Tax harmful plastics

| Updated on November 02, 2018 Published on November 01, 2018

Promote newer plastics that biodegrade


From January 1, 2019, the government of Tamil Nadu will implement a limited ban on certain plastic consumer goods. It could consider few other pragmatic steps and tax ‘carbon’ that is detrimental to present and future generations. Before the 20th century, some of the carbon compounds available in nature were largely useful as food and to a smaller degree as fuel (being mostly wood and coal). These carbon compounds can be called “essential carbon” or EC. The consumption of EC has also increased over the last century due to increasing human population.

In the 20th century, few of the carbon and carbon compounds acquired an additional dimension for humans. They were considered to be essential for enhancing the ‘quality of life’. This pursuit led to an increase in the per capita consumption of carbon compounds (as fuel for transportation and heating, special chemicals and plastics) and the higher presence of carbon dioxide in air, despite the cushion, or carbon sinks, provided by the oceans.

Carbon compounds used for enhancing the quality of life can be called “other carbon” or OC.

Carbon connect

The EC and OC, are closely associated with human and plant life. Living plants produce EC, continuously, by photosynthesis in which water and carbon dioxide are used up with the assistance of sunlight.

Qualitatively speaking, the speed of production of EC, luckily, is greater than its consumption. The continued availability of EC is going to depend on the number of plant life around. OC, on the other hand, is produced by the decay of dead plant and animal life to coal, natural gas and oil over millions of years. OC is certainly not available at the present rate of consumption (in the last century major portion of available OC has already been consumed). When humans engage in acts against nature (consequence of the summation of self-driven actions of individuals for short-term advantages without the knowledge about the long-term damage it can cause), then collective action prompted by reasonable assessment of the damage is the way to reduce the harmful impact.

One common way of doing this could be to tax acts that result in negative consequences to the society in the short and long run.

To begin with, the tax on OC (GST or excise/VAT on plastics) should be increased many fold. Among the consumer plastic products those containing carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen (such as polyester, PET and nylon) can be taxed at the lowest, as they are likely to pose much less harm in view of their potential to biodegrade. Then, polyethylene and isotactic polypropylene could be taxed at moderate level, as source segregation and incineration of these plastics under oxygen-rich conditions can be used to produce energy. These constitute about 50 per cent of the plastics produced and consumed by volume. Plastics containing halogens in their backbone must be taxed heavily as the damage caused by them is far more than that by hydrocarbon-based plastics. Plastics can also be taxed based on ingredients that are used as additives and established to be harmful.

There are newer plastics (natural as well as synthetic) that are established to biodegrade. Although they are relatively expensive compared to the synthetic plastics that do not biodegrade, promoting them would offer long-term benefits. Given that people have gotten used to the advantages of plastics it may be more convenient to provide no-tax incentive for biodegradable polymers to begin with.

The writer is Professor of Chemistry, IIT Madras

Published on November 01, 2018
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