To ban or not to ban: understanding the associated intricacies of complete plastic water bottle ban

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Plastic bottled water, despite being convenient, and a healthier alternative to tap or sugar-sweetened soft drinks receives a call for its ban in Sikkim. However, the call for a ban is not due to what is inside the bottle rather it is entirely due to what is outside, i.e., “plastic”. The call for a plastic water bottle ban by the Sikkim State Govt. led by Chief Minister P S Golay has excited all the environmentalists all over the state. The euphoria is justifiable, and it should be, as the whole world has been struggling to fight the menace of ubiquitous plastic. Therefore, this bold act of banning plastic drinking water would carry a message that will reverberate around the nations of the world. Especially when the world is looking for a solution to plastic waste, and when India has a part to play, this act of complete banning of plastic bottled water would be acknowledged, and at the same time, it will be watched very closely by policymakers, environmentalists, academicians, and scientists not only from India but from around the world as the news further get diffused.

However, the success of any policy lies in the hands of its executioners, which also happen to be the consumers of plastic bottled water in this case. Thus, the impetus required to fuel the plastic ban drive needs strong reinforcements; a careful conjecture spanning through all the facades.

Since the call for the ban is entirely due to what is outside, i.e., plastic, let’s talk about it. According to a National Geographic report, plastic bottles and bottle caps are the third and fourth most collected plastic trash in the ocean, respectively; thus, a ban may appear justifiable and necessary. Accordingly, in June 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that India would eliminate all single-use plastic items in the country by 2022.

To fulfill this commitment, the Centre has published the Plastic Waste Management Amendment Rules, 2021, which bans the production, import, stocking, distribution, sale, and use of numerous single-use plastic (SUP) items from July 1, 2022. In its Plastic Waste Management Amendment Rules, 2021, India defines SUP as “a plastic commodity meant to be used once for the same purpose before being disposed of or recycled.” The Department of Chemicals and Petrochemicals (DCPC) under the supervision of the Union Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers identified a list of single-use plastic goods to be phased out based on a report by an expert committee.

The assessment was conducted by DCPC by comparing two pillars — the utility index of a particular type of SUP and the environmental impact of the same. The government has also asked the states and Union Territories to develop a comprehensive action plan to eliminate single-use plastic items. According to the assessment report, plastic water bottles despite scoring low on the index parameters may not necessarily fall under the category of the list of SUP items to be phased out. As a result, the question arises: Is the call for a ban entirely a reaction to the center’s calls for states to make plans to phase out the SUP without necessarily preparing for and anticipating both short-and long-term challenges? Or is the Govt is serious about the complete ban and has considered all the associated intricacies? Perhaps, time will only be able to answer these questions.  

However, if we are serious about plastic waste management, then the ban on plastic water bottles must be understood both from what is inside (water) and what is outside (plastic). Let’s talk about what is inside first, i.e., water. To understand this, we should ask ourselves that why are we so obsessed with bottled water? The number one reason must be convenience followed by the hygiene. It is irrational to expect from the citizens that in the wake of the plastic ban event, they’ll be totally on board with switching to alternatives to plastic bottles overnight. There is a limit to a person’s capacity to carry water, even if they are on shorter trips, especially with family and kids. A complete ban may end up discouraging the tourist especially those who travel as a family with kids.

The hygiene factor on the other hand shows travelers distrust the water supplied by the municipality in terms of its direct drinkability. Increasing health concerns and the unavailability of clean drinking water have led to the growth of the bottled water market in India. In the book, “Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water” by Peter H. Gleick he describes how bottled water is a symptom of a larger set of issues: the long-term decay of our public water systems, inequitable access to safe water around the world, our susceptibility to advertising and marketing, and society trained from birth to buy, consume, and throw away. Gleick argues that our growing obsession with bottled water is affecting our public water supply.

Our reliance and trust on bottled water over tap water shows how water went from being a free natural resource to one of the most successful commercial products.  In the context of the plastic water bottle ban, the bottom line is that people need water, i.e., 24×7. If the government is serious about the complete plastic water bottle ban in the state, then the government should plan for revamping the entire infrastructure plus electricity, maintenance, and operational charges.

That means providing potable piped drinking water (both cold and normal) at various locations, not just within the main city center but at every corner of the city and suburbs. Since we are talking about a state-wide ban, drinking water of international standards should run in the faucets every few kilometers of all the state and national highways, at all tourist spots and pilgrim centers, and at the base of all trekking and hiking trails throughout the state. When this infrastructure is efficiently laid out, we will still need to keep a check on the quality of water to avoid public skepticism and make sure that people should not feel the need to go back to bottled water instead. Regular maintenance and quality checks of these systems would ensure that the ban would work for a long time, or else it would loosen its grip and we would be back to square one.

However, when we talk about a complete infrastructure overhauling, it takes time to plan, fund, and execute. The image of our public water supply is not that of world-class and looking at the kind of infrastructure we have in place currently, the localized ban may be advisable because when it comes to water, specifically foreign tourists will continue to trust the popular brands. Like they have been doing in the past when the use of bottles of plastic water in government functions was banned. The rate of foreign tourists in India is expected to increase at a rate of ~6.7% during 2015-2025 which would further create the demand for bottled water. According to the Trade Promotion Council of India, the packaged drinking water bottle market in India was valued at $24 billion in 2019 and was expected to reach $60 billion by the end of 2023.

Since the banning of plastic bottled water has been seen as a war against the nuisance of plastic waste in pristine Himalayan states, we should try to understand the problem in the larger context of improper solid waste management rather than trying to solve it in silos. Let’s try to understand the problem and build a suggestion. The average per capita plastic consumption of India stands at 11 kg against the global average of 28 kg. Plastic, as a material, is one of the most wonderful things that humans have ever created. It has eased our lives in a way that no modern life can be imagined without it. Plastic is everywhere. It’s in the kitchen, the car, the operation theater, and even the keys of the laptop as I press to write are made of plastic. The problem doesn’t lie much in the plastic itself, rather in what happens to it once its utility is over. The problem is entirely due to mismanaged plastic that enters rivers and the ocean and kills the aesthetics of the environment. However, the problem has also started to surface due to the harmful effects of disintegrated plastic, also called micro or nano plastics, as it is susceptible to enters the food chain which reaches to our plate.

The 2013 study at the University of Vermont shows a ban on bottled water results in increased sales of higher-calorie beverages in place of zero-calorie water. There’s a strong likelihood that the ban on bottled water will encourage people to buy aerated cold soft drinks, especially during the long, hot summer, which might have negative health consequences. The ban should not appear as if the policymaker removed the healthiest beverage choice (water) while still allowing sales of bottled, carbonated, sweetened drinks. Without having adequate infrastructure, the ban on plastic water bottles may backfire in one or other ways if not astutely executed. When the infrastructure starts to spring, people start adapting and making lifestyle changes and adjustments. The first major source of waste plastic water bottles comes from the tourism industry. Therefore, the first major responsibility would be to identify how the government can intervene in this sector and discourage tourists and travelers from using bottled water without causing any inconvenience.

The excess of everything is bad; therefore, we should discourage the use of plastic, i.e., the overuse of plastic bottles needs a check. When our waste management and treatment infrastructure is not adequate, the littering of plastic at the end of its life will be inevitable. Policymakers should consistently work on altering the behavioral design of society to solve many of the social and environmental problems. There is no shortcut to it. Even a mix of both strategies is still better than a complete ban without any plan B at hand. In a bigger picture, if we congregate the issue of employment with a plastic bottle ban, we could kill two birds with one stone.

If the government is really interested and committed to phasing out plastic drinking water, then it must have patience. The option of plastic bottled water availability should be made available until the infrastructure to provide clean drinking water is made possible in every corner. Let people consciously choose one option over the other. The more appropriate way to do this would be to discourage the use of plastic bottled water by inducing permanent behavioral changes.

Plastic waste cannot be tackled just by banning water bottles; we need to strengthen the water management infrastructure as well as waste management infrastructure. Furthermore, such an abrupt ban would also affect employment. While we invest in creating adequate infrastructure, the local industries in the state that are involved in packaged drinking water may be asked to open water dispensaries, pay-and-fill units, and water booths for all public spots to avoid their business to falling. Every eatery and restaurant should have a provision to refill drinking water if they are using municipality-supplied potable water, or they can choose to install a pay-and-fill unit. Another plausible solution would be effectively implementing the concept of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) which is also mandated under the solid waste management rule 2016.

The plastic nuisance can be fought more effectively when producers, importers, and brand owners are asked to deal with it or lose the business. Further, we should not negate the power of data. Having baseline data at the city would help us frame a systems approach for promoting recycling. The data would also help in identifying stakeholders and would help in the identification of possible partnerships which would foster holistic management of plastic waste. Incentivizing the local producers to perform better as well could have manifold benefits such as effective segregation and collection, increased profitability, and providing a market for recyclables. The local bottled water producer can start with simple innovative change, such as inseparable caps; the cap still hanging from the bottle brim after opening it, could reduce the challenges associated with these non-collectibles.

Something as simple as rewarding tourists with state mementos for helping the state stay clean and plastic-free will act both as a tourist attraction and plastic waste collection. Such tactical reforms are the need of the hour instead of mere tokenism. I’d be overjoyed if this ban works without causing any inconvenience to us or travelers. Economically constructed plans that are environmentally sound, economically feasible, and socially acceptable, in my opinion, have a stronger chance of long-term survival since they are at the heart of the concept of sustainability. As CM himself echoed the fact that the Sikkim is blessed with natural resources that provide fresh natural drinking water, as a result, it is obligatory on both policymakers and citizens to be concerned about the quality and quantity of our public water and to safeguard this priceless resource.

By Hari Bhakta Sharma. The author is a Ph.D. Scholar at  IIT Kharagpur, Dept of Civil and Environmental Engineering. He can be contacted at hbsharma@iitkgp.ac.in

SC Bureau

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