It’s around noon on a weekday and two trucks, which have collected rubbish from around the neighbourhood, are being unloaded as a third one pulls in. There’s everything from a mattress to a travel bag in the trash that was dumped here a few days ago.
Three workers look for recyclable plastic in the refuse, including packaged water bottles and soft drink bottles, and shampoo and handwash containers, which will later be sent to a recycling unit. These plastics are shredded and turned into clothing, toys and trash cans, among others. But there is a lot of plastic here that cannot be recycled & the most common is multilayered plastic (MLP) packaging, used for chips, biscuits, chocolates, etc.
MLP, along with thin grocery bags, straws, cups, glasses and cotton buds, among others, are called single-use or disposable plastics. Water bottles are used only once in advanced economies but in India they are often reused; nine out of ten of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles are recycled in India.
In June 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that India would eliminate single-use plastics by 2022. Canada and the European Union have since said they would get rid of some single-use plastics by 2021.
Modi reiterated his position last month when he called for the first big step in the fight against disposable plastic to be taken on October 2, the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. Since that statement, there has been a lot of speculation on whether the government will ban or announce a phasing out of some single-use plastics on that day.
How hard will it be to implement a plastic ban? What will it mean for businesses and consumers? Will they find a way around it? According to Reuters, the government could ban six items, including bags, cups, straws and certain sachets. Another news report pegged the number of items to be outlawed at twice as many. These reports have pushed industry lobbies to issue statements highlighting the adverse impact of a ban and to take out advertisements in newspapers in defence of plastic.
“If an industry has been operating following all the rules, you cannot suddenly say that its products will be banned,” says Anil Reddy Vennam, whose Hyderabad-based firm Nayastrap manufactures stretch film used to cover boxes and foods .
India’s plastic-processing industry has over 30,000 units and an annual turnover of Rs 2.25 lakh crore, according to the All India Plastic Manufacturers’ Association (AIPMA). The industry also employs over 4 million people. The government will have to carefully weigh the impact of a ban, in terms of plant closures and job losses, at a time of economic downturn.
The Big Trash
There are few materials as versatile as plastic, most of which is made from oil, natural gas and coal. It makes packaged foods last longer on store shelves and withstand extreme temperatures while being transported. Packaging accounts for a third of India’s plastic consumption, according to Ficci, an industry body. And 70 per cent of plastic packaging is turned into waste in a short span, as per a report by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs.
India generated 26,000 tonnes per day (TPD) of plastic waste in 2017-18, the latest year for which data is available, according to the Central Pollution Control Board. Of that, 15,600 TPD, or 60 per cent , was recycled. The rest ended up as litter on roads, in landfills or in streams. Uncollected plastic waste poses a huge threat to species on land and in water.
Around eight million tonnes of plastic waste enter the ocean every year. The river Ganga alone took 1.15 lakh tonnes of plastic into the ocean in 2015, second only to China’s Yangtze, according to a research paper published in Nature Communications magazine.
It’s also common to see garbage being burnt on the sides of roads, adding to our cities’ air-pollution woes. Some plastics take hundreds of years to decompose. That means a polyethelene shopping bag made in 1965, the year it was patented by a Swedish company, could still be at a landfill or in the ocean.
India’s plastic recycling rate is 60 per cent , three times higher than the global average of 20 per cent , and India’s per capita plastic consumption — at 11 kg in 2014-15 — is less than half the global average of 28 kg. In 2016, India said it wanted to increase the per capita plastic use to 20 kg by 2022. Since half the plastic now produced is meant to be used only once, India has to figure out what plastic it wants to use and ban — and how it will recycle all that trash.
Use & Reuse
A key step in that direction was Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) under the Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016, which were amended last year. As part of EPR, producers, importers and brand owners — like fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) and pharma companies — are supposed to take back the plastic waste generated by their products, with the help of waste-management companies like Ahmedabad-based Nepra Resource Management. Nepra works with the likes of Nestle, PepsiCo and Colgate to collect plastic waste from collection centres like the one at Malad in Mumbai.
Nepra transports around 70-80 million tonnes of plastic, most of which is MLP, from the facility to cement kilns in Dhar in Madhya Pradesh, 570 km north-east, every month. MLP is hard to recycle since it has multiple types of plastic, aluminium and, in some cases, paper. So it is used as an alternative for fossil fuels in cement kilns.
Sandeep Patel, cofounder of Nepra, says that despite MLP being non-recyclable, the government cannot ban it since there is no alternative yet .
“Companies are trying to shift to single-polymer packaging, which would make it recyclable.” Global FMCG giants Unilever and Nestlé plan to have 100 per cent recyclable or reusable packaging by 2025.
Hindustan Unilever, the Indian arm of Unilever, collected and disposed of more than 20,000 tonnes of MLP waste in partnership with nonprofits and startups in more than 30 cities across India, and plans to expand it to more cities, says a company spokesperson. PepsiCo plans to have 100 per cent recovery of its MLP in India by 2021.
While India is one of 63 countries with EPR, its guidelines for the same continue to be vague, says Roshan Miranda, cofounder of Hyderabad-based Waste Ventures. “There isn’t much clarity on how much of single-use plastic a company puts out needs to be taken back by it,” he says. Afroz Shah, a lawyer and environmental activist known for his beach clean-up drive in Mumbai, concurs. “There is no mechanism to implement EPR.” Around 95 per cent of the trash he and his volunteers pick up on beaches is disposable plastic.
Even if the government chooses to ban certain plastics, there is a big question mark on how effective it will be. “Plastic is cheap and convenient, and as long as there is demand for it, people are going to manufacture it,” says Abhijit Bangar, Nagpur’s municipal commissioner.
A national ban will have to be enforced by local bodies. Bangar says that unlike urban local bodies, gram panchayats may not have the resources to do routine checks on plastic use. Maharashtra is among the 23 states that have fully or partially banned plastic bags, but that has not stopped people from using them.
Moreover, the fact that five years after Modi launched the Swachh Bharat Mission, only 56 per cent of our urban solid waste is processed and only two-thirds of the wards have 100 per cent segregation of waste at source shows that implementing a plastic ban is going to be far from easy.
There is also no clear evidence that curbs on plastic use have the desired results. A 2018 analysis by the United Nations Environment Programme of bans and levies on plastic bags and Styrofoam in 60 countries found that there was not enough data available on their impact in half the cases. In 30 per cent of cases, there was a drop in usage of those products, but in 20 per cent , there was little to no impact. Emails sent to the Environment Ministry did not elicit a response.
A ban would most likely target plastic cutlery, straws, cups and glasses, which, Miranda says, are mostly made by the unorganised segment. Ram Vilas Paswan, Union minister for food and consumer affairs, recently told ET that plastic bottles for water will stay till an affordable alternative is found. But there have been reports that the government could put an end to 200 ml water bottles. The airline Vistara in July decided to stop giving small water bottles on its flights; state-owned Air India will soon follow suit.
Besides airlines and FMCG companies, ecommerce and food-delivery firms also have to reduce the use of plastic in their deliveries. Walmartowned Flipkart plans to eliminate single-use plastics by March 2021. Its competitor Amazon aims to do the same by June 2020. But if India decides to ban them in October, the companies will have to advance their deadlines.
“We are aggressively developing plastic-free alternatives for packaging mailers, bubble bags, stretch wrap and tape used in packaging,” says Akhil Saxena, vice-president of customer fulfilment at Amazon India. Only around 7 per cent of the packaging material at its fulfilment centres is single-use, and 95 per cent of its deliveries do not carry the invoice in plastic.
Food delivery company Swiggy says it helps the restaurants it works with find eco-friendly packaging alternatives to plastic, like paper and glass. Flipkart did not respond to ET Magazine’s questions nor did Zomato. Besides the most obvious plastic items like bags and cutlery, there is the cigarette butt, which one does not often think of as plastic. The butts have filters made of a plastic called cellulose acetate; this can be recycled by mixing it with other polymers into shipping pallets and benches.
The cigarette butt is the most commonly found litter on beaches and in rivers and lakes. A global coastal clean-up drive in 2018 found 5.7 million of them. Questions sent to ITC, India’s largest cigarette maker, went unanswered.
Environmental considerations were not a factor in the decision-making of many companies till recently. But chief executives are now being forced by governments, investors, customers and activists to be more responsible.
“Companies will have to start thinking of the real cost of products in Rs 1-2 sachets,” says Shah. While those living in slums do not have much of an option in how they discard their waste, companies are taking an informed call on the plastic packaging they use, he adds. However, banning smaller-size packets of chips, chocolates and shampoos means taking those products out of the reach of millions of consumers and giving up a sizeable chunk of the market. Clearly, it’s not an easy choice for companies.
There are efforts underway to make sustainable alternatives commercially viable. The past few years have seen a lot of starch-based substitutes for conventional plastic, but there are still concerns over how long they take to break down once they are discarded. Bamboo-handle toothbrushes and edible seaweed packaging are becoming more popular, but they are still not used at scale. The next few years will likely see some of these products being adopted by the masses, but plastic is very much here to stay.
While restricting the production and use of some harmful plastics in a phased manner is essential, equally crucial is figuring out how to handle our plastic waste better. When even parts of India’s financial capital, Mumbai, do not segregate dry and wet waste, not much can be said of our smaller cities and towns, which are hardly prepared to handle the surge in refuse. But the biggest challenge when it comes to the use and disposal of plastic is changing behaviours.
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21 Comments on this Story
David Daylord392 days ago
For the first time, I got some insight into this vexing problem. Very good work, G Seetharaman! Keep it up!
Govind Padiath393 days ago
There is technology to recycle all plastic type generated. Sadly there is no political will at the panchayat, municipality, or state government level. If Solid waste management rule and Plastic waste management rule 2016 is implemented properly we can have a swachch Bharat in couple of years time. All the people who keep saying ban plastic, use plastic daily in their lives. The key is educating the public on reduce reuse and recycle. Ban has never worked. It just brings out more corruption. I repeat again - all plastic can be recycled including multi layer plastic. Let us make roads, bricks, tiles and many other things including industrial diesel / oil out of plastic going to the landfill. It just needs coordination with civic bodies and empowered and knowledgeable citizens.
Feku Maharaj394 days ago
Ban petrol cars, ban plastic, ban chaddis. First find the suitable low cost alternatives before banning. Else everyone will be running naked on streets with no alternative.