Post Mortem

Growth, consumerism and the plastic ban

By Nagaland Post | Publish Date: 5/24/2019 12:10:09 PM IST

 Mainstream economics have been debating for a long time over the efficacy of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as an index for measuring or furthering national welfare. As of now, almost all nations across the world use the GDP to assess economic performance. An increase in national output leads to an increase in GDP which further lead to an increase in the percapita income and employment on one hand and reduction of poverty on the other. As such, policy prescriptions are shoved in to push the GDP upwards consistently overtime. 

A major limitation of this index, however, is its inability to accurately reflect the effects of externalities on national welfare. Development models that seeks to push the economy’s growth rate often ignores the cost associated with it in terms of destruction of natural resources, habitat loss, pollution and its overall impact on the environment. Most governments consider an increase in GDP as an economic and policy achievement. Hence, these results are increasingly used to further their political image and agenda. However, in course of time, we have witnessed a growing disparity in income across and within nations, indicating that growth is not being equitably distributed. We have also seen that growth has been accompanied by rapid depletion of natural resources and erosion of air, water and soil quality, which again have an adverse effect on human welfare. 

One notable negative externalities of high growth rate is its fallout on the environment, particularly air and solid waste pollution. Energy is the most potent tool to raise growth and productivity. However, most conventional source of energy emits pollutants and thereby pollutes the environment, causing numerous health issues and reduces the longevity of the society. Another major tool of growth is by way of pushing consumerism in the society. Consumerism is a social and economic order that encourages the purchase of goods and services in greater scale. The goal of the producers being to maximize profit, have revolutionize the marketing technology, whereby branding, attractive packaging, cheap or free accessories to induce consumers have become commonplace. And through pervasivemedia campaigns, consumers are lured into the trap of corporate designs to buy more and more.

Every product that is bought from the market or online stores comes along with some components of plastic, either in the form of packaging or carry bags. Plastics are also replacing wood, steel, aluminum, clay or ceramic products at an increasing rate. However, the major challenge comes from the single use plastics, including, grocery bags, polythene, bottles, straws, cups and cutlery etc. While plastic has many valuable uses, we have become accustomed and addicted to single-use or disposable plastics which have severe environmental consequences. 

Around the world, one million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every minute, while up to 5 trillion single-use plastic bags are being used every year. In total, half of all plastic produced is designed to be used only once. Study shows that more than 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced since the early 1950s, out of which only 9 percent have been recycled while 12 percent have been incinerated. The rest have become waste, accumulating in landfills and oceans. 

Our obsession for plastic products has become a nightmare, both in terms its environmental impacts and policy regulations to tackle its production and use. Despite the mounting challenges, there is a growing consciousness among the global community on the urgent need to contain this plastic menace. In the last decade alone, dozens of national and local governments around the world have adopted policies to reduce the use of disposable plastic. A report entitled “Legal Limits on Single-Use Plastics and Microplastics” released by United Nations and World Resource Institute in December 2018 states that, as of July 2018, 127 out of 192 countries reviewed, have adopted some form of legislation to regulate plastic bags. The report says that the regulations vary considerably, however, the most common form is the restriction on free retail distribution. Twenty-seven countries have instituted taxes on the manufacture and production of plastic bags while 30 countries charge consumers fees for plastic bags at the national level. 

Back home, Shri.  Neiphiu Rio, the Chief Minister of Nagaland, on June 5 2018,has vouched for a plastic free Nagaland by 1st December 2018. Though a blanket ban could not be enforced yet, the government and its agencies are working hard to create a plastic free Nagaland. In line with the state government policy, the Wokha Town Council, on 20thMay2019, has banned all single use plastics, including plastic bags of less than 50 microns, Styrofoamproducts, cups and cutlery with immediate effect. These are steps in the right direction and must be supported by all citizens. 

Several governments, including Denmark and Ireland, has imposed plastic tax to curb its use and have succeeded. The rationale is that, if tax is imposed on plastics, which otherwise comes for free, more people will stop throwing away the plastic bags but instead re-use them or bring their own reusable bags for shopping. In Ireland, the plastic tax has led to a 90 percent decline in use of plastic bags and generated over $ 9 million, which was used to fund environmental projects. Few years back, the Kohima Municipal Council has also imposed some tax on plastic bags, but the tax was discontinued after sometime probably due to complaints and noncompliance from the public and traders. 

Any policy regulation requires the support and cooperation of the citizens for its successful implementation. An informed and educated citizenry can easily grasp the intent and purpose of any proposed policy, hence they may reject or accept such policy faster and in an orderly manner. However, when the quality of the human capital is low, it takes longer period of time and effort to embrace or adapt to new policies and ideas. Hence, effective and extensive public awareness campaigns are needed to shape opinions, change lifestyles and to enforce compliance. 

In case, when taxation do not generate the desired effect, government may direct the retailers to provide cash benefits to consumers who choose not to take any plastic bags. Such cash benefits could range from Rs 1 to 10 depending on the value or size of the consumer’s basket. Cash incentives couldencourage consumers to refuse plastic or bring their own reusable carry bags, whichwould reduce the demand for plasticsand also promote a culture of ethical lifestyle. This could be implemented on experimental basis in bigger malls such as Vishal, Big Bazar, Westside etc.

Another way of reducing the use of disposable plastic products is to invest in their alternatives. Government offices and institutions, hotels and restaurants, village bodies, churches, NGOs and civil organisations may be encouraged or enforced to purchase reusable cups and glasses, plates, water filters etc. so that use of disposable items could be minimized. This is crucial because unless the state leads by example, it will be hard for fellow citizens to follow its policies. Such decision will require substantial initial investment. However, the investment will pay off in the long run as budgetary expenses for purchase of disposable products will diminish overtime. 

The ban on single use plastic products should also be accompanied by campaign against littering and random disposal of solid waste. Cleanliness is a good indicator to judge the nature and culture of the people in any society. Our streets and surroundings tell our story to any onlookers. Hence, awareness campaigns along with penalty may be imposed for littering and spitting in public places. Municipal bodies also need to be strengthened to handle and manage waste responsibly in all stages of collection, transport, treatment and disposal of waste. 

Lessons can be drawn from our neighboring Himalayan kingdom, Bhutan, on how they manage their economy sustainably and keep their cities clean. Bhutan is a carbon negative economy and is one of the cleanest countries in Asia. Plastics are being used in Bhutan, yetnot a speck of plastic waste or garbage are found in the streets or roadsides across the country. All this was possible because the citizens abidethe law and respects the authority. Conversely, the royals and government officials also set high moral standards for the citizens to emulate. The end result is a productive collaboration. 

Recently, Nagaland was also influenced by the popular trashtag challenge, where in, many young people take a photo of an area that needs some cleaning up and then take a photo after cleaning up the area. These are healthy signs that tells how our youths and children yearns to grow up in a healthy environment. The war on plastics and clean environment have just begun. It could take time to change our habits and lifestyles. Yet we must not linger, we must not stop. For as Van Gogh says “Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together. And great things are not something accidental, but must certainly be willed”. 

(Dr. N Janbemo Humtsoe, Green Foundation, Wokha, (janbemolotha@gmail.com)

Launched on December 3,1990. Nagaland Post is the first and highest circulated newspaper of Nagaland state. Nagaland Post is also the first newspaper in Nagaland to be published in multi-colour.

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