By Princess Kalyani, NUSRL, Ranchi.

“Beat Plastic Pollution”-the theme for the World Environment Day, 2018; India being a major producer of plastic waste was a perfect host for the UN event. With almost 8 million tons of plastic being dumped into the sea each year, plastic pollution is a huge problem worldwide. The UN has speculated that there could be more plastic in the oceans than fish, by the year 2050. With the tremendous overuse of this cheap, versatile material worldwide, and most of it going into the sea as waste, plastic pollution is now a lethal threat.

How much exactly is India contributing to the slow death of the planet? It turns out, a lot. Three of the world’s top 10 pollutant carrying rivers, flow through India. While the Indus carries the second highest amount of plastic waste to the sea, both Brahmaputra and Ganga figure at the sixth position in this list.

The plastic waste generated across the country is close to 1.6 million tones. According to the Central Pollution Control Board, India generates around 25000 tonnes of plastic waste every day. But this data is patchy and seemingly unreliable. Actual amounts of plastic waste generated in India is estimated to be much higher.  

The answer to the question “Where did India go wrong?” lies in the three words that India has been struggling with, for quite some time now, “Plastic Waste Management”. According to estimates, a staggering 80% of total plastic consumption of India is discarded as waste. At least 40% of this waste is NOT collected. And only 60% of the collected waste is being recycled, making India one of the leading polluters in the world.

The parliament has not completely overlooked the problem. The Environment Protection Act, 1986 is India’s primary legislation in this regard. The Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016 were laid down to achieve the vision of Swachh Bharat, and superseded all the earlier rules. Its main target was to phase out manufacture and use of multilayered plastic by 2018. Its distinctive features included the introduction of extended producers’ responsibility (EPR), a collect back system of plastic waste and pre-registration of traders dealing with plastic, among others. However, the target of eliminating the use of multilayered plastic by 2018, never came close to fruition and the ideas such as EPR, mostly remained on paper. The rules were amended in 2018 and the rules now in force are Plastic Waste Management (Amendment) Rules, 2018. However, going by India’s track record, when it comes to dealing with plastic waste, there is not much hope of implementation of these rules, either.

A COMPLETE BAN ON PLASTIC

While the country was still struggling with implementation and enforcement problems of the already existing rules on plastic management, our Prime Minister made a pledge to eliminate the use of all single use plastics by the year 2022. This was an internationally acclaimed move, but back home, it failed to inspire confidence.

The pledge, though overly ambitious, is not totally baseless. 2018 saw the imposition of complete or partial plastic ban by 25 of the 29 states, in furtherance of the pledge. Many state governments’ municipalities imposed penalties ranging from INR 5,000 to INR 50,000 for not obeying the PWM rules.

Today, more than six months after the proclamation, it’s not surprising that the plastic ban has not been very successful. With the exception of a few cities, most of the country is still struggling. There is confusion about permissible grades of polythene in some States while the local authorities of other States are struggling with unclear definitions and blurred lines between a ‘complete’ and ‘partial’ ban.

Other than these execution and implementation problems, a complete ban on plastic is impractical for a few other reasons. It is difficult to remove plastic completely from use, in the absence of a cheap and durable alternative.  Lobbying and the pressure from plastic industries has led to the revocation or dilution of such bans at several places. There are no strict restrictions on the manufacturing industries either. Any action on the consumers or vendors will be futile if action isn’t taken against manufacturers.

Another concern is the economic impact of such a ban. Even if the government is able to implement the ban despite all these issues, there will be severe economic impacts. For example, the plastic ban in Maharashtra has caused a loss of Rs 15,000 crores to the plastic industry and left nearly 3 lakh people jobless, overnight.

The question remains, how will we curb the plastic problem, if single use plastics are not banned? The implementation of the Plastic Waste Management Rules itself could lead to massive decrease in the amount of plastic waste generated. The enforcement of the already existing laws in addition to proper implementation of the rules, along with a little awareness among people about the harms of plastic would definitely curb the plastic waste pollution.

IT’S NOT ALL ‘RUBBISH’

It’s difficult to be optimistic about India’s apathetic approach towards plastic waste management. However, not everything is going down the drain. There are schemes of the government that actually work and success stories are coming up from different parts of the country.

There are several initiatives being taken by State Governments as well as various Civil Society Organisations. The best success story however, is undeniably the ‘Suchitwa Sangram’. This scheme by the Kerala Government made headlines, after the UN reported that the fishermen in Kerala had removed 25 tonnes of plastic from the Arabian Sea, in 10 months. Under the Suchitwa Scheme, these fishermen were trained to collect the plastic that gets scooped up while fishing and bring it back to the shore. This is the plastic waste that the fishermen would otherwise throw away. This plastic is fed into a plastic shredding machine and is then used for road surfacing. The massive success of the scheme has garnered a lot of international appreciation.

In 2015-16, the National Rural Road Development Agency laid around 7,500 km of roads using plastic waste. States like Kerala, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu are already implementing this in order to manage their plastic waste. The Gujarat Government has introduced the concept of “co-processing of waste” to heavy industries; plastic waste is utilized as the primary fuel or raw material in the production of different materials. The Sikkim Government has successfully implemented several schemes banning the use of plastic over the years, leading Sikkim to become the cleanest State in the country. India has announced a national ‘Marine Litter Action’ campaign. The government has also pledged to make 100 monuments litter free besides also introducing plastic currency notes to combat plastic pollution.

However, we cannot turn a blind eye to the problems our country faces when it comes to waste management. The country needs more awareness as well as measured and monitored implementation of the Plastic Waste Management Rules. The massive production of plastic must be curbed and the government should encourage redesigning of products and packaging. The Extended Producers Liability and some other concepts under the Plastic Waste Management Rules have to be modified and enforced properly to ensure results. There must be focus on establishing facilities aimed at providing sustainable alternatives to plastic. The focus should also be on recycling of plastic until there are enough cheap alternatives made available to the common public.

The world didn’t get cluttered up with plastic overnight and it will definitely take a lot more time to clean up our mess. Although India is far from Sweden, a country that officially ran out of trash for its recycling systems, we’re not doing very badly either. Communities and NGOs have taken heed of the problem and more people are becoming aware every day. So while the government is struggling with implementation problems and grand new schemes, we can do our bit. It can be as little as not littering the roads with plastic. Because when it comes to making the planet pollution free, every bit counts.