiences, institutional learning and technologies would be in the global best interest.
A case in point is the management of plastics in our life and environment. Plastics are symptomatic of a modern life. It is impossible to imagine life in any part of the world without plastics.
We eat in plastics, drink in plastics, wear plastics and to a certain extent live in (or with) plastics. Part of the reason for the ubiquity of plastics is the versatility of the material – it can be molded into any shape, can be as thin as cling film or as sturdy as the bumper of a car. It is lightweight and above all, it is available in abundance because our economies are still fossil fuel dependent and plastics are an innocent by-product.
However, there are significant challenges due to the widespread use of plastics. Our land, water, and even air are getting significantly polluted. Plastic waste is disposed of indiscriminately on land and water and often burnt in the uncontrolled environment leading to emissions of greenhouse gases as well as persistent organic pollutants. As the National Geographic points out, nearly 700 marine species, including endangered ones are affected by plastics in our oceans. Marine species of all sizes, from zooplankton to whales, now eat microplastics.
Global per capita consumption of plastics annually is 28kg. The Europeans consume more than double (65 kg) while the Indian consume less than half (11 kg) of the world average. One possibility would be to wait till the Indian consumption reaches the European levels before we start worrying about the challenges of plastic waste. The other would be to join hands with the global community to tackle the challenge of plastic waste management while consumption levels are low.
The latter is precisely the spirit with which India is hosting the World Environment Day. This year’s theme, Beat Plastic Pollution, gives a clarion call for collaboration amongst countries all over the globe to come together to arrive at solutions for plastic waste management.
As we embark on this global challenge, we recommend following forms of cooperation at the global level. First, we must work together to regulate international flows of plastic waste. It is clear that significant flows of plastics happen from the global north to global south. Some of it is warranted by the relocation of plastic industry and the needs of raw materials. But at the same time, the flows of waste plastics also happen in the direction of least costs incurred – environment, social and economic.
Second, we must create an international exchange platform for sharing of global experiences on policies, business models as well as citizen initiatives. A lot of action is already happening. Initiatives that have been successful in different parts of the world need to be upscaled rather than reinventing the wheel. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change is documenting some of the best practices in India. Similar initiatives need to be documented and shared widely – there is no better incentive or nudge for good behavior.
Third, we must establish global partnerships with the private sector which is also working across national boundaries. The innovations for recycling and disposing of plastics, finding substitutes for packaging material as well as developing innovative communication drives would necessarily require the skills of the private sector. For instance, a recent report by FICCI and Accenture points out that approximately 40% of India’s plastic waste goes uncollected (ending up in landfills). Diverting this to recyclers has the potential to create 1.4 million additional jobs in India’s recycling industry.
If we manage to do that successfully, we would be able to leave a planet worth living not only for our children but also for any form of life on our planet. Such resolve is crucial every day, not only on the World Environment Day.
At the national level, we must foster partnerships amongst actors that have hitherto not engaged closely together. That would be the only way for a transformative agenda for managing plastics. Further, we should celebrate successes and individual achievements, and there are already quite a few. From Afroz Shah cleaning the Versova Beach mobilising citizen participation, to Aditya Mukarji replacing 50,000 plastic straws, to Ukhrul in Manipur becoming a plastic-free district, to Vengurla taluka banning plastic bags and using plastics to make roads, to the start-up Banyan Nation helping global brands using more recycled plastic, to more than 5 million Bharat Scouts and Guides (BSG) pledging to give up their plastic woggles, a signature element of the BSG uniform, replacing it with more sustainable and eco-friendly options – the list is growing and rapidly. We need to celebrate these initiatives and spread the Good News from India.
**J R Bhatt is Advisor in the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. Ashish Chaturvedi is Director, Climate Change at the German Development Agency, GIZ. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect those of their organizations.