The Plastic Waste Management Act, 2016, was passed by the Parliament in order to curb plastic waste generation in the country and eliminating single-use plastics from the next year. The environment ministry on Thursday notified the ban on the use of single-use plastic items from July 1, 2022. With less than a year left for achieving the target, the country needs a robust strategy to achieve this unrealistic feat being laid out in Plastic Waste Management Amendment Rules, 2021.
However, if environmentalists are to be believed, the target seems Sisyphean.
Rahul Choudhary, lawyer, Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment, said the task was difficult, given the government’s reluctance to adhere to deadlines. “We have seen that the governments extend deadlines or do not bother about them. Given no proper implementation plan, it doesn’t seem that the government would achieve this within the given timeframe.”
Atin Biswas, programme director for solid waste management unit at the Centre for Science and Environment, while welcoming the Centre’s move of increasing thickness of polythene bags from 50 microns to 120 microns by December 31 next year, said, “It is not the first time the government has come out with such a deadline. It’s the implementation that has been an issue.”
Lack of will to comply and challenges in enforcing the rules and regulations have been an issue. “First, the government needs to have an audit on why it has not been able to achieve the target yet,” said Kanchi Kohli, senior researcher at Delhi-based think-tank, Centre for Policy Research (CPR).
According to the United Nations Environment Programme, “Single-use plastics, often also referred to as disposable plastics, are commonly used for plastic packaging, and include items intended to be used only once before they are thrown away or recycled. These include, among other items, grocery bags, food packaging, bottles, straws, containers, cups, and cutlery.”
By a simple qualitative definition, any plastic item designed to be used once and then immediately discarded is single-use plastic. However, without detailed technical classification, it will be difficult to achieve the larger goal of curbing plastic pollution, Choudhary said.
India generates approximately 9.46 million tonnes (MT) of plastic waste per year. This figure is based on the Central Pollution Control Board’s projection that an estimated 25,940 tonnes per day of plastic waste generated in the country. Of this, 15,384 tonnes of plastic waste, or nearly 60 per cent, is collected and recycled while the remaining 10,556 tonnes of the plastic waste remains uncollected and littered in the environment, Javadekar told the Lok Sabha in November 2019.
According to a report by the Australia-based Minderoo Foundation published in 2021, China is the largest producer of single-use plastic, followed by the US and India. However, while India generates 5.58 MT of single-use plastic annually, China produces six times more, at 25.36 MT, and the US 17.19 MT. It said of the 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic produced since its invention in the 1930s, only nine per cent has been recycled.
However, single-use plastic has made a big comeback in the country with Covid-19. The prolonged lockdown has had a good effect on the environment in general by bringing down pollution levels but the increased use of masks, gloves, face shields, PPE kits, sanitiser bottles, etc to fight the pandemic has given rise to new concerns.
According to a World Economic Forum report in China, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment estimates that hospitals in Wuhan produced more than 240 tons of waste daily at the height of the outbreak, compared with 40 tons during normal times. Based on these data, consulting firm Frost & Sullivan predicts that the US could generate an entire year’s worth of medical waste in just two months because of Covid-19.
India generated 56,898 tonnes of Covid-19 bio-medical waste between June 2020 and June 2021, data from the Union ministry of environment, forest and climate change shows.
In his address to the nation from the Red Fort on Independence Day in 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had vowed to take Indians along in a nationwide commitment to end the use of single-use plastic.
In October 2019 at the Sabarmati riverfront in Ahmedabad, he said there would be no ban on single-use plastic, just a gradual phase-out of its use by 2022.
The Sikkim government passed the country’s first plastic-bag ban in 1998. Eighteen states have imposed a complete ban on plastic carry-bags, while five other states have imposed partial prohibition at religious and historical places, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) told the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in 2019.
The Centre had asked for single-use plastic items to be eliminated from across the country in three phases. In Phase-II starting from January 1, 2022, the sale and manufacture of earbuds, plastic sticks, balloons, plastic flags, candy sticks and polystyrene (thermocol) would be stopped. From July 1, 2022, 13 items, including plastic plates, cups, glasses, and other cutlery, would be phased out.
Choudhary believes that a blanket ban will not stop manufacturers from producing single-use plastic products. “There is a complete ban on plastic bag manufacturing of plastic bags in Uttarakhand. There is also a provision of a fine up to ~5 lakh in the state but plastic can be easily seen on the banks of the Ganges,” he said.
Finding substitutes for use-and-throw plastic and ensuring alternative livelihoods for producers, waste pickers and other groups involved in the business will go a long way in solving the problem. The government should not only place fines for not adhering to the guidelines but incentivise producers to switch to more sustainable products. Along with proper monitoring, promoting responsible consumerism is very important, said experts.
Vinod Sharma, who owns a plastic-bag manufacturing unit in Delhi is worried about the future as the government issues new guidelines. “We have been in this business for the past 20 years. The new guidelines will only increase the bribe rates of the authorities. The government should help the industry in switching to alternative products by incentives and subsidies,” he says.
Ramphal, a shopkeeper, who sells single-use plastic bags in Pataudi said the move was an attack on the middle class. “Any alternative to plastic bags costs twice as much to customers. Plastic bags cost Rs 150 per kg, whereas fabric bags cost Rs 230 per kg. Paper bags cost Rs 5-10 per piece.” Ramphal urged the government to make the alternative products tax-free in case of a blanket ban on plastics.