Last year, more than 7,000 people in India volunteered to spend a day cleaning up a beach. Between them, they worked through 387 kilometres of the country’s shoreline and collected 20,000 kilos of waste.

They listed out the top ten items they collected.

All ten contained plastic.

In his Independence Day speech this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked if Indians could “take the first strong step towards bidding farewell to plastic on October 2?” Ten days later, in his Mann Ki Baat radio programme, he hinted that his government could make plastics its key issue in its second term, the way that toilets were in its first. In his speech before the United Nations General Assembly on September 27, he stated “No more single-use plastic.”

Just how the government might attempt to achieve this is a matter of speculation, but the plastics industry, which has been growing steadily over the past two decades, has begun bracing itself for restrictions on the use of its products.

Plastics were once wonder materials that revolutionised modern life by making it possible to cheaply produce durable goods. How did they come to be so reviled?

Fantastic plastic

The first form of plastic was invented in 1839 by John Wesley Hyatt, as an alternative to the ivory used in making billiard balls. He produced a whitish material that was malleable, waterproof and would set as hard as an elephant’s tooth. His brother christened it “celluloid”.

Celluloid would go on to serve as the base for photographic film. Other materials followed, like bakelite, which could be produced from phenol, a waste product of coal, and polyethylene, which uses ethylene gas, a byproduct of oil refining. Soon, a whole bewildering array of similar compounds arose.

The plastics industry got a major boost in production during World War II, when plastics were used in everything from soldiers’ uniforms to radar systems. After the war, the industry turned its eye towards consumer goods.

The former waste products of fossil fuel refining were now in high demand, as chemists came up with ways to string their molecules into longer and longer chains, to produce a range of materials that could be moulded into furniture, pulled into supple tubing, hardened into pipes, and stretched into sheets.

Despite their current ubiquity, it is hard to overstate just how revolutionary plastics were when they were first introduced. As the French philosopher Roland Barthes put it, “The quick-change artistry of plastic is absolute: it can become buckets as well as jewels.”

The trouble with molecule chains

It is the very property of plastics that make them so versatile – they are made by joining molecules into ever-longer chains depending upon how supple or rigid they need to be – that becomes a problem when it comes to breaking them down. Plastics sometimes take centuries to biodegrade or turn into natural compounds like water, carbon dioxide and methane. In the meanwhile, they pile up in landfills and clog the oceans, causing a great deal of trouble.

Seven hundred species of marine life have been known to have eaten, or become entangled in plastic. Birds frequently choke on plastic products. It has also been found in their stomachs, filling them up, even as they starve to death.

Plastic waste clogs drains in cities like Mumbai and Dhaka, posing a particular problem during the monsoons. Water that cannot drain away gets logged, disrupting traffic and breeding mosquitoes.

There are also concerns over the impact of additives to plastics like phthalates, which make them supple, and bisphenol A or BPA, which is used in shatter-proof polycarbonates. A build-up of such compounds in the body can disrupt hormones, leading to a range of possible endocrine disorders and even infertility in humans.

Plastic production is said to be more environmentally-friendly than, say, cloth production. The Economist calculated that for a cloth bag to have generated less emissions-per-use than a single-use plastic bag – a plastic bag that is designed to be used only once – it would have to be used 131 times. This, however, does not calculate the – admittedly hard to quantify – cost of what the plastic does to the environment if disposed of improperly.

The plastics industry in India

India began producing polystyrene in 1957. Polystyrene is made by stringing together molecules of styrene, a carcinogen, into large chains. When expanded into a foam, it forms thermocol.

In the past 60 years, the plastics industry has grown and rapidly diversified.

Now, the plastic India produces in the largest quantities is polyethylene, used in plastic bags and polythene sheets. This is closely followed by polypropylene, which sets hard and is used to make plastic hinges, PVC or polyvinyl chloride which is used to make pipes, and PET or polyethylene terephthalate, which is used to make plastic bottles.

The average Indian consumes 11 kg of plastics in a year, and demand is so high that some plastics still have to be imported. India also generated at least 660 kilotonnes of plastic waste last year, although this figure is a significant underestimate, because only 14 of 35 regional pollution boards reported their plastic waste figures.

Forty percent of plastics in India are manufactured by Reliance India Limited. An additional 28% are manufactured by Indian Oil Corporation, ONGC and Haldia Petrochemical. This isn’t unusual, considering that the raw materials required for plastic production are the byproducts of processing fossil fuels.

The plastics manufacturing industry has been growing at a steady 10%-11% for the past ten years and Indians are using more plastic than ever before. Still, a 2017 report by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry states “with current per capita consumption of plastics in the U.S. at 109 kg and in China at 38 kg, India at 11 kg has a long way to go. The low consumption level indicates an enormous growth potential for the plastics sector.”

The possible ban on single-use plastics

In his speech on August 15, Modi made an impassioned plea for ridding the country of single-use plastic, and suggested that the first step towards this could be taken on October 2. It is possible that he was referring to a long-discussed ban on single-use plastics that could come into force on Gandhi Jayanti.

Such a move could potentially ban the production or use of some single-use plastic items, including small plastic bottles holding less than 200 ml of a beverage, thermocol, straws, plastic earbud sticks and cigarette butts.

The Swachch Bharat Mission report on plastic waste management estimates that 50% of all plastic waste in the country consists of single-use plastics.

The plastics processing industry in India employs 11 lakh people, many of whose livelihoods will be affected by the ban. A limited ban is unlikely to hurt large plastic manufacturers, comprising just 15 industrial groups. But the smaller, highly fragmented industry of plastic processors could be hit hard.

The industry is, however, being pre-emptive. On September 17, a full-page appeared on the front page of The Times of India, extolling the virtues of plastic bottles. It was released by PACE: PET Packaging Association for Clean Environment, an industry body that promotes the use of PET packaging and lobbies the government on policy relating to plastics.

Where do we go from here?

There are several solutions proposed for dealing with the problems of plastic pollution, and it is likely that a combination of them, backed by strong policy and enforcement, could do the trick in the years to come.

Recycling is getting a great deal of attention of late, and rightly so. According to the Plastindia Foundation report, India recycled 5,500 kilotonnes of plastic in 2017-’18, or about 60% of the plastic waste generated that year.

But even the best quality plastic can only be recycled five-seven times, because after each cycle, its quality degrades. For instance, food-grade plastic, once used, cannot be recycled to be used to store food again, which means a more accurate word would be downcycling. Plastic bottles – 80% of which are recycled, as the ad by PACE points out – are actually downcycled into plastic fibre, used in clothing. Eventually, after the clothing is used for a while, it too finds its way into landfill. In the meanwhile, the industry is producing new plastic bottles.

Bioplastics are an exciting new buzzword: plastics that break down in weeks or months instead of decades, and are made up of plant-derivatives instead of petrochemicals. But they are expensive to produce at a large scale, and will continue to be for a while yet. The oxo-biodegradable bags that are currently in the market are actually made up of conventional plastics blended with an additive that causes them to break down into fragments, but the plastics themselves do not biodegrade. Once the bioplastics industry matures though, their products could act as a substitute for the plastic products that need to be disposable, like medical equipment or food packaging.

There are also innovative solutions for using up the plastic that needs to be disposed of – in road building, to make plastic bricks for construction, in building bridges that cars can drive over, and by turning it into art.

Ultimately, though, as long as humans remain reliant upon fossil fuels, businesspeople will look to make profits from the waste generated while processing them. As a growing economy, India is still extremely reliant upon coal, oil, and gas, to power development, but there is increasing global pressure to reduce emissions and shift to renewables. If the country moves towards more renewable energy sources, it is possible that the plastics problem will die a natural death.

Someday, perhaps, the only reminder left of our Plastic Age will be the mountains of landfill that the sun cannot melt down and the rain cannot wash away.