India needs a strategic direction on single-use plastics

There’s requirement of Mechanisms that will not only improve eco-consciousness among citizens but will also empower and encourage widespread actions

By Swati Singh Sambyal
Published: Wednesday 02 October 2019
Imposing a ban on single-use plastics is only a part and not the whole solution. Photo: Getty Images

On India’s 73rd Independence Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi appealed to the citizens to make the country free of single-use plastics (SUPs) and to work towards this mission whole heartedly.

Earlier this month, at the United Nations Conference on Desertification, the PM said, “I think the time has come for the world to say goodbye to single-use plastics,” while reiterating his government’s intention to phase out SUP.

This has not only bought plastics in the national spotlight but has also started debates around the ban being a good proposition or bad.

The 2019 Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) document on Gap Analysis of the Compliance Report Submitted by States and Union Territories remarked that states/UTs were not furnishing information (PW generation records, creating state level advisory body, framing bylaws, marking and labelling of MPLs, plastic manufacturing/recycling units etc.) regarding Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016 in their jurisdiction and were not taking concrete steps to take preventive and regulatory measures envisaged under the rules.

What could work?

Baseline and inventory

There is a need for a thorough analysis of environmental, social and economic impacts of SUPs. Inventorisation studies in order to estimate how much fraction of single use plastics is there in our plastic waste, how much of this fraction comprises packaging waste, cutlery items, carry bags, PET bottles, etc., are to be done.

These numbers shall help assess the scale of such waste and look for a clear alternative. There needs to be an initiative at state level to push cities to inventorise their dry waste. Since the composition of our waste has changed drastically with more plastics, it is important that this be done.

Only then can we which are the most problematic SUPs and assess the extent of their impact before imposing bans. Such a study has not been done so far and has now become the need of the hour.

Clear definition of SUPs

It is clear that given the environmental impact of SUPs, banning them is one step in the right direction. However, for this ban to be successful, we need a clear definition of SUPs. Currently, different definitions are used by governments. 

Single use simply means products that are used once and then discarded. This includes a huge amount of packaging waste, including water bottles and so a clear definition is critical.

Any plastic that is made from polymers of HDPE, LDPE, PET, PS, PP, EPS is single use plastics, according to the United Nations. The definition by the Government of Australia is that single-use plastic includes shopping bags, cups, straws and packaging.

The IEEP’s and European Commission’s definition says single-use plastics can include any disposable plastic item designed to be used only once.

Classification of singe use plastics

Type of plastic

Usage in percentage

General usage



PS: Eyeglasses frames, Plastic cups, egg trays PSE: packaging building insulation



Bottles for water, soft drink, juices, cleaners



Building insulation, pillows and mattresses, insulating foams for fridges



Window frames, profiles, floor and wall covering, pipes, cable insulation, garden hose, inflatable pools



Toys, Milk bottles, Shampoo bottles, pipes, houseware



LDPE: Reusable bags, trays and containers, agricultural film LLDPE: food packaging film



Food packaging, sweet and snack wrappers, hinged caps, microwave proof container, pipes, automotive parts, bank notes



Hub caps, optical fibres, eyeglasses lenses, roofing sheets, touch screens, cable coating in telecommunications, medical implants, surgical devices

Therefore, specific definition(s) pertaining to the composition, uses and categories of single-use plastics should be framed.

National Action Plan for phasing out SUPs

There is a need for a National Action Plan or guidelines that should focus to implement plastic ban in a phase-wise manner in terms of urgency. This means products that have alternatives available should be phased out earlier than those that don’t have alternatives, simultaneously reinforcing R&D funding for different alternatives and eco-friendly products.

The phase-wise banning should be developed based on materials, recyclability, availability of alternatives and livelihood security to the informal sector. Keeping this and current post-consumption patterns in mind, a framework indicating range of SUP products needs to be devised to assist the policy makers in ideating, planning and executing the phase-wise SUP ban.

Strengthening waste management systems

Imposing a ban on SUPs is only a part and not the whole solution. However, better waste management systems with focus on segregation incentive models can help achieve long-term impacts.

If cities segregate waste into three fractions — wet, dry, and domestic hazardous waste — and if municipalities create infrastructure in terms of material recovery facilities or sorting stations, dry waste can be sorted into different fractions. This then has value and a market and will not end up as litter. We need to source segregate.

Also, establishing and monitoring domestic recycling units in every state and Union territory, incentivising the recyclers in the unorganised sectors, training low-skilled recyclers, setting up effective grievance redressal mechanisms, life cycle and cost analysis of plastic alternatives should be formulated and explored by the legislative bodies.

This is to increase the recycling efficiency in the country and implement effective and sustainable solutions at every stage of banning single-use plastics.

Informal is critical

A bigger debate over the SUP ban issue is on the fact that more than a million workers will lose jobs. According to a 2018 estimate, there are more than 3,500 organised recycling units and more than 4,000 unorganised units. Approximately, 7 crore workers are employed in the industry. This is a critical number and there needs to be a clear roadmap on how these workers will be transitioned to any other industry.

Alternatives to single-use plastics

Devising feasible alternatives for single-use plastic items and targeting consumers and retailers for better marketing is needed. However, their availability and affordability remain a challenge. Solutions: providing robust infrastructures, strengthening market, innovation and entrepreneurship, subsidy or incentives to consumers at domestic level.

Also, a thorough analysis on the alternatives versus their carbon footprint as compared to SUPs needs to be done to push for any kind of alternative. For instance, cotton bags sourced from virgin cotton, kulhad cups baked in kilns have a higher environmental footprint than plastics. Also, options of giving enough time of transition to industry along with tax rebates for alternative industry need to be explored.

In the present context, jute and upcycled cloth bags, bamboo and wooden cutlery, leaf-based plates, glass and metal containers etc. are some of the immediate alternatives available.

Effective EPR implementation

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) policy tools and its implementation is still lax in the country.

An effective EPR framework, therefore, should be formulated keeping into context the applicability of EPR for certain items like PET, PP or dairy industry. However, EPR implementation for multi-layered plastic (MLP) can still be a constraint considering the vast unorganised industry and present waste management systems.

It is recommended that the plastic waste management plan be integrated with municipal waste systems to strengthen the value chain and existing garbage handling system, substantially. For that matter following key indicators are essential:

  • A credit or offset mechanism by which companies can obtain credits for plastic waste management if they support municipalities in implementing waste management approaches. Under this mechanism, plastics collected and recycled will count for offsetting the EPR targets for the company.
  • All accounting of EPR targets should be met at the national level, irrespective of the state/UTs where products are sold or consumed.

The roadmap can, therefore, let producers implement their EPR obligations utilising the flexibility of brand and geography neutrality.

Discourage small pack MLP sachets

Lighter, portable and cost-effective nature of single serve sachets/pouches makes them a major environmental menace as it is one of the major sources of plastic waste and litter, as their collection is economically non-viable. Hence, the production of small packs such as single-use pouches and sachets should be discouraged and a regulation be enforced.

Instead Polypropylene packaged items can be brought into the stream to cater to low-income groups and also have a high recyclability.

Reducing plastic content in MLP

Ideal packaging materials were tailored by combining different materials with customised functionality to sufficiently protect sensitive food products and thus obtain extended shelf life.

Latest feasible techniques and technologies may be employed to cut down the use of multiple polymers/plastics. More research in this area must be done. Use of single polymer/layer recyclable packaging materials should be encouraged.

Social engineering

Presently, consumer awareness about negative impacts of littering single-use plastics and available reuse systems and waste management options for all these products are still limited.

This further needs to be strengthened through communication, strategic planning, consumer awareness campaigns, raising business awareness, media outreach activities, education, clean-up campaigns, entrepreneurial innovation, scientific research, constructive amendments in legislation(s) and sustainability.

These mechanisms will not only improve eco-consciousness among citizens but will also empower and encourage widespread actions.

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