India has for long been considering the need to impose a ban on the use of singleuse plastics. On World Environment Day last year, Dr Harsh Vardhan, the then Environment Minister, had made an announcement that single-use plastics would be phased out by 2020. This was in line with the United Nations Environment Programme, where single-use plastics have been referred to as disposable plastics which are commonly used for plastic packaging and include items intended to be used only once before they are thrown away or recycled.
These usually include grocery bags, food packaging, bottles , straws, containers, cups and cutlery etc. The commitment made by the Minister, however, underwent a revision very soon and the deadline was deferred to 2022. Following the success of Swachh Bharat, to which the nation had responded wholeheartedly, the government is now ready to launch Swachh Bharat 2.0 in order to tackle the menace of plastic waste and particularly disposable plastics by 2022. This area of environmental management reportedly is to be pursued as vigorously as the earlier campaign on making the country ODF.
In this context, the Prime Minister has also urged the people to take up ‘plogging’, which is collecting plastic waste while jogging or during morning walks. Regarding ODF, people understood through common sense, but for saying no to plastics, the multi-media campaign would have to be more intense and specially focus on the rural areas where the menace has hit the cattle and other animals in a deadly manner. Our country produces roughly twenty five thousand tonnes of plastic waste every day, out of which only about fifteen thousand tonnes get recycled.
This means that ten thousand tonnes are added each day to the existing mounds of plastic waste. It is not as if this state of affairs has remained unknown to the authorities concerned. Keeping in view the magnitude of the problem, the Plastic Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2011 issued by the Government of India were revised in 2016 and made more stringent. These were further revised in 2018, where every manufacturer, producer or brand owner was duty bound to notify the state and central pollution control boards, the quantity of plastic waste generated due to their business activities and ensure disposal by pyrolysis. Though amended in good faith, it is understood that these rules, besides being impractical were also extremely difficult to implement.
This is also borne out by the subsequent lack of interest shown by the authorities in the enforcement of these rules at various levels. For instance, the 2018 amendment requires the manufacturer or the brand owner to ensure “energy recovery from the waste by conversion of waste material into usable heat, electricity or fuel through a variety of processes including combustion, gasification, pyrolisation, anaerobic digestion and landfill gas recovery.” While some of these processes are polluting by themselves, the others are reportedly not very sustainable. These rules were to be enforced by the State/UT governments through the District Magistrates and the Gram Panchayats (rule 12), but visibly not much appears to have been accomplished.
The National Green Tribunal is also seized of the matter and in January this year, it has given necessary instructions for compliance of the rules. For ensuring this, oversight committees comprising former High Court judges for each state and Union Territory have been constituted with the DM, SP and Regional Officer of the State Pollution Control Board in the district. Obviously, their efforts do not have much to show. On the other hand, wherever the local authorities have been conscious of their priorities, results have been spectacular. Indore, a city of over two million had serious problems like most other urban centres, but today it is rated as the cleanest city in the country.
It has now become a model for managing plastic waste effectively. The municipal authorities along with a local NGO have established plastic collection centres for processing and recycling. Similarly, Ambikapur in Chhattisgarh, which is now second in the list of cleanest cities in the country, has hit upon a novel idea and established garbage cafes. People can bring in the waste material and receive a coupon which can be encashed for a thali meal or a cup of tea. Subsequently, they were also able to lay out a road by mixing granulated plastic waste with tar. On similar lines the Nestle manufacturers based in Uttarakhand have reportedly incentivised consumers of Dehradun and Mussoorie by giving them one pack of Maggie noodles free in case ten used packs are returned.
Some other food majors like Amul and Parle (Frooty) are also reported to have already committed themselves to join this campaign. In sum it appears that this entire problem arises from a lack of awareness amongst the people about the harm that is being caused by the plastic waste along with a lack of consciousness and application amongst the authorities for comprehensively addressing this problem, despite the back- up of the requisite regulatory regime. In this context, it would also be relevant to allude to some international practices. An analysis shows that a combination of regulation and taxation, rather than a blanket ban on use of plastics worked better. Washington DC was one of the first cities to implement tax on plastic bags.
The revenue generated was used to distribute reusable bags to low income and elderly communities in the city and for a river cleanup project. There has been an 85 per cent reduction in the consumption of plastic bags since the policy was implemented in 2009. Denmark started levying charges on the use of plastic bags as early as 1993. As a result, plastic use dropped by 60 per cent in a short time. Canada has voluntary antiplastic advisory for citizens and provides incentives to stores. As a result, usage has dropped by approximately 50 per cent. The overall economics connected with the plastic industry also needs to be taken into account. According to available information the Indian plastics industry market has now grown to become one of the leading sectors in the country’s economy, consisting of over 30,000 firms and employing more than four million people and with a turnover of over Rs 2 lakh crore.
We are also one of the world’s top exporters of plastic products. As such one will have to carefully weigh the impact of phasing out and thus leading to an ultimate ban of such products. Alternatives may also not be very convenient to handle and some may even be more polluting. For instance, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, paper bags generate 70 per cent more air pollutants and 50 times more water pollutants than plastic bags, because four times as much energy is required to produce them and 85 times as much energy to recycle them.
It is quite paradoxical that so far we have been very conscious of pollution caused by auto emissions and other atmospheric pollutants while we have been continuing to ignore heaps and mounds of garbage and plastic waste. The existing laws on the subject as well as the rules framed thereunder are more than sufficient to handle this issue in a comprehensive manner, only the supervision and monitoring at various levels in the administration as well as the Green Tribunals need to be made more stringent.
(The writer is a former Governor and a Senior Advisor at the Pranab Mukherjee Foundation)