The sharp edge of India’s war on plastic

“I believe the time has come for even the world to say goodbye to single-use plastic,” the Prime Minister reiterated last week while addressing the 14th Conference of Parties, or COP14, of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification. However, India is yet to define what constitutes SUP. Perhaps we’ll get to know on 2 October, on the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, when the Prime Minister is expected to announce measures to reduce plastic use.

As of now, 12 items are proposed to be banned by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). The dirty dozen includes items used by millions of Indians—thin carry bags, wrapping films, straws and stirrers, disposable cutlery, plastic sticks used in balloons, ear buds and candies, cigarette butts, thermocol, small beverage bottles less than 200ml, and roadside banners. Interestingly, the list excludes multilayered packaging in which snacks like chips, nuts, and candies are sold, which are almost never recycled and, therefore, shunned even by rag-pickers.

In the universe of plastic items used daily, SUPs constitute about a fifth in volume, estimates the All India Plastic Manufacturers Association (AIPMA), an industry lobby. Plastic used to make other products, from buckets and wall clocks to cars and consumer durables, is usually recycled.

There’s no denying that Indian cities are drowning in plastic waste. Sure, India’s per capita consumption of plastic at 11 kilograms (kg) per year is still among the lowest in the world (global average is 28 kg per year), yet it generates a staggering 26,000 tonnes of plastic waste every day. There is no estimate on how much of that is recycled—it’s safe to assume a significant amount ends up in rivers, oceans and landfills.

For now, the confusion regarding what could be banned or phased out is taking a toll on small manufacturers.

Use of carry bags

Concerns on job losses aside, it is hard to deny the power of a public movement to shun plastics, spearheaded by none other than Prime Minister Modi whose pet schemes—be it improving access to sanitation to educating the girl child—are packaged on the lines of a campaign. “Saw cows being operated and heaps of plastic being removed from their bodies. This is deplorable and should inspire us to work towards reduced and careful plastic usage,” the Prime Minister said on 11 September, following a visit to Mathura in Uttar Pradesh.

According to Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), India needs to put a ban on SUP urgently, but for it to be successful a definition is required which goes beyond carry bags. “The problem is not about carry bags but about packaging of food and other items—particularly in multilayered bags, which are difficult to collect and have limited recycling options,” said a recent note prepared by the Delhi based think-tank.

We also have to keep in mind the carbon footprint of alternatives. Replacing plastic bags with the cloth ones using virgin cotton may not be environment friendly. A better option is to up cycle by using textile waste.

Even here, the past results have not been encouraging. Many states in the recent past—Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Telangana and Himachal Pradesh—have banned use of SUP items, but when it comes to implementation it has been limited to restrictions on using plastic carry bags. Maharashtra, for instance, had to backtrack on a ban it imposed in June 2018 by later allowing PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles and use of plastic in retail packaging.

A November 2018 status report by the CPCB said even in those states which have imposed a complete ban on use of plastic bags, they are “stocked, sold and used indiscriminately”.

While multilayered plastic packaging is likely to escape the impending ban (due to a lack of an alternative and concerns around food hygiene), 200ml PET bottles are expected to be discontinued. Industry estimates suggest these comprise 40% of all beverages and liquid sold in India. The demand is largely driven by institutional sales—hotels, corporates, airlines, weddings and offices which use disposable bottles in large quantities.

Plastic manufacturers say that Kulhad (earthen cups) and paper bags are portrayed as solutions but these too come at a cost to the environment as they are made from top soil and wood pulp. Bioplastic is at least 2.5 times more expensive, said Ashfaq, adding, it will ultimately hurt the consumer.

Truth be told, finding an alternative to plastic which can be both environment-friendly and cost-effective is not easy. And some companies are desperate. Nature’s Basket, a subsidiary of Spencer’s Retail, is in the process of phasing out use of plastic by introducing paper bags and banana leaves. E-commerce giants like Amazon and Flipkart said they are cutting down use of SUP in packaging by replacing these with recycled and renewable materials. But food delivery platforms like Swiggy and Zomato are yet to make any noticeable changes. Some are taking an innovative route. This year, Raw Pressery, a juice brand, launched an initiative to convert used plastic bottles into clothing.

Others are trying to use local alternatives such as sal or siali leaf plates, which are widely used in eastern India. Or bamboo to make straws, and biodegradable plates made from areca or palm leaves.

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