“Not to ban plastic, but to plan!”
Padma Shri Awardee, Dr. R. Vasudevan, also known as the Plastic Man of India, feels that the government’s proposal to ban plastic may not be a good idea, especially in context of the current economic slowdown. Rather, efforts should be focused towards changing the attitude of people and better management of plastic waste.
India Business & Trade (IBT): How serious is the plastic waste problem? What solutions can India deploy to reuse plastic waste?
Dr. R. Vasudevan: India is a developing country. We need to develop more industries and more job opportunities. If we start banning plastic, it may affect the industry. Moreover, in rural areas, the standard of living is not very high. Everything from mats to mugs is made out of plastic. If you start replacing plastic, it will impact every aspect of life.
I think the issue of plastic waste is all about “manage mental technique”. By this I mean as man ages (develops), mental technique has to be properly managed. Plastics are useful; but we need to find the solutions that help us live with it. In fact, there are no problems in using plastic; we are the ones creating them due to our callousness in using plastic.
IBT: How is the phasing out of single-use plastic likely to impact the industry in your opinion?
Dr. R. Vasudevan: I say better not to ban, but better to plan! I believe that there is no problem as far as plastic is concerned. There is no problem with respect to plastic; the only thing is the careless & callousness of human attitude which has resulted in the accumulation of waste and created problems like clogging the water flow & so on. “Imagine if plastic were something that could talk; what would it have said to us – “You people use me in everything and I serve you in every aspect. Without me, you would exist in various ways. Yet, you say that you don’t like me!” From morning to evening, different products that we use have plastic content in them.
Plastic is 21st century’s discovery; it displaced the need for various materials like paper, metals & wood due to its versatility & qualities like being waterproof and malleabile. Therefore, the plastic industry has enormously expanded over the years. The packaging industry and a lot of employed people, for instance, are heavily dependent on plastics. Be it food industry, pharmaceutical companies or e-commerce firms like Amazon, they need an impact resistance material like plastics for packaging. So, the plastic manufacturers and consumers, both, are going to be equally affected. Moreover, any other material is definitely costlier. So, it is very difficult for the vendor to change from plastic to any other material because other material is at least 3 times costlier than plastic. The economy will definitely be affected; India is a country where 65% of the people are poor.
Plastic is collected and dumped in oceans, creating a problem for the marine ecosystem. Such instances reflect the carelessness of human beings towards the environment. So, the proposal to ‘’ban SUPs” is an outcome of our carelessness and people’s mental attitude.
Plastic is one of the most useful substances. After using a carry bag, it can be used to make a road which can last for up to 15 years, without cracking. This will not only lead to better infrastructural development and give a boost to the Indian economy, but also create less environmental problems. For manufacturing such roads, we need 100 lakh tones of plastic. But India doesn’t even have 10 lakh!
IBT: Do you think that the country is equipped to make a transition to a complete phasing out of plastic? How can the transition be made smoother?
Dr. R. Vasudevan: The most important equipment needed is ‘’ mindset”. If an individual thinks that I will be useful for my country, I will participate in Make in India – the whole situation will be different. The Prime Minister is trying his level best to change the country’s mindset. Swachh Bharat and make in India are great mantras. He comes and sits with the people to segregate plastic. But one man alone cannot bring about this change; he can only be a model. A movement should be created to sensitize people and change their careless attitude.
We need to remember that plastic is very important. Plastic cannot be completely replaced because the most important property of plastic is that it cannot be destroyed by water. It prevents the entry of moisture, unlike other materials like jute or paper. Glass is too costly and delicate so it cannot serve as an alternative. Even major soft drinks companies like Coco Cola and Pepsi are using only plastic bottles.
Students should be trained to bring about this change. For instance, I always offer chocolates to the students who come to visit my office. I often notice that most of them leave the wrapper of the chocolate on my table although the bin is located right next to it. So, such kind of a training where people learn to properly discard waste is something that should be taught in school so that it is inculcated in them since an early age.
IBT: What would be the effect of banning plastic use on the Indian economy at a time when it is already struggling with slowdown?
Dr. R. Vasudevan: When the industry is affected, the economy is affected. We should help the industry to flourish. Industry produces, markets & forgets; consumer uses it and throws it. The government collects the waste, dumps it and forgets it. This is leading to the accumulation of waste. The plastic industry should promote waste collection through activities like CSR. Hence, they can adopt cities and collect the waste. Once it is collected, it can be used for things like road-laying. It is their responsibility.
Banning plastic at the time of slowdown is definitely a problem. It is the collective responsibility of everybody – the industry, the people and the government – to facilitate the “proper disposal” of plastics.
IBT: What strategies can be devised to substitute plastic packaging solutions with more eco-friendly options ahead of the festive season?
Dr. R. Vasudevan: Plastic is the best material for packing. We don’t really have alternatives with properties similar to plastic like water resistance. However, some of the things that can be done include using thinner variety of plastic. This will automatically bring down the plastic consumption. Subsequently, such thin plastic can be used for manufacturing useful structure modules and also for road. Multilayer films used in packaging wafers or shampoos, for instance, uses aluminium, plastic & polyester. These sheets cannot be separated and therefore, these cannot be recycled. New developments technological have come up to make recycling of these waste possible. Rethinking may throw new lights, take another example: pencil. Each year, 2.5 million trees are chopped to produce pencils. It would be better to use micro-tip pencils or fountain pens to avoid damaging the environment. These kinds of small things would help us solve the problem of waste accumulation.
IBT: Are there any inspirational cases of countries where sustainable and scalable alternatives are available?
Dr. R. Vasudevan: Singapore is a small country. It is not really about habit formation; it has stringent rules that help it manage waste. The same person who comes from Singapore to India will come to India & throw waste on the road. But, unlike Singapore, India is a huge country having various cultures. So, implementing strict rules is a challenge for India. Creating awareness, planning & involvement of everybody is very important to tackle this problem. Education will play a vital role in bringing about this change. Students are to be motivated and they are the builders of tomorrow. Hence we do more such works through on ENVIS – TCE Madurai. A move like independence struggle is needed for creating proper awareness.
Dr. R. Vasudevan, M.Sc., PhD. is the DEAN & Professor of Department of Chemistry, Thiagarajar College of Engineering, Madurai, Tamil Nadu. He has 42 years of teaching experience with publications in reputed international and national Journals. He did his Ph.D. in Physical Organic Chemistry. With the view of changing the way plastic is treated in the country, in the year 2002, he innovated a technique of making roads using plastic waste, an eco-friendly process. He is popularly known as Plastic Man of India. He has received Tech Icon Award from Honorable Prime Minister Narendra Modi, under Swachn Bharat & Dr. APJ. Abdulkalam Award.