In his address to the nation on Independence Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi issued a clarion call for Indians to stop using single-use plastics. Since then, it was widely expected that the government would issue a notification banning singleuse plastics on Gandhi Jayanti. While this did not come to pass, let us examine why such a ban is essential.
Every Indian citizen uses 11 kg of plastic annually; this figure is expected to rise to 20 kg per year. Consequently, a whopping 13.4 million metric tonnes of plastic is produced annually in India, which is likely to cross 22 million metric tonnes by 2022.
According to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), India generates about 26,000 tonnes of plastic waste every single day, of which more than 10,000 tonnes remain uncollected. This waste makes its way into drains which get choked, then it rivers which eventually deposit it into the sea. In 2015, the river Ganga alone dumped 1.15 lakh tonnes of plastic in the ocean.
A Reuters reports has suggested that a ban on single-use plastics will reduce India’s annual plastic consumption by up to 10%.
What are Single Use Plastics (SUPs)?
SUPs are those plastics which are used only once before they are thrown away or recycled. The most common materials found during coastal clean-ups are — in descending order of magnitude – cigarette butts, plastic beverage bottles, plastic bottle caps, food wrappers, plastic grocery bags, plastic lids, straws and stirrers, and foam take-away containers. Single-use plastics occupy most of the spots in the Top Ten.
Some of the varieties of SUPs are:
• Polystyrene: Cutlery, plates and cups, hot drink cups, insulated food packaging
• Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE): Bags, trays, containers, food packaging film
• High Density Polyethylene (HDPE): Milk bottles, freezer bags, shampoo bottles, ice cream containers.
• Polyethylene terephthalate (PET): Bottles for water and other drinks, dispensing containers for cleaning fluids, biscuit trays.
Are any plastics really biodegradable?
A whopping 79% of all plastic produced since 1950 is still in the environment. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), if not recycled, even some forms of ‘biodegradable’ plastic can take up to a thousand years to decompose.
While biodegradation sounds like an ideal end result, it is not necessarily so. The plastic discarded at landfills slowly degenerates into small fragments and leaches carcinogenic (cancer-causing) chemicals into groundwater. This is ingested by animals, and eventually enters the human food chain.
Chemicals like styrene and benzene in styrofoam are highly toxic if ingested, damaging the nervous system, lungs and reproductive organs. The toxins in Styrofoam containers can leach into food and drinks.
Plastic waste is often burned by the poor for heat or cooking, exposing people to toxic emissions. Disposing of plastic waste by burning it in open-air pits releases harmful gases like furan and dioxin.
How viable is plastic recycling?
According to the World Economic Forum, only 14% of disposed plastic is effectively recycled. Experts claim that 94% of all plastics are recyclable. Certain kinds of SUPs like multi-layered plastic (MLP) packaging used for chips, biscuits, chocolates cannot be recycled at all. At present, through 3,500 organised and 4,000 unorganised recycling units, India recycles only 60% of its plastic.
It may be logical to suggest that the problem can be solved by simply ramping up waste collection and segregation efforts. However, what isn’t popular knowledge is that most plastic products have an end life and cannot be recycled more than three-four times. In fact, the CPCB has warned that recycled products are at times more harmful to the environment because of added chemicals and colours.
Plastic grocery bags enjoy the advantage of consuming less energy and water to produce and generate less solid waste than paper bags, taking up less space in landfills. However, some of the qualities that make them commercially successful – durability and resistance – also contribute to making them difficult to recycle.
High-quality recycling has its limitations. The input material has to be unadulterated. Dirt or mud on the plastic can make it unsuitable for recycling. Users would need to clean the plastic bag or packaging material before disposing it in the garbage.
Most importantly, plastic cannot be recycled indefinitely. The purest forms of SUPs cannot undergo more than 7-8 rounds of recycling. So while recycling can help contain India’s plastic problem, it cannot solve it in the long-term.
Present scenario of plastic bans
According to a UNEP report, more than 60 countries have some form of regulation — ban or taxes — on production and use of plastic. But enforcement has not been robust, and only about 30% of the countries reported a drop in plastic consumption. 15 Indian states and 4 Union Territories have introduced notifications for various kinds of plastic bans:
• Himachal Pradesh: Nonbiodegradable plastic bags and disposable plastic products
• Uttar Pradesh: Plastic bags, cups and glasses
• Punjab: single-use plastic bags and containers
• Kerala and West Bengal: Bags with thickness less than 50 microns
• Sikkim: Styrofoam
• Delhi: All disposable plastic
• Maharashtra: Carry bags, PET bottles less than 200 ml.
• While the notifications exist on paper, the on-ground implementation is variable, and often non-existent.
A national ban on SUPs
Contrary to expectations, the government did not announce a ban. Manufacturers claimed that small-sized plastic bottles used for pharmaceutical or health products should be exempted as there is no alternate available. Sachets made from multi-layered packaging could not be banned at short notice, since this would disrupt supplies of products like biscuits, salt and milk. Most importantly, India is facing an economic slowdown; a ban on the manufacture of SUPs would have rendered lakhs of workers unemployed.
Instead, the government has said it will try to ‘curb’ the use of SUPs, and will ask states to enforce existing rules against storing, manufacturing and using some single-use plastic products such as polythene bags and styrofoam. Many ministries have announced their own plastic bans.
The Guidelines of Single-Use Plastics issued by the Environment Ministry earlier this year list actions that states and union territories may take. They ask states and UTs to ‘discourage use of plastic products’ including artificial flowers, banners, flags, PET water bottles, plastic folders and trays, and ‘any other plastic material for which an alternative exists’. They also calls on governments to encourage the private sector to ‘voluntarily give up single-use plastics’.
However, they leave the decision to ban single-use plastics completely up to the respective government. With the central government announcing its intention to phase out SUPs completely by 2022, India needs a clear roadmap to achieve its goal.