Where does India stand on plastic waste?

What is the protocol that needs to be in place before a ban on single-use plastic items comes into force?

September 01, 2019 12:02 am | Updated 01:17 am IST

The story so far: On August 15, in his Independence Day address, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for a movement to eliminate single-use plastic in India, beginning on Gandhi Jayanti (October 2). Individuals and organisations should now actively remove plastic waste from their surroundings and municipal bodies must arrange to collect these articles. Start-ups and industries should think of newer ways of recycling. The government is reported to be working on a ban on certain plastic items of common use such as carry bags, cutlery and plates under the Environment (Protection) Act, and this may be announced on October 2, well ahead of the earlier deadline of 2022.

Where does India stand on plastic waste?

In spite of the notification of the Plastic Waste Management (PWM) Rules, 2016, and amendments made two years later, most cities and towns are not prepared to implement its provisions. Even the biggest Municipal Corporations shouldering a staggering waste burden have failed to implement segregation of waste: collecting recyclable plastic, non-recyclable plastic and other waste separately for processing by material recovery facilities. This is a growing crisis amid criticism of under-reporting of the true extent of plastic waste. Per capita consumption of plastic is projected to go up from 11 kg in 2014-15 to 20 kg by 2022 (Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry data); about 43% is single-use packaging with poor rates of recovery.

An amendment to the PWM Rules in 2018, by which a six-month deadline was fixed for producers to arrange for recovery of waste in partnership with State Urban Development departments, has made little progress. Neither is plastic marked with numerical symbols (such as 1 for PET, 4 for Low Density Polyethylene, 5 for Polypropylene and so on) to facilitate recycling using the correct industrial process.

Recycling reduces the volume of non-recyclables that must be disposed of using methods such as co-processing in cement kilns, plasma pyrolysis or land-filling. In April this year, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) issued notice to 52 companies asking them to file their plan to fulfil their EPR (extended producer responsibility) obligation.

Are alternatives such as compostable or biodegradable plastics viable?

Although compostable, biodegradable or even edible plastics made from various materials such as bagasse (the residue after extracting juice from sugarcane), corn starch, and grain flour are promoted as alternatives, these currently have limitations of scale and cost.

Some biodegradable packaging materials require specific microorganisms to be broken down, while compostable cups and plates made of polylactic acid, a popular resource derived from biomass such as corn starch, require industrial composters. On the other hand, articles made through a different process involving potato and corn starch have done better in normal conditions, going by the experience in Britain. Seaweed is also emerging as a choice to make edible containers.

In India, though, in the absence of robust testing and certification to verify claims made by producers, spurious biodegradable and compostable plastics are entering the marketplace. In January this year, the CPCB said that 12 companies were marketing carry bags and products marked ‘compostable’ without any certification, and asked the respective State Pollution Control Boards to take action on these units.

A ban on single-use plastic items would have to therefore lay down a comprehensive mechanism to certify the materials marketed as alternatives, and the specific process required to biodegrade or compost them. A movement against plastic waste would have to prioritise the reduction of single-use plastic such as multi-layer packaging, bread bags, food wrap, and protective packaging. Consumers often have no choice in the matter. Other parts of the campaign must focus on tested biodegradable and compostable alternatives for plates, cutlery and cups, rigorous segregation of waste and scaled up recycling. City municipal authorities play a key role here.

What can the packaging industry do?

Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar sent a message to the industry at the global flexible packaging conference in Mumbai recently that it must take its extended producer responsibility requirement under the law seriously. The Secretaries of the Environment and Petroleum Ministries said at the event that plastic waste was a key concern, and industry should look at innovation and new materials in the days ahead, besides facilitating collection and recycling with the help of city administrations.

Packaging is projected to grow into a $72.6 billion industry in India by 2020 from about $31 billion in 2015, with a proportionate rise in waste volumes. The pressure on producers to streamline the collection, recycling and processing of all forms of plastic is bound to grow.

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