Last month, Sikkim restricted the use of two non-biodegradable products in the tiny hill state with immediate effect. While one government notification banned the sale and use of disposable Styrofoam or Thermocol products, the other said that packaged drinking water will not be used at government meetings or functions henceforth. Instead, the notification recommended as alternatives the use of filtered water in large reusable water dispensers or reusable water bottles.

Disposable Styrofoam or Thermocol products like plates, cups and food containers are non-biodegradable and non-recyclable. These, along with discarded packaged water bottles, clog waterways and fast fill up landfills out of which toxins leach, contaminating water in and around the area, posing a health hazard for people.

Sikkim banned plastic carry bags in 2002 and fire-crackers in 2014. Though it isn’t the first Indian state to ban the use of Styrofoam disposable food ware, it is the first to regulate and restrict the use of packaged, bottled water.

“We hope to extend the bottled water ban across the state in the near future,” said Sikkim mayor Shakti Singh Choudhary. “We are committed to making Sikkim a clean, green and organic state.”

A welcome step

Though local NGOs have welcomed the move, saying it will take the pressure off Sikkim’s already-stretched landfill, there is concern about enforcement.

Nevertheless, activists and environmentalists say the ban is a step in the right direction.

“Sikkim has run out of space for landfills,” said Rajendra Gurung, CEO of the Gangtok-based Ecotourism and Conservation Society of Sikkim. “Gangtok’s landfill is still under construction and the dumped waste is already polluting the nearby river. Local bodies cannot find land for dumping of waste because of forest clearance issues.”

Environmental experts too laud the state’s attempts to manage its garbage. “By banning such products, the Sikkim government has shown good leadership in waste management, which can rightly guide the Swachh Bharat campaign,” said Bharati Chaturvedi, director of the New Delhi-based Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group.

Sikkim’s waste troubles

Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, generates 30-35 metric tonnes of waste per day, which goes up to 40-45 metric tonnes a day during the tourist season. According to Gurung, a considerable waste volume is in the form of PET bottles (bottled water and soft drinks), food packaging and tetrapaks (multi-layer juice and milk cartons).

A Central Pollution Control Board study of plastic waste generation in 60 major cities in India released last year found that almost 9% of total waste generated in Gangtok was plastic waste – much higher than the average percentage (6.92%) of plastic waste generated in all surveyed cities.

“The Gangtok Municipal Corporation has a very effective system of daily household waste collection through ghanta-gaaadis [waste trucks that go door to door],” said Sarikah Atreya, an independent journalist based in Gangtok. “However segregation of waste at source has been a non-starter.”

She added that Sikkim did not have the means to process and dispose of waste scientifically.

Gangtok’s existing waste dumpsite, which is now being upgraded to a scientific landfill, is next to a river, into which flows toxic leachate from the mixed waste. “In spite of various surveys, the local body has been unable to find an alternative site for a landfill,” said Gurung. “Villagers don’t want urban waste to be dumped near their agricultural fields. Hence, reducing toxic wastes, such as disposable food ware, is the only way forward.”

Toxic Styrofoam

Styrofoam and Thermocol are trade names of a type of plastic called polystyrene, a white, lightweight material, which takes hundreds of years to break down. Over 100 US and Canadian, as well as some European and Asian cities, have already banned polystyrene food packaging.

Polystyrene has been linked to cancer. A March 2010 report of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change noted polystyrene’s ill-effects and warned that it was unsafe for food and beverage packaging as polystyrene breaks down to styrene at low temperatures. Both the US Environmental Protection Agency and the International Agency for Research on Cancer have classified styrene as a possible human carcinogen.

There is enough scientific evidence to show that polystyrene food containers leach styrene when they come into contact with warm food or drink, alcohol, oils and acidic foods, thus posing a direct health risk to people. It is calculated that if a person drinks water, tea, or coffee from polystyrene cups four times a day for three years, he may have consumed about one styrofoam cup-worth of styrene along with the beverages. Studies conducted in the US have already found styrene residues in human fat tissue and breast milk samples.

According to a 2015 research paper by Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group, long-term exposure to small quantities of styrene can cause neurotoxic (fatigue, nervousness, difficulty sleeping), haematological (low platelet and haemoglobin values), cytogenetic (chromosomal and lymphatic abnormalities), and carcinogenic effects.

Styrene also enters human bodies through the food chain. The disposable food ware that we toss out after a quick meal, mostly makes its way to the nearest water body from where it eventually flows into the oceans. It is estimated that 90% of floating marine debris comprises plastic, including polystyrene. India, which aims to transform into a “clean nation” by 2019, is the 12th largest contributor of plastic waste in the oceans.

Once in the oceans, the polystyrene photodegrades in the presence of sunlight and breaks down into smaller pieces that marine animals mistake for food, ingest and die. Several scientific studies have found small plastic debris, including polystyrene foam, inside the bodies of marine species, fish and seabirds. These marine creatures eventually make their way to our plates.

Whither enforcement?

In January, the Uttarakhand government banned styrofoam disposable food ware from Gomukh to Haridwar following an order from the National Green Tribunal.

But, the ban hasn’t been enforced. Enforcement is a problem in other states too.

For instance, Punjab banned single use Thermocol products from April 1. But, its deputy chief minister has told traders to continue selling Thermocol products. Last year, Jharkhand’s chief minister banned Thermocol plates, but they are still easily available in the state.

In March, the Karnataka government issued a notification banning a range of plastic products including carry bags, banners, flags, plates, cups, sheets, as well as Thermocol plates and cups.

Though the ban came after a long process of citizen consultation, here too implementation is a challenge though it may be too soon to draw any conclusions on the ban’s effectiveness.

“Except plastic carry bags, other products, such as disposable food ware, are easily available in Bengaluru,” said Bindhu Balasubramanian, a software engineer and local citizen activist, who, last November, forced the management of Phoenix Market City Mall in Whitefield to switch from styrofoam-based disposable food ware to eco-friendly alternatives like banana leaf, arecanut and steel plates.

Sandya Narayanan, a member of the Bengaluru-based Solid Waste Management Round Table, partially agrees with Balasubramanian. “It will take at least six months to enforce the notification,” said Narayanan. “We are conducting several workshops to educate the residents.”

The Solid Waste Management Round Table has prepared a map (see below) to show the implementation of the plastic ban in Bengaluru. It has also prepared a manual on the ban, and has provided a list of eco-alternatives and their suppliers on its website.

A plastics-free roadmap

In Sikkim too, there is an awareness that enforcement is important.

“The real challenge before the Sikkim government is to enforce the bans and make them a success for others to emulate,” said Dr Satyadeep Chhetri, member of the Zero Waste Himalayas Group. He pointed out that Lachen area in North Sikkim had banned bottled water in 2012 and its people had successfully enforced the ban since then.

“We are working with the state pollution control board to implement the ban on disposable food ware and packaged drinking water,” said mayor Choudhary. “Enforcement will take some time, but we are committed to it.”

Choudhary has also called for a meeting with manufacturers to introduce extended producer responsibility in Sikkim. This will put the onus of the disposal of toxic waste on its producers, and not consumers or civic agencies.

Gurung said that since Sikkim did not manufacture Thermocol products, monitoring the only two entry points into the state at the Sikkim-West Bengal border would be effective.

But Chaturvedi seeks a national ban and phasing out of toxic plastic materials from the country. “Sikkim is geographically isolated and may successfully enforce the ban,” said Chaturvedi. “But, most other states will fail unless there is a national ban. We must not allow the plastic industry to pollute our environment and poison our bodies, as that is a violation of our fundamental right to healthy, pollution-free life.”

Nidhi Jamwal is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist who reports on the environment. Her Twitter handle is @JamwalNidhi.