Tackling the Plastic Waste Conundrum
Indian government’s move to phase out single-use plastic products, starting with items having low utility and high littering potential, ranging from plastic bags to ear buds, sweets that use sticks, cutlery to PVC banners less than 100 micron, by 2022 was lauded as a positive step towards addressing environment pollution issue caused by non-degradable synthetic materials. Towards this, certain single-use plastic items were banned, Extended Producer Responsibility policy introduced for proper collection and disposal of plastic packaging waste, and raised awareness. Such restrictive and mitigation measures were indispensable given that India generates more than 25,000 tonnes of plastic waste daily, amid the environmental challenge posed by littered waste on terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. The Plastic Waste Management Amendment Rules, 2021, also prohibits manufacture, import, stocking, distribution, sale and use of plastic carry bags that cross the approved microns. Several states, including Nagaland had imposed a ban on single-use plastic items before the Centre took the move, but it’s easier said than done. As far as execution is concerned, it is a mixed bag of success and failure as the banned items are still readily available in the market while some popular brands, food vendors and groceries have started using biodegradable items like cloth and paper bags as an alternative to plastics. What about thousands of unbranded items produced in the unorganised sector? The rampant use of banned materials goes on to tell that it won’t be easy to stop plastic items at the production stage in a big country like ours.
This leads to the question why the ban has been ineffective despite its benefits. One reason is lack of viable packaging alternatives. For instance, carry bags made of paper, cloth, etc. are much costlier than plastics, thus discouraging firms that depend on low cost for survival in the market. Paper bag making was seen as a promising enterprise start-ups could venture into when Nagaland government announced ban on single-use plastic in 2019 but easy availability of plastic bags appears to have killed it in the bud. It is clear that ban based on the micron or thickness of the bag won’t work as it is not possible to measure the thickness of polythene from every shop and at all unorganised production units across the country. So, only a complete ban may work. It is also important to identify packaging items that can be recycled and that can’t be recycled, and accordingly devise a plan to address the issue. A ban has to be enforceable and a viable alternative provided. Besides restrictive measures, emphasis should also be placed on creating awareness about the negative effects of plastic items on the environment and human health, as well as the importance of segregation of plastic waste at household level.