Rushing into announcing a ban, to coincide with Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th anniversary or some such other landmark, is a bad idea.
It is not clear how sustainable the movement will prove, but if a Business Standard story on MNCs cutting plastic-use is anything to go by, there is a lot of room for optimism. While FMCG major HUL and its parent company, Unilever, are relying on changing the design and packaging of their products—this, Unilever estimates, could help it bring its plastic usage from 700,000 tonnes annually to 100,000 tonnes—Flipkart aims to use only recycled plastic from 2021 and Amazon is targeting eliminating single-use plastic from its operations in India by 2020. Unilever/HUL plans to start refill stations at shops and universities for shampoo and detergent, and has introduced products such as shampoo bars and bamboo toothbrushes. Parle Agro is adopting a PET plastic waste management (PWM) programme, under which the company will work on easing the annual collection of 310 crore PET bottles, totalling 50,000 tonnes of PET waste. Globally, too, there is a lot afoot, with Coca Cola having committed to have 100% recyclable packaging by 2025 while Dow is financing waste management initiatives that will help reduce the annual global plastic leakage by 45%.
While corporate action is largely a reaction to government policy, or taken in anticipation of stricter standards getting adopted, the government also needs to calibrate its action based on ground reality. In the case of recycling of old vehicles, the government has had to hold back the announcement of a scrappage policy given how the infrastructure for scrapping is quite inadequate—the country’s first-ever organised, automated facility became operational only in April last year. The laws enacted by the Centre and the states to ban single-use plastics—a TERI fact-sheet says that 43% of the plastic manufactures in India is for packaging, meaning nearly all of it is single-use—never took into account the fact that better quality plastics can be recycled into buckets, bangles, chairs, etc. And, if 40% of the 9.5 million tonnes of plastic waste generated in the country, as an analysis of Central Pollution Control Board data shows, remains uncollected, it isn’t hard to imagine the unrealised recycling/reuse potential. Similarly, moving from use of multi-layered plastics—that pose a serious recycling challenge because of the varying physical and chemical properties of the polymers and other material used—to single-polymer plastics is something that needs to be seriously considered.
The urgency of tackling the plastics problem can’t be overstated—a big part of plastic pollution is also the contribution of the plastic lifecycle to greenhouse gas emissions, estimated by the Center for International Environmental Law at 0.86 gigatonnes of carbon-dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e) and projected to grow to 2.80 GtCO2e by 2050. The government needs to consult industrialists, environmentalists, stakeholders in the waste disposal value chain and others, and come up with a workable gameplan that helps the country transit to a low-plastic future. This will entail priming consumers, also, on environmentally-friendly plastic usage and disposal. Rushing into announcing a ban, to coincide with Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th anniversary or some such other landmark, is a bad idea.