Here are a few suggestions on how the country can handle the plastic menace
The much-speculated plastic ban on October 2, 2019 did not live up to the hype created. The government made it clear that it never meant to ban single-use plastics (SUP), but insisted on raising awareness and pushing for recycling.
The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) directed all states and Union territories (UTs) that there would not be any immediate ban on plastic items. Instead, the ministry asked state urban departments and urban local bodies to strengthen plastic waste management by improvising on existing waste management systems.
This can be done by investing heavily in improving source segregation of waste and supporting end-to-end segregation of waste to strengthen processing, said the Centre.
The ministry gave states the freedom to look into introducing prohibitive action on SUP by identifying a clear list of products that need to be targeted. This majorly includes single-use disposable cutlery and carry bags.
It asked states / UTs to play a key role in promoting eco-friendly alternatives, projects that look into upscaling or recycling single-use plastics and small-scale or micro enterprises. Additionally, states must focus on behavioural change and raising awareness.
While it is clear, that a ban is not entirely a solution, the government must move quickly on measures to phase out and finally impose a plastic ban on problematic SUP items.
It is clear that we cannot lose the momentum. What then should be the focus now?
First, we need to list and define single use plastics. It is important to identify the most problematic SUP items and assess the extent of their impacts before imposing bans. Also, it must be understood that it is not just carry bags that are a major SUP contaminant.
Items such as wrappers of sweets, multi-layered packaging items, straws and stirrers, disposable cutlery and styrofoam items are some of the most common SUPs that form a major part of the litter. What we need is a clear definition of SUPs based on the Indian scenario.
There is also need for a National Action Plan or guidelines that focus on implementing plastic ban in a phase-wise manner in terms of urgency. This means products that have alternatives available should be phased earlier than the items which do not have alternatives, simultaneously reinforcing research and devlopment funding for different alternatives and ecofriendly products.
Second, we need to push for effective waste management with focus on segregation, collection and recycling. Currently, most municipalities are struggling to implement existing plastic waste and solid waste regulations. In many cases, NGOs, CSR funds and initiatives by private companies, citizen activists and in particular the resourceful informal sector of waste pickers, have filled the gap. But this is not enough.
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 such as material recovery facilities or sorting stations, dry waste can be sorted into different fractions.
This then has value and a market would not end up as litter. We need to source segregate end to end. For instance in Ambikapur, Chhattisgarh segregated waste from households is brought to 17 solid liquid resource management centres where dry waste is further segregated into 155 fractions at the secondary and tertiary centres, most of which is channelised for recycling.
We have examples of cities such as Panaji, Trichy, Mysuru, Panchgani, Vengurla, Karjat, Muzaffarpur that have invested in effective dry waste management. In these cities, dry waste is not a challenge, it is a resource.
Third, effectively implement Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). We need to be very clear about which items should be included in EPR. Ideally it should include all plastic packaging items that are not collected and become waste instantly, such as multi-layered plastics, PET, milk pouches, sachets, etc. TheMoEF&CC is currently formulating a national framework to implement EPR under Rule 9 of the Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016.
Currently, plastic companies are expected to work with ULBs and strengthen waste management. What’s better: A credit or offset mechanism that lets companies obtain credits for plastic waste management if they support municipalities in implementing waste management approaches. This will provide the industry the necessary push.
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/UT where products are sold or consumed.
Also, companies are getting together and setting up their own plastic waste collection and recycling schemes for items such as PET, that have a high recycling value (about 90 per cent), but an approach that integrates industry, informal sector and ULB would lead to better implementation of EPR.
Fourth, the focus should be on innovation in designs that incorporate waste reduction. India has to strengthen its rules for producers and enforce effective systems of EPR. To begin with, the government should invest money in encouraging the setting up of ventures that provide sustainable products as an alternative to current non-recyclable products.
It should accelerate business-driven innovations and help scale circular economies that focus on systemic stalemates in global material flows so that the need for disposal of materials is delayed.
Last, there needs to be a plan for remaining plastics. The non-recyclable dry waste fraction and contaminated plastics, etc. are suitable for incineration-based technologies. Also, in scenarios where materials are so degraded from repeated recycling that they are of no further use or comprise low-value contaminated plastics that cannot be recycled, deriving energy from them is preferable to discarding them at a landfill site.
We are a voice to you; you have been a support to us. Together we build journalism that is independent, credible and fearless. You can further help us by making a donation. This will mean a lot for our ability to bring you news, perspectives and analysis from the ground so that we can make change together.
Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.