On India’s 73rd Independence Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi appealed to the citizens to make the country free of single-use plastics (SUPs) and to work towards this mission whole heartedly. At the United Nations Conference on Desertification, the PM said, “I think the time has come for the world to say goodbye to single-use plastics,” while reiterating his government’s intention to phase out SUP. This has not only bought plastics in the national spotlight but has also started debates around the ban being a good proposition or bad.
The 2019 Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) document on Gap Analysis of the Compliance Report submitted by States and UT’s were not furnishing information regarding Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016 in their jurisdiction and were not taking concrete steps to take preventive and regulatory measures envisaged under the rules.
There is a need for a thorough analysis of environmental, social and economic impacts of SUPs. Inventorisation studies in order to estimate how much fraction of single use plastics is there in our plastic waste, how much of this fraction comprises packaging waste, cutlery items, carry bags, PET bottles, etc., are to be done. These numbers shall help assess the scale of such waste and look for a clear alternative. There needs to be an initiative at state level to push cities to inventorise their dry waste. Since the composition of our waste has changed drastically with more plastics, it is important that this be done.
Single use simply means products that are used once and then discarded. This includes a huge amount of packaging waste, including water bottles and so a clear definition is critical. There is a need for a National Action Plan or guidelines that should focus to implement plastic ban in a phase-wise manner in terms of urgency. This means products that have alternatives available should be phased out earlier than those that don’t have alternatives, simultaneously reinforcing R&D funding for different alternatives and eco-friendly products.
The phase-wise banning should be developed based on materials, recyclability, availability of alternatives and livelihood security to the informal sector. Keeping this and current post-consumption patterns in mind, a framework indicating range of SUP products needs to be devised to assist the policy makers in ideating, planning and executing the phase-wise SUP ban. However, better waste management systems with focus on segregation incentive models can help achieve long-term impacts. If cities segregate waste into three fractions — wet, dry, and domestic hazardous waste — and if municipalities create infrastructure in terms of material recovery facilities or sorting stations, dry waste can be sorted into different fractions. This then has value and a market and will not end up as litter. We need to segregate.
Also, establishing and monitoring domestic recycling units in every State and UT’s, incentivising the recyclers in the unorganised sectors, training low-skilled recyclers, setting up effective grievance redressal mechanisms, life cycle and cost analysis of plastic alternatives should be formulated and explored by the legislative bodies. This is to increase the recycling efficiency in the country and implement effective and sustainable solutions at every stage of banning single-use plastics.
Devising feasible alternatives for single-use plastic items and targeting consumers and retailers for better marketing is needed. However, their availability and affordability remain a challenge. Solutions: providing robust infrastructures, strengthening market, innovation and entrepreneurship, subsidy or incentives to consumers at domestic level. Alternatives for instance, cotton bags sourced from virgin cotton, kulhad cups baked in kilns have a higher environmental footprint than plastics. In the present context, jute and upcycled cloth bags, bamboo and wooden cutlery, leaf-based plates, glass and metal containers etc. are some of the immediate alternatives available. Also, options of giving enough time of transition to industry along with tax rebates for alternative industry need to be explored. An effective Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) framework, should be formulated. EPR policy tools and its implementation is still lax in the country. India needs a strategic direction on single-use plastics.