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Plastic ban: A step forward but no clear roadmap

The phasing out of plastic has begun but previous examples show that availability of alternatives, proper implementation and waste management are vital
alyan Ray
Last Updated : 03 July 2022, 10:04 IST
Last Updated : 03 July 2022, 10:04 IST
Last Updated : 03 July 2022, 10:04 IST
Last Updated : 03 July 2022, 10:04 IST

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No more plastic spoons, forks, glasses, straws, earbuds with plastic stems or other items that are ubiquitous in our daily life. From July 1, the Union government has banned the use of 19 single-use items that include cups, glasses, cutlery and thermocol for decoration. Now plastic carry bags with a thickness of 75 microns and above are allowed. The thickness would have to further increase to 120 microns from December 31, 2022.

This move is not out of the blue.

In fact, four years ago, then Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan made an announcement that single-use plastics would be phased out. The commitment gained more traction a year later when Prime Minister Narendra Modi, from the ramparts of the Red Fort, asked the people of India to “free the country from single-use plastics”. The initial idea was to implement the ban from 2020, but it was extended by two years, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, which led to higher consumption of use-and-throw items.

Executing this ban, however, will be challenging due to opposition from the industries, non-availability of large-quantities of alternatives and poorly equipped municipalities that will have to work on the ground.

“Even as we believe that this ban is too limited, we have to admit it is a critical step towards controlling the menace. We do not need to be warned about the problem. We live it every day,” said Sunita Narain, director general, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi.

The intentions behind the ban are good, but it is the implementation that will matter. The ban on plastic carry bags, for instance, is not novel. As many as 25 states and Union Territories have already banned plastic bags of varying thickness. But the enforcement remains inadequate.

Tamil Nadu was one of the first states to implement a ban on single-use plastic in 2019. “Earlier we were like an island. We will be able to implement the ban on plastic in a much better way when other states also follow a similar path,” Supriya Sahu, Additional Chief Secretary (Environment and Forests), Tamil Nadu, told DH.

“People understand plastic is very dangerous, but a change in attitude takes time,” she added.

Karnataka too imposed a ban on plastic carry bags in 2016, but the implementation has been patchy. Kerala imposed a ban on single-use plastics from January 2020, but enforcement lost steam following Covid. The story is more or less the same for every state.

Enforcement also relates to unavailability of affordable alternatives on a large scale. Single-use plastic items thrive because they are cheap and easy to use.

The alternatives are available, but they are costly and the majority of the producers are small-scale players who don’t have the capacity to supply in large volumes.

The environment ministry officials argue that once demand increases, the scale of supply will expand too and prices will fall. But how long will that take and whether the industry and public are ready to wait are some of the questions for which there is no easy answer.

Meanwhile, the absence of alternatives will hurt not only small traders or roadside vendors but big corporations too. The commonplace plastic straw, that comes with fruit juice, milk products and beverages, has also been put on the black list.

What’s the plan?

“Manufacturing (of paper straws) will take its own time as regulatory clearances itself will take over 6-8 months. Until enough capacity is created, customers and retailers are going to face disruption. Stocks worth Rs 600-700 crore are either in transit or with traders or with distributors, so it is anybody’s guess as to what will be the estimated loss because of the ban,” said Praveen Aggarwal, CEO, Action Alliance for Recycling Beverage Cartons.

However, the Indian Paper Manufacturers Association opposes the no-capacity claim and says that the domestic paper industry has enough capacity to produce straws and similar products.

R S Sodhi, managing director of India’s biggest dairy brand Amul, wrote to the Prime Minister’s Office seeking a deferment of the ban. Others like Pepsico, Coca Cola, Parle Agro and Dabur too had lobbied with the government seeking a delay.

Environment Minister Bhupinder Yadav says he met with industry representatives and the government hopes that they would cooperate in implementing the ban.

Experts say single-use plastics account for about one-third of the plastic consumed in India. This means nearly 60-70 lakh tonnes of such items are consumed per year. According to the All India Plastic Manufacturers Association around 88,000 units are engaged in manufacturing single-use plastics, employing nearly 10 lakh people.

Finding alternatives in such volume and arranging for a smooth transition of the medium and small-scale industries is not easy. And there is a chance of some of the units going underground to supply items in the grey market.

Alagar Raja, who owns ASA Areca Plate Factory in Dharmapuri district of Tamil Nadu, says the government should seal factories that produce plastic items as they are the source. The sales of eco-friendly alternatives in Tamil Nadu have picked up in the past few months as family and community events are back after a gap of two years.

But people’s attitude has to change.

“Even after buying one or two items, they insist on carry-bags. Providing cloth bags free of cost would not be affordable,” said Sarath Kumar, a grocery shop owner in Thiruvananthapuram.

A tough journey

The third challenge would be equipping and convincing the municipalities to start taking action. The Union Environment Ministry held two meetings with more than 120 municipal commissioners and state officials on June 29-30, apprising them of the ban and seeking their cooperation on implementation.

“The municipal commissioners were requested to lead their teams with regard to efforts for enforcement within their jurisdiction. They were asked to help traders, distributors, retailers as well as consumers to switch over to alternatives of the banned single-use plastic items,” said an official. Instead of punitive action, the effort would be to increase awareness to bring everyone on board.

“This has been a tough journey because Covid, to a very great extent, saw to it that plastic kept coming back in the form of disposable cups, plates, and PPE kits. It was difficult to stop the usage,” observed Supriya.

Enforcement of the ban and checking the genuineness of products with ‘biodegradable’ tags would be major challenges as well, noted Pradeep Kumar A B, chairman, Kerala State Pollution Control Board.

Removal of single-use plastics is only a part of the problem. The larger issue is to find out a way to recycle and reuse lakhs of tonnes of plastic used in the packaging sector.

The government’s solution is the Extended Producers Responsibility (EPR) scheme that was notified in February under which every company using plastics will have to recycle 70% of it in this fiscal and 100% from next year.

But there is no clarity on how the material (milk packets or multilayered bags used for potato chips) will be collected and whether the Indian recycling industry has the capacity to cater to such a large volume.

“We need more robust data-collection and tracking methods to identify areas of improvement in the processing and recycling of waste. Innovations like Deposit Refund Systems will build additional value for the ecosystem while placing an equal onus on the polluters as well,” said Abhay Deshpande, CEO, Recykal, Asia’s first Circular Economy Marketplace.

(With inputs from Arjun Raghunath in Thiruvananthapuram, E T B Sivapriyan in Chennai, Mrityunjay Bose in Mumbai and Reshab Shaw in Bengaluru)

Waste matters

A study by academics from the University of California, Santa Barbara and others has put together the world’s first material balance of plastics. They estimate that the world has produced some 8.3 billion metric tonnes (bmt) of plastic since 1950 — when large-scale production began — to 2015. Of this 6.3 bmt, or 80 per cent, is plastic
waste.

As little as 9 per cent of this waste has been recycled. Of this 9 per cent, only 10 per cent has been recycled more than once and only 12 per cent has been incinerated.

Rest of the plastic manufactured in the world is in landfills or in the environment — our oceans and water
bodies.

Source: Centre for Science and Environment Report

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Published 02 July 2022, 18:15 IST

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