To weed out single-use plastic, India must first define it
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, delivering his 2019 Independence Day speech at Red Fort, pitched for freedom for India from single-use plastic.
“Can we free India from single-use plastic? The time for implementing such an idea has come. May teams be mobilised to work in this direction. Let a significant step be made on October 2,” he said.
This was the Modi government’s second strong position against single-use plastic. Harsh Vardhan, the then Union minister for environment, forest and climate change, said on World Environment Day 2018 (June 5) that the country would try to “phase out” single-use plastic by 2022.
PM Modi was present at that event as was United Nations Environment Programme’s then chief Erick Solheim.
India reinforced its commitment at the fourth UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi last March. No policy instrument, however, has been announced since then,
More than 20 states, meanwhile, have notified a full or partial ban on such plastic, Maharashtra being the first.
The Union environment ministry reportedly has been working on a central legislation to ban single-use plastics and has sought views from states.
“We should take first important step to finally bid a goodbye to plastic,” Modi said.
Defining the challenge
Single-use plastic — any plastic item that has to be discarded after being used once and can’t be recycled — has been adding to India’s waste-management challenge. But often single-use plastic is misunderstood to be polythene carry bags.
There is no central and comprehensive definition for single-use plastic, crucial for any ban to be successful. Governments currently use various definitions.
Some states like Telangana, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Himachal Pradesh banned plastic bottles and Tetra packs, single-use straws, plastic/styrofoam tea cups/containers, etc. But many like Bihar banned only polythene bags.
A central legislation with a clear definition of what constitutes single-use plastic can clear the air.
The most detrimental single-use plastics are multi-layered sachets for packing products like tobacco. The Plastic Management Waste 2016 rules prohibit their use for storing and selling gutka / tobacco and paan masala, but it is hardly enforced.
Packaging for snacks like chips and fries, chocolates, beverages, etc are equally harmful. These ubiquitous packages are not recycled.
A total of 46,100 pieces of such products were audited by the Indian arm of Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, a grouping of non-profits, last year at 250 sites across 18 states. Multilayered packaging accounted for nearly 60 per cent of total branded plastics. While 38 per cent were domestic brands, the rest were global.
Even while banning, many states kept out polythene bags above a certain threshold of thickness. This became a loophole for violators to escape as enforcing such a regulation is tough.
A voluntary study by the Break Free From Plastic Movement claimed multi-layered packaging was a major ocean pollutant.
A concerted effort thus need to include a ban on the use of plastic in processed food. A comprehensive extended producer responsibility is also needed to ensure manufacturers are accountable for recycling, on the lines of rules for electronic waste.
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