Single use plastics are on their way out. But is banning them a complete solution to the problem? Mrigank Warrier, Assistant Editor, Clean India Journal, casts a critical eye on the workability of the new plastic waste management rules.
In a March 2022 research paper published in Environmental International, researchers detected microplastics in human blood. This is a terrifying discovery, but going by the universality of plastic use, not surprising at all.
The UN Environment Programme finds the world adding 300 million tonnes of plastic waste every year to the accumulated pile of about 7 billion tonnes. 85% of total marine waste is plastics. India has a worrying case of 95 lakh tonnes of plastic waste generated a year, 40% of which is unattended. Urbanisation and rising GDP have put plastic consumption on an upward trajectory.
Tackling the problem
The Plastic Waste Management (Amendment) Rules 2022 are a welcome step; after the last thrust in this direction back in 2016, they address a range of unresolved
issues surrounding post-consumer plastic waste and help streamline stakeholder obligations under India’s extended producer responsibility (EPR) regime.
EPR is a mechanism in which producers are responsible for the end-of-life collection, recycling or disposal of products that they manufactured. In the 2022 Rules, these products are single-use plastics used to package foods and beverages. The crux of EPR is the ‘polluters pay’ principle: in this case, it aims to hold manufacturers and producers of ecologically unsustainable plastic items financially and socially accountable for the pollution these materials cause.
Categories of plastics
The key goal of the 2022 amendment is to operationalise EPR within the ambit of the Plastic Waste Management Rules 2016. The amendment has proposed the categorisation of single use plastics into four types:
- Rigid, flexible plastics with single plastic layers;
- Rigid, flexible plastics with multiple plastic layers;
- Multi-layered plastic packaging where at least one layer is non-plastics, such as Tetra Pak and Uflex cartons
- Compostable plastics.
This categorisation may not be very intuitive in the country’s current waste management scenario. Individual material stream management calls for a more mature system that is either highly mechanised or depends on a well organised and trained workforce, but most Indian cities have neither.
What is banned?
The ministry said the manufacture, import, stocking, distribution, sale and use of following single-use plastic, including polystyrene and expanded polystyrene, commodities shall be prohibited with effect from the 1st July, 2022.
The identified single-use plastic items include earbuds, plastic sticks for balloons, flags, candy sticks, ice-cream sticks, polystyrene (thermocol) for decoration, plates, cups, glasses, cutlery, wrapping or packaging films around sweet boxes, invitation cards, cigarette packets, plastic or PVC banners less than 100 micron, and stirrers.
The next crucial aspect of the rules are the targets and associate timelines for collection of post-consumer plastics. The take-back mechanism is based on the formula based on the average sales of plastic packaging material in the last two financial years.
In stage 1, plastic producers, importers and brand-owners are expected to take back 25% of their material by 2021-22, followed by 70% by 2022-23 and 100% by
Mandatory reuse and recycling
For the first time, the rules have proposed reuse and recycling obligations on plastic producers. The targets range from 10% to 85% to be achieved over the decade.
The idea of “minimum recycled content” has also been introduced in the new amendment. This requires brand owners to incrementally incorporate a minimum quantity of recycled resins into their packaging between 2025 and 2029. ‘Minimum recycled content’ or ‘post-consumer resin content’ is an idea that US states like California and Washington, have been toying with for PET bottles.
Producers and brand owners are expected to submit annual reports on their targets to an online portal. There is no provision for a third party audit or independent verification of these annual reports.
‘Bio-plastics’ and other compostable, oxo-degradable and oxo-biodegradable plastic are primarily used for grocery bags or carry bags. While one may feel better opting for these bags rather than polythene ones, how sustainable or ‘plastic-free’ they really are is an altogether different story. Not all bio and plant-based plastics are biodegradable, and not all ‘green’ or biodegradable plastics are bio-based.
In addition, they require separate composting facilities created with specific environmental conditions. Conditions required for the decomposition of compostable bags do not exist in India’s municipal landfills. Most importantly, compostable plastic packaging is not a blanket solution, but rather one for specific, targeted applications as a majority of compostable plastics are more expensive than conventional plastics, and not available in sufficient quantities in India. The recycling process gets impacted when conventional and compostable plastics are mixed.
The last word
While the intended outcome of the rules is laudable, and with enough political will, even their implementation may be feasible, what is missing is a viable alternative to single-use plastics. Two months from now, several plastic items that are a part of daily life will no longer be available; what will take their place? Have they been developed? Are they being mass-produced? Have they been tested? Are they as affordable as plastic? Why haven’t they flooded the market yet?