Globally, only nine per cent of the plastic is getting recycled, about 12 per cent incinerated and 79 per cent ends up in landfills, according to UN. 
Photo: Getty Images
Globally, only nine per cent of the plastic is getting recycled, about 12 per cent incinerated and 79 per cent ends up in landfills, according to UN. Photo: Getty Images

Freedom from single-use plastics: A dream or an achievable target?

After Modi in his August 15 address appealed to make India free from single-use plastics, the country now needs a robust roadmap to weed it out

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his address to the nation on the 73rd Independence Day of the country, appealed to the people of India to make the country free from single-use plastics (SUPs) and to work towards this mission whole heartedly.

He urged the technocrats to provide better solutions for plastic reuse and recycling, shops to not give carry bags and people to become more conscious.

“A massive public campaign will be launched engaging all stakeholders. A series of meetings will be held with all stakeholders including state governments to chalk out a concrete plan to make it a people's campaign to realise the ultimate target,” said Union Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) and Information and Broadcasting Prakash Javadekar. He is currently attending the Ministerial meetings of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) countries in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

However far-fetched and welcoming this is, India needs to chalk out a robust roadmap to achieve freedom from SUPs.

First, we need to define SUPs in India. SUPs is often misunderstood to be polythene carry bags, but it is not the case.

The United Nations classifies single-use plastics as products that are commonly used for plastic packaging and include items intended to be used only once before they are thrown away or recycled. These includes grocery bags, food packaging products, bottles, straws, containers, cups and cutlery.

A committee was formulated by the Union Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers to define SUPs and prepare a roadmap for its elimination. However, in the four committee meetings that have been held this year, nothing concrete has come out. 

Second is the data. Approximately 70 per cent of plastic packaging products are converted into plastic waste in a short span, according to the last estimate done by Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) in 2015.  

Almost 66 per cent of plastic waste, comprising polybags, multilayer pouches used for packing food items, etc (belonging to high-performance poly ethylene/ low-density polyethylene or polypropylene materials), was sourced mainly from households and residential localities, it showed.

The composition of our waste has changed drastically in the last decade adding more plastics to the waste that we generate. This needs a re-assessment. To understand the challenge and work on processing methods, robust inventorisation studies needs to be done in cities.

In the last few years, many states imposed bans on plastic but this has been merely focused on carry bags. Is ban the solution?

Though the idea of restricting the inflow by imposing a ban sounds good, the question on the economics, availability and applicability of alternatives remains unanswered. Plastic ban can be effective if users simply switch to alternatives such as paper, cloth or jute bags.

But this is not enough.

About 47 per cent of the plastic waste generated globally, came from multi-layered packaging waste. Nearly half came from Asia, according to the UN.

Multi-layered packaging cannot be exempted from ban since it doesn’t have a readily available alternative. Therefore, there is an imminent need for a rethink on the alternate options which are cheap, durable and easily available.

The industry needs to be pushed for R&D on packaging design and use of alternatives in a phased manner. For this, concrete timelines should be fixed giving industry enough time for transition. Certain eco-friendly materials could also be exempted from taxes to encourage usage of alternatives.

The capacity of the local governments to impose a ban remains a challenge. How green are our recycling technologies is another question unanswered and needs to be looked into far deeply than we did before.

Globally, only nine per cent of the plastic is getting recycled, about 12 per cent incinerated and 79 per cent ends up in landfills, according to UNEP 2018 report. In India, however, about 60 per cent of plastics gets recycled as per estimates but most of it is downcycled, which means polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is not recycled to PET but to a low-value product.

In the current paradigm, recycling alone will not work. Yes, recycling, repair and refurbishing — all three have their place as the building blocks of a circular economy. However, the dependence on a silver bullet system that takes your waste and turns it into something valuable is far from reality.

We need to work on making recycling greener by including the vast informal sector. Also, sustainable technological interventions need to be mapped, authorised and promoted.

The Centre and state governments need to focus on effective implementation of extended producer responsibility, which includes a mixture of tools like deposit refund scheme, advanced recycling fee to collect back the plastic waste induced into the market.

All this with targeted campaigns and social engineering tools can make people aware of the concerns and alternatives to plastics.

While there exists no single solution to the palpable problem of plastics, a clear definition, data on generation and solutions with long sightedness backed by technical feasibility and scientific reasoning, rather than short-term wrapping is what the need of the hour is.

In the end, the burden of change comes down to us — to you and me to say no unless something is reusable — to reject the system that has been pushed upon us by refusing disposables and demanding better products and services.

Down To Earth