Above: The factsheet on plastic waste generated in India is terrifying and nothing is being done/Photo: UNI
That many states do not take it seriously the plastic pollution is evident from the fact that the NGT had to fine 25 states Rs 1 crore each per month for failing to submit action plans to fight the menace
By Papia Samajdar
On June 5, 2018, which was observed as the World Environment Day, the world took a pledge to tackle plastic pollution. As the global host of the event, India led the crusade whose theme was “Beat Plastic Pollution”. According to estimates provided by the United Nations, every minute, one garbage truck full of plastic waste is dumped into the oceans. Though the issue of plastic waste has gained global momentum, the situation at home is still bleak.
According to PlastIndia Foundation, an organisation consisting of all major associations and institutions connected with plastic, India consumed an estimated 15.5 million tonnes of plastic in 2016-17. It is estimated to increase to 20 million tonnes by 2019-20, which would be equivalent to approximately two million trucks full of plastic. A 2017 report by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) extrapolated from the data of 60 major cities in India pegs the amount of plastic waste generated at 25,940 tonnes per day. According to FICCI, 43 percent of India’s plastics are used in packaging. Seventy percent of all plastic consumption ends up as waste.
India notified the Plastic Waste Management Rules in 2016, which replaced the Plastic Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2011. The 2016 rules were aimed at regulating plastic manufacturing and banning manufacturing of plastic below 50-micron thickness. Phasing out multi-layered packaging and introduction of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for producers, importers and brand owners are also mentioned in the 2016 rules. The rules have made them responsible for collecting waste generated from their plastic products and developing plans for proper management with local bodies. The bulk generators of plastic waste, such as offices, companies, etc, are required to segregate waste at source and pay user fees as determined by local bodies.
The Plastic Waste Management Rules (PWM), 2016, amended in 2018 require the states to provide detailed information about the amount and type of plastic waste generation, collection, segregation and disposal to the CPCB, every year. However, inaction on the states’ part made the CPCB knock the doors of the National Green Tribunal (NGT).
The NGT in its order, dated March 12, 2019, ordered all states and UTs to submit action plans for implementing PWM 2016 rules by April 30. The green court said that failure to do so would invite a penalty of Rs 1 crore per month. However, except for Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Puducherry and Sikkim, 25 states failed to send action plans by the designated date.
Experts are, however, sceptical of the NGT order and wonder if it would translate into effective action. “Simply putting an action plan for plastic waste management would not work,” said Swati Singh Sambyal, Programme Manager, Environmental Governance (Waste Management) at the Centre for Science and Environment, a New Delhi-based NGO working on waste management. According to her, the lack of understanding among states is the main reason behind non-compliance. “States have been unable to submit plans due to lack of expertise. The dearth of understanding of the scale of the plastic waste challenge and pinning accountability is another reason.”
The PWM Rules, 2016, mandates companies to set up systems either individually or collectively in cities to ensure the collection of non-recyclable waste, as part of the ERP. “They were supposed to submit their plans to states. That never happened, leading to further confusion,” added Sambyal.
The past action of banning the manufacture plastic bags thinner than 50 microns has not been effective either. In an attempt to manage plastic waste, 22 states have banned single-use plastics, including thin carry bags.
However, due to lack of proper regulation and implementation, thin carry bags and other plastic products continue to be used in almost all the cities. These bags are usually non-recyclable and with little or no value offered to plastic recyclers, huge amount of plastic bags are littered everywhere. They choke drains and water bodies and find their way to landfills. Burning this plastic waste is no option either as it will only contribute to air pollution.
“A ban on plastic bags is hardly useful due to lack of implementation. Moreover, people need to be pushed to pay per bag and shopkeepers who do not do that should be fined, as per law, which is not happening,” says Bharti Chaturvedi, Founder Director of Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group, a Delhi-based NGO working on environment and waste issues. “Even if manufacturing of plastic is stopped in one state, it infiltrates from the neighbouring state,” said Sambyal.
One of the key reasons why states are unable to gauge the magnitude of the plastic waste challenge is lack of accurate data. The states have been unable to gather real-time data on its generation and hence are unable to report back to the CPCB. The top five waste generating cities are the five metropolitans. However, none of the states with these cities has provided data on plastic waste to CPCB in 2018. Data collection on plastic manufacturing becomes tricky due to illegal units.
Another point which adds to the complication is engagement of the informal sector in plastic waste management. “Considering, over 90 per cent of the plastic industry is informal, trying to reach and work with these manufacturers becomes a huge challenge,” says Sambyal. According to PlastIndia Foundation, there are approximately 3,500 organised recycling units and more than 4,000 unorganised recycling units that recycled an estimated 5.5 million metric tonnes in 2016-17. Many more recycling units operate outside the legal purview and the actual amount of plastic recycled would be incalculable.
To manage plastic waste, it is imperative for states to devise plans based on real-time targets and have companies and plastic manufacturers on board. The informal sector needs to be given proper recognition, including adequate space, access to waste, storage and recognised plastic collection centres.
States should plan to incentivise the informal sector to collect single-use plastic and other plastics which have low or no value, so that they get properly disposed of. For use of alternatives, awareness consumer campaigns need to be devised. Most people are unaware of the available options. More importantly, alternatives should be made available at lower prices for consumers to move away from plastics. Unless and until alternative industries are promoted and prices are reduced, switching to alternatives would be difficult.
According to experts, it is important that a multi-stakeholder action plan is put in place to consider reduction, focus on low value or no value of plastics and include the informal sector, enabling them to become entrepreneurs. It is key for state bodies, plastic manufacturing and recycling industry as well as the informal sector to come together and commit themselves wholeheartedly to tackle the problem.
Or else, the alternative would be India drowning in plastic waste.