By Ravi Boolchandani, Amity Law School, Delhi.

The word plastic is derived from the Greek word (plastikos) meaning “capable of being shaped or molded”. Plastic is a material consisting of any of a wide range of synthetic or semi-synthetic organics. Due to their relatively low cost, ease of manufacture, versatility and imperviousness to water, plastics are used in an enormous and expanding range of products, from paper clips to spaceships.

Besides all these, the most alarming reality about plastic is that plastic is non-biodegradable. Plastic cannot be changed to a harmless natural state by the action of bacteria, and it therefore damages the environment. It doesn’t break down. And in reality, most plastic does not ever disappear, but becomes long-lasting “plastic dust”. When items like plastic bags break down, they readily soak up (and release) toxins that then contaminate soil and water, as well as harming animals that ingest plastic fragments. And there’s no winning: producing recycled materials uses copious amounts of energy.

In addition to non-biodegradability, [1] plastic exists in gargantuan quantity,[2] it is a threat to aquatic life. [3] It is a rampant waste. [4] It releases toxin carriers.

The Indian government is making continuous efforts to treat this menace in the most productive and harmless way.

Plastic Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2011
The draft rules namely the Plastics (Manufacture, Usage and Waste Management) Rules, 2009 were published by the Government of India on 17th September, 2009 in the Gazette of India. The objections and suggestions made by the public were duly considered by the Central Government and starting from 7th February, 2011 the Plastic Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2011 came into effect. These rules overruled the Plastic Manufacture, Sale and Usage Rules of 1999(amended in 2003).

The main purpose of Plastic (Manufacture, Usage and Waste Management) Rules is “reducing the plastic usage”.

Prescribed Authority

According to the rules, the prescribed authority responsible for enforcement of provisions on authorization, manufacturing, recycling and disposal are the State Pollution Control Board for Sates and Pollution Control Committee for Union Territories. Whereas, municipal bodies are responsible for enforcement of the provisions pertaining to use, collection, segregation, transportation and disposal of used plastics.

Some of the salient features are:-

  • Use of plastic materials in sachets for storing, packing or selling gutkha, tobacco and pan masala has been banned. It has received a massive protest from the tobacco industry in India. This ban, however, has brought some definite relief to the manifold environment conservationists worried about the numerous plastic sachets littering the roads. The discarded empty sachets have been considered as a major pollutant due to the leftover carcinogenic material in the pouches in addition to the plastic used to make these pouches. The low prices starting from Re. 1 in most places can be accredited as one of the primary reasons for their mass use by the youth and elderly alike.    However, this law has been loosely implemented and several kiosks all over India still sell gutkha and tobacco in plastic pouches. New packaging made of aluminium and paper has been introduced, but its utilisation is still low in the market due to the higher cost of packaging. Most shopkeepers and customers who are still selling and using plastic pouches claim to be oblivious of the new rules. Awareness regarding these new rules needs to be spread amongst the masses for proper implementation.
  • Under the new Rules, foodstuffs will not be allowed to be packed in recycled plastics or compostable plastics.
  • Recycled carry bags shall conform to specific BIS standards.
  • Carry bags made from compostable plastics should have a label saying “compostable” and conform to the Indian Standard IS/ISO 17088:2088.
  • No person shall manufacture, stock, distribute or sell any carry bag made of virgin or recycled or compostable plastic, which is less than 40 microns in thickness. The new Rules have put a moratorium on manufacturing, stocking and distribution of plastic carry bags less than 40 microns. This is primarily because the thickness of the bag determines the strength of the bag to break into smaller pieces. The thinner the bag is the higher is the probability of its breakdown and mixing with the soil which seriously deteriorates the soil and marine fauna. This addition to the new rules can prove to be highly effective if properly implemented by the municipal authorities. A 40 micron bag costs around Rs.2 whereas the usual 20 micron bag costs around 10 paisa. Therefore, the demand of the 40 micron bags by small chemists, vegetable vendors and small retailers is exponentially less as compared to the 20 micron bags. As mentioned in the new rules, if the manufacturing of bags less than 40 microns is effectively banned, then there will be a stark reduction in the number of plastic bags available to the consumer. Hyderabad has imposed this law extremely stringently and has even specified penalties for flouting this law.
  • Two primary reasons for increasing the thickness of the plastic bags are, firstly the cost of the production of thicker bags is higher which would inevitably lead to a decrease in the production of the bags by the manufacturers and purchase by the customers. The second reason is that thinner bags are more difficult to recycle as opposed to thicker bags.
  • The minimum size (of 8×12 inches) for the plastic carry bags prescribed under the earlier Rules has been dispensed with.
  • Plastic carry bags shall either be white or only with those pigments and colorants which are in conformity with the bar prescribed by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS). This shall apply expressly for pigments and colorants to be used in plastic products which come in contact with foodstuffs, pharmaceuticals and drinking water.

It is also critical to note the ‘Additional Safeguards’ built in these Rules;

  • No carry bags shall be made available free of cost to consumers. The municipal authority may determine the minimum price for plastic carry bags. This is a new provision added to the Rules. Attaching a price to the plastic bags is a good call by the Government. It will, undoubtedly, lead to a reduction in the number of plastic bags utilised by the consumers. However, the Central Government should not give discretionary powers to the municipal authorities for fixing the price of the bags. A controlled regulation, at periodic intervals, is necessary to ensure that this rule is being strictly adhered to by the municipal authorities. The Municipal Authorities in Mumbai have set a price between Rs. 1 and Rs. 7 for goods sold in plastic bags in supermarkets and malls. The Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagrika Palike – which is the main implementing authority in Bangalore – has determined the lowest price of a plastic bag. The average cost to a consumer however comes around Rs 3. Delhi markets charged an average of Rs 5 for plastic bags in main markets and Rs 3 in smaller markets before it introduced a complete ban on the bags.
  • The Central Government has introduced an Extended Producer’s Responsibility (EPR) clause in the new rules. The municipal authority may also direct the manufacturers to establish plastic waste collection centres, either collectively or individually, in line with the principle of ‘Extended Producers Responsibility’. Extended Producer’s Responsibility (EPR) to provide the required finance to establish plastic waste collection centres. Although, the introduction of EPR in the Indian plastic waste laws is a necessary addition, but it has been employed in a very lenient way, allowing several manufacturers to defy the law easily. Leaving the collection of the funds simply at the discretion of the municipal government arbitrarily, with no periodic management by the state government, reduces the scope of its applicability in the current Indian scenario. Development of recycling centres alongside the waste collection centres should be made compulsory for all manufacturers. The producers can be given the option of establishing centres collectively, but a restriction on the number of producers who can establish one centre should be enforced.
  • The new Rules have stipulated provisions for marking or labeling to indicate name, registration number of the manufacturer, thickness and also to indicate whether they are recycled or compostable.

One can only hope that these Rules would be implemented in their full vigour so as to protect the degrading condition of the soil in our country.

Conclusion

The new rules have addressed a few major problems related to plastic waste management which have in turn unearthed some issues which both – the manufacturers of plastic and the implementers of the rules – need to work out in coordination to ensure environmental safety. However, the immediate need of the hour is a more forceful implementation of the law which has been, as visible even the national capital of New Delhi, lackadaisically enforced by Government. A more careful approach in the utilisation of plastic by the consumers will definitely bear fruitful results for the environment.