In India, the plastic industry is among the fastest-growing markets, owing to its use in a wide variety of sectors such as the automotive, construction, electronics, healthcare, and textile sectors. It is expected that this growth would be further driven by initiatives such as ‘Make-in-India’, ‘Skill India’, and ‘Digital India’ among others. But, we are faced with a paradox—the same plastic that is powering our economy is also grossly polluting our environment. There is no organised process to deal with the 15,342 tonnes of plastic waste generated each day. We need to enhance the effectiveness of collecting used plastic and reusing or recycling it, so as to achieve better economic and environmental outcomes.
India’s plastic waste management
India has shown serious intent to curb plastic waste. The Plastic Waste Management (PWM) Rules 2011, introduced under the Environment Protection Act, 1986, established a framework that assigned responsibilities for plastic waste management to the urban local body (ULB) and set up a state level monitoring committee. The rules also addressed the issue of carry bags by setting minimum standards for thickness and a mandate for retailers to charge a fee for each plastic bag made available.
The 2011 rules were succeeded by the PWM Rules 2016, which tighten the rules (for example, banning plastic bags of less than 50 microns thickness), and also lay the foundation for accountability across the value-chain. The new rules require producers and brand-owners to devise a plan in consultation with the local bodies to introduce a collect-back system.
This system, known as the extended producers’ responsibility (EPR), would assist the municipalities in tackling the plastic waste issue. The rules also state that the manufacture and use of multi-layered plastics that are hard to recycle must be phased out. Although these plans are in place, there are major challenges to implement PWM 2016 and the array of other legislative initiatives at the local level.
Lack of adequate infrastructure for segregation and collection is the key reason for inefficient plastic waste disposal. Most municipal corporations still do not have a proper system of collection and segregation, given their lack of access to technology and infrastructure, which are needed to dispose of plastic waste in a cost- and resource-efficient way. There is a need for collective efforts from the Union/state governments and municipalities in developing and using the infrastructure.
The Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016, mandate ULBs to set up facilities for processing sorted dry waste. However, the implementation has been rather bleak, owing to available land/space concerns. ULBs could a take cue from cities like Bangalore where dry waste collection centres have not only been established but also have a self-sustainable business model. Municipalities must develop waste collection plans, coupled with outreach activities, to sensitise citizens on waste segregation.
Monetise the waste
Source separation of waste, coupled with segregated collection and transportation, have been weak links in the waste supply-chain. Imposing penalties or fines is easier said than done in a democratic setup. One way to ensure better collection of plastic waste is to ensure that the ‘junk’ has a value attached that is ‘redeemable’ in the immediate future.
In this e-commerce era, while expensive packaging is the norm of transactions, it is virtually useless to the buyer. Packaging comprises a large volume of garbage. But, if a value is assigned to packaging, a lot of people would save the packages and the producer would have to mandatorily pay the assigned amount to anyone returning the packaging. The need of the hour is to create a business model that assigns a monetary value to waste while simultaneously financing the collection process.
Is banning plastics the solution?
Maharashtra recently declared a ban on single-use plastics, one that will be enforced starting June 23, giving vendors, consumers and the plastic industry three months to find alternatives to single-use plastic. Many states and union territories across India have introduced a ban on plastic bags. Would a blanket ban solve the crisis?
The PWM Rules Amendment, 2018, omitted explicit pricing of plastic bags that had been a feature of the 2016 Rules. This comes as a surprise as the pricing of the bags was beginning to bring about a change, albeit gradually. The success of imposing a plastic bag fee has also been established in cities like Chicago and Washington, showing that such interventions could be effective in shaping behaviour change.
Banning should be the last resort after all recycling efforts fail and when the recycled plastics are more harmful to the environment than the virgin product due to the effect of toxic additives. There are often a finite number of times a plastic is recycled before it ends up in the landfill. Recycling has to ensure that wastes are converted into products of the same quality, if not better, compared to the original product. Else, recycling only delays the travel of the product to the landfill.
Managing plastic waste in India can be achieved, but it is not going to be easy. Our policies must promote collection, recycling and monetising of waste. Promoting the use of biodegradable plastics would also go a long way in managing plastic waste in India.
By: Ajay Mathur
Director general, TERI