Single-Use Plastic in India: A problem of Ignorance and Insensitivity

The degrading and disastrous effect of plastic on our environment is not the consequence of a sudden action or event but the result of a cumulative series of decades of ignorance and insensitivity. One such category of plastic which requires urgent action regarding consumption and disposal is Single-use plastic(SUP). Single-use plastic includes products such as straws, bags, bottles and other products manufactured for temporary uses.

Going Deeper

According to a study by Un-Plastic Collective (UPC), India generates 9.46 million tonnes of plastic waste annually, of which 40% remains uncollected; 43 per cent is used for packaging, most of which is single-use. A lot of single-use plastic items end up in landfills and oceans since they cannot be recycled. Trivial items like straws and thin films(thin plastic membranes used to separate areas or volumes, to hold items, to act as barriers, or as printable surfaces and have a wide range of uses in packaging, labels etc) , is economically unfeasible to collect and recycle. Moreover single-use plastic is a major contributor to climate change as every stage of plastic consumption, that is, from production and consumption, to disposal, involves emission of greenhouse gases thereby contributing to global warming. The amount of marine pollution caused by plastic is inexpressible in terms of numbers and it would be a crime to attempt to measure the value of aquatic life lost due to strangulation or choking on plastic.

The government of India has introduced various ambitious plans and schemes like Extended Producers Responsibility (EPR), Plastic Waste Management (PMW) Rules, 2016, with specific obligations for every stakeholder in the plastic-supply chain to phase out use of single-use plastic by 2022.

However, implementation so far, has not been successful as the provisions laid out specifying conditions for categorizing types of plastic to be included, is extremely restricted with most of the more important constituents like Multilayered Plastics (MLPs), being excluded. Multi-layered packaging are multilayer or composite materials using innovative technologies aimed to give barrier properties, strength and storage stability to food items, new materials as well as hazardous materials. The material of construction of multilayered packaging ranges from paper to plastics to metals. Multilayered packaging is non-recyclable. This indicates the various discrepancies that might creep in during formulation of a sound public policy and also gives way to loopholes during implementation and execution of the same. 

Many states in the recent past like Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Kerala, have banned use of SUP items, but when it comes to implementation it has been limited to restrictions on using plastic carry bags. Maharashtra, for instance, had to backtrack on a ban it imposed in June 2018 by later allowing PET bottles and use of plastic in retail packaging. Even though the  use and distribution of such plastics in large commercial establishments, including grocery shops and pharmaceutical shops, would attract a fine of ₹1,000 the first time, ₹2,000 the second and ₹5,000 the third, (for smaller traders, the fine amounts are nominal and they would be asked to pay ₹100 the first time, ₹200 the second and ₹500 the third) proper implementation of such negative incentives is yet to be seen. 

A November 2018 status report by the CPCB said, even in those states which have imposed a complete ban on use of plastic bags, they are “stocked, sold and used indiscriminately”. 

Consumer apathy is at the core of the problem. The general public lack social consciousness. Waste segregation should be done at the root level so as to avoid plastic contamination. Rag pickers usually do the duty of segregating waste but the possibility of mix up cannot be ignored and it is highly likely that a large part of plastic is contaminated. Recycling contamination occurs when materials are sorted into the wrong recycling bin (placing a glass bottle into a mixed paper recycling bin for example), or when materials are not properly cleaned, such as when food residue remains on a plastic yogurt container.When such instances occurs during recycling, the whole waste ends up in landfills since it is now contaminated and cannot be recycled. A large proportion of consumers are usually unwilling to do the job themselves due to the stigma and indifference associated with waste disposal. This indicates the importance and significance of the civic society and its role in the education and execution of policies.

For example, Janwani, a non-profit organization, in partnership with the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC),SWaCH Cooperative (waste-picker organization) and Cummins India Ltd created a zero garbage ward model, located in the southern part of Pune at Katraj. Besides being the largest ward, it also represents the different socio-economic classes in the city.The ‘Zero Garbage Ward’ model helps decentralize solid waste management and incorporate the waste collectors into the formal system of waste management.  Such collaborations and support by the public, advances and strengthens the cause and effect of government policies and increases general awareness.

What Can We Do?

In order to tackle this problem, as a society we must feel collectively responsible and take appropriate steps along with legislative measures.                                                          

  • To increase recycling, we must improve segregation of waste at source and, an important step in this process is that awareness must be propagated among people regarding plastic consumption and disposal. 
  • Regarding vendors and salesmen, appropriate fines should be introduced and implemented systematically for flouting regulatory rules.
  • A plastic tax should be imposed on the sale of bags so as to de-motivate retailers from stocking plastic.  For example the European Union in its  €750bn coronavirus pandemic recovery package is going to tax non-recycled plastic packaging waste from 1 January 2021 through national contributions. This tax, due to be applied from 1 January 2021, will be calculated on the weight of non-recycled plastic packaging ‘with a call rate of EUR 80 centimes per kilogram’ and a mechanism ‘to avoid [an] excessively regressive effect on national contributions’ that will place limits on the amount less wealthy countries will pay.
  • Plastic items should also have a resale value so that consumers are discouraged from immediate disposal and are instead incentivized like in the case of newspapers. 
  • Innovative ideas like Bartan banks which provide people with eco-friendly utensils instead of plastic cutlery should also be set up on a huge scale. For instance, the Indore municipal corporation has also started Bartan Banks, where you can get free-of-cost utensils.The utensils provided by the corporation include plates, glasses, and a few other items. These banks are an eco-friendly option to go for when we have parties or any other event at our home, and instead of buying disposable plastic cutlery and plates, one can opt for this option instead.
  • Cloth bags must be made available in large quantities and at low prices so as to encourage the switch from plastic to eco-friendly.                         
  • Since, any move to restrict SUP is likely to impact manufacturers of plastic cutlery and bags, it is best to have a plan on how the same machines can be used to manufacture recyclable items as well as provide alternatives.
  • The public must be educated on the repercussions that careless plastic consumption can have on the environment.
  • They should be encouraged to restrict plastic consumption to the minimum level possible.                                              
  • The people should also be motivated to collaborate with local municipalities in order to effectively monitor plastic waste disposal.     

Way Forward

Though plastic can be recycled in the production of roads, clothes and electricity, it involves high costs, is less profitable, and cannot be carried on indefinitely. Therefore, it would be feasible if production of plastics were eliminated at source. Plastic until now has been used extensively because it is cheap, easily available and has different uses in packaging. If we were to abolish these characteristics and simultaneously transfer them onto available alternatives, like organic fabrics, seaweed packaging, then a gradual change is inevitable. Though change is a long process, if immediate action is taken, then it is entirely possible. Although we do not ponder upon the bottled water we buy or the straws we drink with, our choices have a huge impact on the environment and on us. We should not be a part of the problem, but instead, the solution.

                                                                  B. Aishwarya Lalitha

F. Y. BSc Eco(20-23)

Leave a Reply