India among the 12 countries responsible for 52% of the world’s mismanaged plastic waste: Report

Plastics not designed for circular use must be phased out, report notes

By Kiran Pandey
Published: Monday 31 July 2023
Representative photo: iStock.__

This story has been updated

On July 28, 2023, the Earth saw its first Plastic Overshoot Day: The point at which the amount of plastics exceeds the global waste management capacity, according to Swiss-based research consultancy Earth Action (EA).

Nearly 68,642,999 tonnes of additional plastic waste will end up in nature this year, noted the 2023 Plastic Overshoot Day Report by EA.

India is among the 12 countries, along with China, Brazil, Indonesia, Thailand, Russia, Mexico, the United States, Saudia Arabia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iran and Kazakhstan, which are responsible for 52 per cent of the world’s mismanaged plastic waste, it pointed out.

Under current scenarios, despite pledges and increased waste management capacity, increased production of plastics will lead to global plastics pollution tripling by 2040, it pointed out.

Also read: Extreme weather events in India may be transporting more plastic litter into oceans, warn experts

Of the 159 million tonnes of plastics (which can be used only for a short time) to be produced globally in 2023, 43 per cent (68.5 million tonnes) will end up causing pollution, the report pointed out. 

This day, which is just four days ahead of Earth Overshoot Day on August 2, is a wake-up call to the world. Plastic Overshoot Day sheds light on a critical aspect of the world’s plastic consumption: Short-life plastics, encompassing plastic packaging and single-use plastics. These categories account for approximately 37 per cent of the total plastic commercialised annually. Moreover, they pose a higher risk of leakage to the environment.

When it comes to plastic consumption on a per-person basis, the world’s worst offender is Iceland, with annual consumption of 128.9 kg per person. This is 24.3 times higher than the yearly consumption per person of 5.3 kg in India. The global average consumption of plastic per person per year is 20.9 kg.

Overshoot Day for India, or the date when the amount of plastic waste outweighed the country’s ability to manage it, was January 6 2023. Plastic Overshoot Day is determined based on a country’s Mismanaged Waste Index (MWI).  

The imbalance between the volumes of plastic that are produced and used, as well as the world’s ability to manage those volumes when they become waste, is the root cause of plastic pollution. The gap in waste management capacity and plastic consumption is called MWI.

Three countries (followed by India) with the highest mismanaged waste — Mozambique (99.8 per cent), Nigeria (99.44 per cent) and Kenya (98.9 per cent) — belong to Africa, according to the document.

India ranks fourth in the MWI, with 98.55 per cent of generated waste being mismanaged and fares poorly in the management of plastics waste, according to the EA report.

However, Siddharth Ghanshyam Singh, programme manager of municipal solid waste at the Delhi-based think tank Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), said, “The index of the report can be challenged, especially with respect to the mismanaged waste index of India”.

According to CSE’s report, The Plastic Life Cycle, India recycles 12.3 per cent of its plastic waste and incinerates 20 per cent. The centralised EPR portal developed by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change also suggests India has a cumulative capacity to process 14.2 million tonnes of plastic waste annually. This includes recycling and incineration, indicating that the country has the capacity to process 71 per cent of all the primary plastic that is produced.

The researchers categorised countries into 10 archetypes to carry out the analysis: The transactors, the self-sustainers, the strugglers, the overloaders, the toxic exporters, the waste saviours, the waste sponges, the selective exporters, the exporting polluters and the small-scale inward polluters.

Also read: Plastic-free planet: Evolution of Global Plastics Treaty

Among these, plastic pollution particularly impacts developing countries without mature waste management systems, including India. These countries have been categorised as ‘waste sponges’. 

However, 25 per cent of the countries that EA categorised as waste sponges are trying to address the global waste crisis by absorbing waste from other countries but are struggling to manage their own waste. Waste sponges have a low plastic consumption yet a high level of plastic pollution.

This is worrying since the expected mismanaged waste in India in 2023 will be 7,300,752 tonnes of plastic. The country will also be responsible for releasing an average of 3,30,764 tonnes of microplastics into waterways.

“According to Indian Industry estimates, the total primary plastic production in the country is 20 million metric tonnes, of this 43 per cent is single use in nature. This means that roughly 8.6 million tonnes of single use plastic waste is generated in the country —1.3 million tonnes more than what is estimated by this report,” said Singh.

To mitigate plastic pollution, India must Invest in waste management policies like Extended producer responsibility (EPR), suggested the report. Plastics that are not designed for circular use must be phased out, it added.

India was among the few countries in 2019 to propose a global ban on single-use plastics. The idea was later widened, and the world agreed in March 2022 to draw up a global treaty on plastic pollution by 2024. 

The UN Plastic Treaty represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spark global action against plastic pollution. But to achieve this, the treaty must be adequately scoped, negotiated, ratified and enforced with high ambition.

However, India abstained from furnishing its written submission for the second round of negotiations held in Paris from May 29 to June 2, 2023.

While 70 per cent of the submissions spoke of restricting / phasing out unnecessary plastic products, a negligible 8 per cent suggested a moratorium on plastic production. Similarly, just 10 per cent of the submissions suggested looking at the entire lifecycle of plastic to find solutions, according to an analysis published in the State of India’s Environment 2023: In figures.

EA, in its report, has called for an ambitious treaty and urged all governments to endorse and ratify it.

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