Single-use plastic ban: Reading the fine print reveals ominous loopholes

Packaging, which is almost 60% of India’s plastic waste, has not been listed to be phased out

By Siddharth Ghanshyam Singh
Published: Tuesday 17 August 2021

On India’s Independence Day in 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had appealed to the citizens to make the country free from single-use plastics (SUP) and work towards this mission wholeheartedly. 

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

The agenda of making the country SUP-free also featured in the monthly “Mann ki baat” in December 2020. In line with the announcement, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change notified Plastic Waste Management Amendment Rules, 2021, on August 12,  2021, prohibiting 20 identified single-use plastic items by 2022.

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

What is single-use plastic?

SUP is plastic produced and designed to be thrown away after being used only once. By that definition, a large number of products fall in the category. These include everything from a disposable straw to a disposable syringe.  

India has defined SUP as “a plastic commodity intended to be used once for the same purpose before being disposed of or recycled” in its Plastic Waste Management Amendment Rules, 2021.

The identification of single-use plastic items to be phased out was done on the basis of report by an expert committee constituted by the Department of Chemicals and Petrochemicals (DCPC), under the direction of the Union Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers on SUP. 

The expert committee comprised policy makers, scientists, academicians and researchers in the field of plastic and allied materials. The assessment was conducted by DCPC by comparing two pillars — the utility index of a particular type of SUP and the environmental impact of the same. 

Utility Index- parameters (100) Environmental impact- parameters (100)
Hygiene (20) Collectability (20)
Product safety (20) Recyclability (20)
Essentiality (20) Possibility of end of life solutions (20)
Social impact (20) Environmental impact of alternate products (20)
Economic impact (20) Littering propensity (20)

Methodology for assessment

Each factor was assigned 20 points, which added up to each pillar having a total of 100 points. 

The product that scores low on utility and high on environmental impact should be considered for immediate phase out.  

Methodologically, the 20 items listed for phasing out have followed the protocol. Most of the items listed for phase out are mostly produced by local, small and medium plastic manufacturers, who supply products without branding. 

Some items which are also low on utility index and high on environmental impact as per the scores assigned by the study, however, have not been considered for phasing out. This leaves the big corporations least affected. 

It is unclear what yardstick has actually been considered for the items listed for phasing out.

Phase-out schedule

Starting from September 30, 2021 through July 1, 2022, SUPs — mostly those manufactured by small and medium industries — will be phased out. 

The schedule does not cover a range of SUPs generated by fast-moving consumer goods companies.

Category Item no. Item name Phase out date
1 Carry bags  
1 Carry bag made of virgin or recycled plastic less than 75 microns in thickness 30.09.2021
2 Carry bag made of virgin or recycled plastic less than 120 microns in thickness 31.12.2022
2 Non-woven plastic carry bags 30.09.2021
3 Non-woven plastic carry bag less than 60 GSM (Grams per square meter) or 240 microns in thickness
3 Single use plastic (including polystyrene & expanded polystyrene) items 1.7.2022
4 Ear buds with plastic sticks
5 Plastic sticks for balloons
6 Plastic flags
7 Candy sticks
8 Ice-cream sticks
9 Polystyrene (thermocol) for decoration
10 Plates
11 Cups
12 Glasses
13 Forks
14 Spoons
15 Knives
16 Straw
17 Trays
18 Wrapping or packing films around sweet boxes, invitation cards and cigarette packets
19 Plastic PVC banners less than 100 microns
20 Stirrers

Major players 

Plastic packaging (flexible and rigid) contributes to almost 60 per cent of the total plastic waste generated, according to a report by the Centre for Science and Environment, a Delhi-based non-profit, titled Plastic Recycling-Decoded based on industry estimates.  A lot of this packaging is discarded within minutes or days of being used. 

Plastic packaging waste, inscrutably, is not listed for being phased out. It was proposed to be collected and managed in an environmentally sustainable way through the extended producer responsibility (EPR) of the producer, importer and brand owner (PIBO), according to the Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016. 

Read more: Draft Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2021: Addressing the bigger problem

Producers of plastic waste, within a period of six months from the publication of Plastic Waste Management Rules 2016, were supposed to “work out modalities for a waste collection system based on extended producer responsibility involving state urban development departments, either individually or collectively, through their distribution channel or through the local body concerned”.

Five years later, the EPR for plastic waste management remains only on paper, due to non-compliance by PIBOs and weak enforcement by authorities. 

The ministry’s assumption that the PIBOs would start complying now is puzzling. 

Many brand owners wrap their EPR mandate of plastic waste collection as corporate social responsibility and present it as a voluntary service to the society by collecting plastic waste generated by them. 

After the latest notification, this malpractice will become more common.

Adding to the problem: Compostable plastic

All the 20 items that are proposed to be phased out are not applicable to commodities that are made up of compostable plastics. India does not have an existing labelling mechanism to differentiate fossil-based plastics from the compostable ones. 

This will result in the old lot of 50-micron plastics being pushed into the market under the pretext of being “compostable”.

India used 18.45 million tonnes of plastic in the year 2018, according to industry estimates. The plastic produced in the same time period was 17 million tonnes. The global standard is that one per cent of all the plastic generated is biodegradable and can be composted.

This means, India needs to collect 170,000 tonnes of post-consumer compostable plastic and should have industrial composting units to deal with this stream of plastic waste.

Awareness around compostable plastics is very low. It is perceived that a compostable plastic can be littered or added to your home / community compost pit that will reduce it to simpler compounds like carbon-di-oxide and water vapour. 

It’s imperative to make consumers understand that this is not how it works: Compostable plastics can only be composted only in industrial composting facilities under the right set of controlled parameters.

India, with its current waste management system, is not ready for compostable plastics as they end up contaminating the potentially recyclable plastic. This adds to labour costs and further reduces the overall efficiency of plastic waste recycling in the country.

Moreover, the number of industrial composting units present in the country is something that no one is talking about. If we are promoting compostable plastics, where are our industrial composting units?

A 10-year moratorium 

Clause 4 (4) of the notification gives a 10-year moratorium to the plastic industry. It says: 

Any notification prohibiting the manufacture, import, stocking, distribution, sale and use of carry bags, plastic sheets or like, or cover made of plastic sheets and multi-layered packaging and single-use plastic, including polystyrene and expanded polystyrene, commodities, issued after this notification, shall come into force after the expiry of ten years, from the date of its publication

The government should have pushed the plastic industry to invest in relevant research and development and ensure use of recycled products in their non-food packaging applications. 

Instead, the plastic industry has been assured that the list for SUP to be phased out will not change in at least 10 years. This gives the industry the license to keep polluting in the coming years.

What’s happening in other countries?

Indian legislators consistently failed to keep its promises on phasing out SUPs since 2016, by diluting recycling rules with terms like “non-energy recoverable” and eventually coming up with half-baked solutions. (Energy recovery is a process of conversion of non-recyclable waste to heat / energy by burning / combustion.)

The European Union, on the other hand, came up with a clear vision in the form of EU plastics strategy which gave the industry a three-year window till 2021 to phase out 10 identified SUP items. 

Israel proposed to levy double purchase tax on SUP and disposable plastic ware. The move is expected to reduce usage by 41 per cent, according to a study by the country’s ministry of environmental protection.

Multi-layered plastics escapes agenda

Multi-layered plastics (MLP) were proposed to be banned in the Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016. 

The 2018 amendment introduced new narratives like “energy recovery” and “alternate use”. 

The amendment notified phase out of MLP that was non-recyclable and non-energy recoverable, making the phase out redundant. 

Read more: Draft plastic waste rules: Why multi-layered plastic needs to be phased out

The 2021 amendment followed suit and provided the industry with the avenue to pollute for another decade by exempting MLP from the list of items to be phased out.

Impact of new notification

The notification has a huge communication value in the global fight against plastic pollution. But its effect on ground cannot be measured due to poor data on generation and recycling of plastic waste.

It will be interesting to estimate the amount of plastic waste that we will be diverting from our dumpsites, by analysing the volume of waste generated from the 20 SUP items proposed to be phased out as a share of the current plastic waste generation with the share of the overall plastic waste generated in the country. 

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