Ahead of U.N. meet, India chooses to ‘regulate’, not ban, single-use plastic

In 2022, India brought into effect the Plastic Waste Management Amendment Rules (2021) that banned 19 categories of ‘single-use’ plastics

April 20, 2024 08:35 pm | Updated 09:03 pm IST - NEW DELHI

The world seems to be nowhere near an agreement on how to deal with the plastic waste menace, the Centre for Science and Environment said

The world seems to be nowhere near an agreement on how to deal with the plastic waste menace, the Centre for Science and Environment said | Photo Credit: AFP

Ahead of week-long negotiations involving 192 countries that are expected to begin in Toronto, Canada, next week on getting the globe to progress on eliminating plastic pollution, India is in favour of “regulating” and not outright eliminating single-use plastic, according to an analysis of various countries’ public negotiating positions by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a not-for-profit based in New Delhi.

In 2022, India brought into effect the Plastic Waste Management Amendment Rules (2021) that banned 19 categories of ‘single-use plastics’. These are defined as disposable goods that are made with plastic but are generally use-and-throw after a single use and include plastic cups, spoons, earbuds, decorative thermocol, wrapping or packaging film used to cover sweet boxes and cigarette packets, and plastic cutlery. It, however, doesn’t include plastic bottles – even those less than 200ml— and multi-layered packaging boxes (like in milk cartons). Moreover, even the single-use plastic items that are banned are not uniformly enforced nationally with several outlets continuing to retail these goods.

The rationale behind banning certain kinds of plastic and leaving others out derives from a report by an expert committee on single-use plastics constituted by the Department of Chemicals and Petrochemicals. They scored different plastic goods on the basis of their utility and environmental impact, according to a report by the CSE. The current ban only addresses about 11% of single-use plastic in India, says the report.

Of the nearly 17 topics that countries are expected to deliberate upon, one of them involves “problematic and avoidable plastic products including single-use plastics”, which refer to sections of plastics that are likely to harm environment as well as human health.

The aim of negotiating countries is to implement global and national measures such as removing these products from the market, reducing production through alternate practices or non-plastic substitutes, and redesigning problematic items to meet criteria for sustainable and safe product design.

The CSE analysis says that India, as of Saturday, has opted for language in the current version of the negotiating document, called a ‘zero draft’, that vouches for “regulating” instead of “not allowing”, the production, sale, import and export of problematic and avoidable plastic goods. It has, however, agreed to a “science-based criteria” for identifying such plastics.

The European Union, for instance, has proposed that all countries restrict the making and selling of these categories of plastic. The United States also has a position closer to that of India and is not in favour of an outright stoppage of single use and avoidable plastics. It suggests that each country draws up its own list of ‘problematic and avoidable’ goods. Similar to the position on plastics, there are 16 other issues, that deal with the production of polymers – the constituent chemicals of most plastics – waste management, trade, the use of alternative plastics and the like, and India, like most countries, has differing positions on each.

Country positions are influenced by the centrality of plastic production to their economy, recycling abilities and waste management capability.

The road to eliminating plastic pollution began with a United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) passing a resolution to “end plastic pollution” in 2022. An Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) was set up and tasked to develop a legally binding instrument – a global treaty -- to govern plastic production and use across all nations.

“After three rounds of extensive discussions and negotiations, and the fourth round about to kick off in Canada, the world seems to be nowhere near an agreement on how to deal with the plastic waste menace,” the CSE noted.

“Our analysis shows that almost all the oil, gas and plastic producing nations are not keen to reduce production of primary/virgin plastics – in fact, a handful of them are strident on making this treaty all about management of plastic waste, instead of that of controlling production. It is evident that some member states are weakening the provisions of the draft to protect their economic interests; public health is not a priority for them,” said Siddharth Ghanshyam Singh, programme manager, solid waste management unit, CSE in a statement.

Plastic production has doubled in the last 20 years. The United Nations says that 99% of plastics are made from polymers derived from non-renewable hydrocarbons (crude oil and natural gas). Production, use, distribution and disposal are major sources of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions; in 2019, they contributed about 3.4% of the global total. Plastic production alone accounted for 90% of these emissions.

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