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Phasing out single use plastics: Ban or eliminate? Need for alternative solutions to address multiple concerns

Given the multiple concerns emanating from SUPs, here are some of the steps need to be undertaken by the government to address them.

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Dr. Mukesh Kumar Srivastava
Dr. Mukesh Kumar Srivastava is Consultant at Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) (Ministry of External Affairs), New Delhi. Prior to this, he has worked at Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR), New Delhi and Rambhau Mhalgi Prabodhini (RMP).

Since the time Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, announced on 2 October 2019 to phase out Single-Use Plastics (SUPs) by 2022, there has been much speculation as well as deliberations across industries. The main reason for the worry on an outright ban on SUPs is escalating economic costs and job losses for people involved in the sector. According to one estimate, a complete elimination of SUPs would result in the unemployment of 4.5 lakhs people engaged in the sector and 10000 units will be on the verge of closure. Therefore, concerned industries have urged the government to issue clear guidelines on phasing out SUPs by 2022. Given the multiple concerns emanating from SUPs, here are some of the steps need to be undertaken by the government to address them.

SUPs: Ban or Elimination?

According to the United Nations, any plastic made out from polymers of High Density Polyethylene (HDPE), Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE), Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET), Polystyrene (PS), Polycarbonate, Polypropylene (PP), and Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) is SUPs. In simple language, SUPs refer to those plastics which are used in disposable packaging such as bottles, grocery bags, plates, cutlery, and straws. The main reason resulting in a worldwide campaign for its elimination is plastic pollution caused by the unprecedented large volume of plastic waste that is being generated every day. According to a report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) more than 60 countries have introduced bans and levies to curb SUPs waste. It also estimated that one to 5 trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide each year. Five trillion is almost 10 million plastic bags per minute.

Most of the plastic waste of the world is generated in Asia. In India, there are an estimated 50,000 plastic manufacturing units in the country. On an annual basis, India produces about 15 million tonnes of plastic waste. Out of this about only one-fourth is recycled on account of lack of proper functioning waste management system. The remaining plastic is either burnt leading to air pollution or end up in landfills or leads to clogging of drains/sewers. About 43 per cent of India’s plastic is used in packaging and most of it are SUPs.

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Considering the pervasive use of SUPs and the concerns associated with it, one of the major challenges is to whether to ban or eliminate it?

Finding Alternative Solutions

To address the growing concerns, the Indian government has undertaken certain initiatives offering pragmatic solutions. In the most recent times, the Indian government banned non-compostable plastic bags below 50 microns under its Plastic Waste Management Rules in 2016. Additionally, several states and cities have also passed local regulations, ranging from stricter regulations to total bans.

Through available technology the government has started using plastic to build roads capable of withstanding future monsoon damage, and at the same time facilitated to solve the problem of disposal of non-recyclable plastic. Reiterating the use of SUPs, the World Economic Forum (WEF) has supported the construction of such roads for greater durability against extreme weather conditions, cost effectiveness and pothole resistance. Given that one kilometer of road can be made with one tonne of plastics, India has constructed more than one lakh kilometers of roads using plastic waste in atleast 11 states, including, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu among others.

In addition, a growing number of governments at the state and local levels has been taking actions to address the challenge of SUPs through imposition of bans or introduction of regulations. Several states such as Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Haryana, Maharashtra, Punjab, Kerala, Sikkim, Delhi and West Bengal, to mention a few, have introduced bans on manufacturing, production, distribution, use and storage of plastic carry bags and other single use plastic materials. However, there are wide variations in such bans across states.

Roadmap for Addressing Multiple Concerns

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Taking the environmental impacts into consideration, imposing a ban on SUPs, combined with adoption of better waste management models like the segregation of wastes or proper division of wastes, can go a long way in achieving the targeted goals in different parts of the country. As has been already mentioned, cumulative actions by different states can help sensitize masses and go a long way in formulating deliverable action-plans and drive innovation at the national level. However, there is a need to build on these best practices from across states by assessing the effectiveness of such bans and levies to develop a set of standard and uniform regulation that can be applicable across the country.

Considering the negative impact of an immediate all-out ban on SUPs for both industries and employment, both short term and long-term solutions needs to be considered in India. As such, a step-wise plan to deal with the challenge of SUPs would be more meaningful. In this direction, the government must engage a broad range of stakeholders in the decision-making process to address major concerns of industries such as the financial losses as well as job losses. During the gradual phase-out period, an organized system for management of plastic waste, with stricter regulations, needs to be established to prevent widespread littering. In doing so, the government needs to further improve waste management practices, including separation of degradable and non-degradable waste as well as their proper disposal. In order to develop alternative materials to replace SUPs, the government must also consider providing financial support for more research and development. Considering the amount of environmental problems created by SUPs, there is an urgent need to address the multiple issues at hand and translate the commitment in a timely manner.

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Dr. Mukesh Kumar Srivastava
Dr. Mukesh Kumar Srivastava is Consultant at Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) (Ministry of External Affairs), New Delhi. Prior to this, he has worked at Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR), New Delhi and Rambhau Mhalgi Prabodhini (RMP).

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