Ban on plastic hasn’t worked; the focus should perhaps be on managing plastic waste better.
The prime minister has the right idea in calling for a ban on single-use plastics in the country. But, the sobering truth is that this has proved more difficult to implement than it sounds at the first war cry. For perspective, 25 of 29 states already have total/partial plastic bans, and yet, it continues to be a menace big enough for the prime minister to try and raise awareness about. Even though India isn’t a big plastic polluter (given its low consumption level), the plastics industry is slated to grow at a steady rate of 10.5% annually over FY15-FY20. And, it is true that developed nations, including the US, have treated the developing world as dumping grounds for their waste, including plastic waste. But, the fact is that mismanaged plastic waste in the US, as per an analysis by Science was just 0.9% of the total waste generated in that country versus nearly 2% for India. While the 2% figure seems small, India generates 33.1 million pounds of plastic waste every day, of which only 19.8 million is collected and recycled.
The Union government, in March last year, amended the Plastic Waste Management Rules 2016, aiming to completely phase out single-use plastics by FY20. That the Indian plastic industry, which employs around 4 million, will bleed jobs once a ban is enforced aside, as long as consumers aren’t given alternatives that are affordable, easily available, and sustainable in the long run, expecting this anti-plastic “revolution”—with a summary ban, if this is envisioned—to take off is just building castles in the air. Maharashtra’s experience—the state is the largest generator of plastic waste in the country—shows how ground realities foil the best intentions. The state banned single-use plastics last year, with hefty fines for offenders; but, just days before the ban came into effect, there was little on-ground preparedness, as The Indian Express had reported at the time. Not enough had happened to make sustainable alternatives to plastic carrier bags available to the public. And, the “buy back” policy that the state government had come up with to encourage consumers to return plastic bottles also fell flat because there was absolutely no clarity on its operationalisation. Consequently, the state had to dilute its ban in phases, largely because of the backlash it faced from both industry and individual users of plastic in the state.
Substituting single-use plastics—especially plastic bags—is easier said than done. Cotton bags, long thought of as a more environment-friendly substitute, may not be all that they are worked out to be, given the environmental footprint of their manufacture, as recent research shows. Cloth/jute bags, corn-starch bags, disposable plates and cutlery of soft/re-purposed wood, etc, are all talked about, but are either more expensive compared to the plastic-product they are expected to replace or are less easily available. For instance, the installed capacity for non-export jute in the country is 2,700 tonnes per annum versus 10.3 million tonnes for plastic, a significant chunk of which caters for products that jute products can functionally substitute. With such a massive gap, phasing out plastics seems very difficult. Given how poorly recycling efforts, from collection to actual recycling/re-purposing/reuse, are monitored, India’s plastic problem poses a daunting challenge. Often, a high cost of use at the consumer level—much like what Japan imposes—is proposed as an alternative to bans, but, given the lack of substitutes, it will be a de facto ban. So, to tackle the emerging plastic menace, India must not only work on encouraging cheaper, readily available substitutes but also get its act together on managing plastic waste better.