New Delhi: Worldwide, one to five trillion plastic bags are consumed annually. If tied together, five trillion single-use plastic bags would cover an area twice the size of France. Soon, Indians will have to take cognisance of this environmental threat and adopt alternatives to carry bags, straws and cling film as the country starts to phase out single-use plastic (SUP) starting next year.

A central government committee has identified the SUP items to be banned based on an index of their utility and environmental impact. Environmental experts have welcomed this move while plastic manufacturers have expressed reservations and asked for putting off the ban by a year on account of the pandemic-induced economic slump.

Opposition from the plastics industry will make it tougher to effectively implement the ban, given how poorly existing bans have been enforced--as seen from a recent order of the National Green Tribunal (NGT)--and due to shortcomings in the draft notification, such as questions over alternatives to SUP items, experts say.

In this report, we examine what the draft notification entails, the reaction of waste management experts and plastics trade associations; the effectiveness of existing bans and the role of extended producer's responsibility (EPR) in managing plastic waste.

What the notification seeks to ban

The new draft will replace the existing rules on plastic waste management which were notified in 2016 and amended in 2018. The 2021 draft rules have proposed to prohibit manufacture, import, stocking, distribution and sale of certain single-use plastics from January 1, 2022.

After seeking suggestions and objections on the draft from citizens and stakeholders for a period of two months until May 11, the ministry is currently deliberating on the feedback it has received, ministry officials told IndiaSpend, asking not to be named

In the three-stage ban, the first category of SUP items proposed to be phased out are plastic sticks used in balloons, flags, candy, ice-cream and ear buds, and thermocol that is used in decorations.

The second category, proposed to be banned from July 1, 2022, includes items such as plates, cups, glasses and cutlery such as forks, spoons, knives, straws, trays; wrapping and packing films used in sweet boxes; invitation cards; cigarette packets; stirrers and plastic banners that are less than 100 microns in thickness.

A third category of prohibition is for non-woven bags below 240 microns in thickness. This is proposed to start from September 30, 2022.

The draft has, for the first time, defined non-woven plastic bags--widely used as shopping bags--and brought brand owners (selling SUP under a registered brand name) as well as plastic waste processors under its ambit. It has also, for the first time, defined thermoset plastic--which are irreversibly rigid and cannot be remoulded--and thermoplastics, which soften on heating. Thermoset plastics are used in electrical fittings and tableware whereas thermoplastics are used in items such as toys, combs and mugs.

The draft also proposes to increase the thickness of carry bags made out of virgin or recycled plastic from 50 microns to 120 microns. The 2016 rules have already prohibited use of plastic bags and sheets whose thickness is below 50 microns.

How items to be banned were identified

India has defined SUP as disposable plastics (use-and-throw items) that are commonly used for packaging and include items intended to be used only once before they are thrown away or recycled. These include items such as carry bags, food packaging, bottles, straws, containers, cups and cutlery.

The SUP items to be phased out have been identified with the help of a report of an expert committee that was constituted by the Department of Chemicals and Petrochemicals. This committee was formed following the government's pledge to eliminate SUP by 2022 to examine, among other things, categories of SUP and to recommend which of them could be phased out.

The 13-member expert committee was headed by retired Union government secretary Indrajit Pal, and included scientists and other technical experts who met five times in 2019. They interacted with stakeholders from industry bodies as well as independent experts belonging to research institutions such as The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) and non-profit organisations such as Chintan and Toxics Link. The report of this committee had also noted in 2019 that annual plastics consumption in India would cross 20 million metric tonnes by 2020.

The committee identified and recommended items for prohibition based on an index of the utility of an SUP and its adverse impact on the environment, as per their report. Five factors each for utility (hygiene, product safety, essentiality, social impact and economic impact) and environmental impact (collectability, recyclability, possibility of end-of-life solutions, environmental impact of alternate materials and littering propensity) were considered. The SUP items were scored using these 10 factors to gauge their utility and environmental impacts.

The items that had a low score on utility scale and high score on environmental-impact scale were recommended for prohibition. Thin carry bags, non-woven carry bags and covers; small wrapping and packing films; straws, stirrers; foamed cutlery items; non-foamed cutlery items; plastic sticks; small drinking bottles and plastic banners with thickness below 100 microns, and expanded polystyrene used in decorations were the items that were low on utility factors and high in their impact on the environment.

The scale of plastic waste and its environmental impact were two of the major issues that the government and the committee looked at.

Mixed reactions

"It [the draft] is a positive move as it, for the first time, defines SUP. However, the definition needs to be contextualised based on India's wide topography and on the common SUP products that form a part of the plastic litter," said Swati Sambyal, a Delhi-based expert on resource management and circular economy.

For instance, some states have a bigger problem of gutkha and chewing-tobacco sachets whereas states that see high tourist footfall struggle with packaging and disposable items, Sambyal explained.

The proposal to increase the thickness of carry bags made out of virgin plastic to 120 microns seems to be, according to Sambyal, based on the assumption that doing so will increase the longevity of such bags and ensure more recyclability, since it is financially not viable to recycle thinner bags.

Thinner carry bags find fewer takers among waste collectors across 11 informal recycling hubs of Delhi, a survey conducted last year by Delhi-based non-profit Toxics Link suggested. Its survey found that soiled and discarded bags, especially thinner ones, often contained rotten food that made it unfit for being picked up cleanly.

The proposed ban is an excellent step to move towards a low-plastics economy, said Bharati Chaturvedi, founder and director of Chintan, a Delhi-based non-profit working on reducing unsustainable consumption and waste generation. She cautioned, however, that the proposed ban should be based on evidence relevant to India and that it must strike a balance between pernicious use of single-use plastics and the livelihoods of waste pickers.

Over 1.5 million waste pickers initiate the plastic recycling chain in India by pulling out discarded items from mixed waste, sorting them and selling them to waste dealers who, in turn, clean and sort them again and sell them ahead to specialised dealers. Only after these steps does the waste find its way to recyclers, Chaturvedi said. "About 41% of the waste picker incomes come from plastics. Any reduction in the waste would mean a corresponding reduction in the earnings of waste pickers," she said, "Hence, we need to first phase out those plastics that are not recyclable. To manage India's transition to a low-plastics economy, it is crucial to work with waste pickers and dealers so that the transition is safe, fair and agreeable to them."

Finding alternatives to SUP items and picking the most sustainable options after analysing their life-cycle and environmental footprint is another key challenge, Sambyal said. "The alternative market does not address the economies of scale right now which is the case with SUPs. A push by local governments has created smaller business models for alternative industry; however, this needs to be scaled up further as it is not enough and is at a very nascent stage."

Enforcement of existing bans

While the Union government has proposed a countrywide ban on SUP, one central and many state regulations already exist to ban plastics. The Plastic Waste Management Rules (PWM), 2016 (amended in 2018), banned the use of plastic carry bags below 50 microns' thickness all over the country.

The rules also specified the responsibilities of the 'producers, importers and brand owners' in managing plastic waste under the extended producer's responsibility (EPR) provision. Under EPR, a producer is tasked with collection of plastic waste--either individually or in collaboration with urban local bodies--and its sound end management, which comprises creating a channel for collection of plastics, their storage, recycling, reuse and disposal.

In the following years, many states have brought their own regulations which enforced either a full or partial ban on SUP items, Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar informed the Lok Sabha in February 2021.

However, enforcement of the existing rules already notified by the Union environment ministry has been poor. In January this year, the National Green Tribunal pulled up the ministry for tardy implementation of the extended producer responsibility regime. In fact, the tribunal's ruling came on a plea filed by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) on the poor implementation of the plastics rules by state governments, union territories and urban local bodies.

"Regretfully, steps taken by the MoEF for finalising the EPR regime are too slow. We note that the PWM Rules were framed in the year 2016 in place of 2011 Rules. There is no justification for long delay in finalisation of EPR models even after more than four years of the publication of the Rules. The same may now be finalised at the earliest, preferably within three months from today," a bench headed by NGT chairperson Adarsh Kumar Goel said in its order dated January 8, 2021.

The Union environment ministry had brought out a draft framework on EPR last year which is yet to be finalised, as the NGT noted in its order earlier this year. The draft framework had proposed three models: a fee-based model where producers would pay into a central corpus for managing waste; a credits system that would allow producers to buy credits to offset the waste they generate; and a producer responsibility organisation model in which producers would hire a contractor service to help them comply with the rules.

Experts had said that the government's framework allowed producers to evade responsibility and failed to address issues such as reduction in waste and curbing of overproduction, IndiaSpend reported in October 2020.

The scale of plastic waste

India generates approximately 9.46 million tonnes of plastic waste per year. This figure is based on the CPCB's projection that an estimated 25,940 tonnes per day of plastic waste--equivalent to 1,030 truckloads at 25 tonnes per truck--is generated in the country. Of this, 15,384 tonnes of plastic waste or nearly 60% is collected and recycled while the remaining 10,556 tonnes of the plastic waste remains uncollected and littered in the environment, Javadekar told the Lok Sabha in November 2019.

The environmental impact of SUP items, due to their use-and-throw function and difficulties faced in collection, is well documented. Plastics can take up to thousands of years to decompose and can contaminate soil and water, posing significant risks to both humans and wildlife, according to this UNEP report. "Plastic bags in the ocean resemble jellyfish and are often ingested by turtles and dolphins who mistake them for food," the report said.

Plastic industry seeks deferral

Even as independent experts have welcomed the proposed ban on SUP, the manufacturers have reservations. The All India Plastic Manufacturers' Association (AIPMA), one of the largest trade bodies representing the plastics industry, has requested the government to push the deadline for phasing out SUP products by a period of one year to 2023 owing to economic distress faced by manufacturing units due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Deepak Ballani, director general of AIPMA told IndiaSpend.

In its representation to the government, the industry body has pointed out broad issues such as the need for a uniform policy across the country, a life-cycle analysis of the products that are proposed to be banned and the need to include larger companies, from public and private sector, that manufacture raw materials. These companies, Ballani said, are the large petrochemical sector companies that produce polymers.

It has also asked the government to revise the thickness of carry bags proposed in the draft from 120 to 75 microns and also specify that the increase in thickness is only applicable to carry bags and not plastic packaging. Increasing the thickness to 120 microns, Ballani said, will force manufacturers to incur major expenses on changing machinery.

"We have insisted that there must be a uniform policy across the country," Ballani said, referring to the raft of state-wise rules formed after the 2016 central regulation was put in place. "It will help in effective implementation. Previously we have seen that state governments go overboard and they have their own rules. People who are operating in different states have big problems in terms of such notifications."

The rules, Ballani said, should also cover large private and public manufacturers of raw materials from the petrochemical sector. "Covering them will steer the rules in the right direction," he added. The trade body has said including such companies is important to have a uniform action plan and implementation of waste management. The bigger companies from the petrochemical sector are manufacturers of raw materials such as polymer and including them would cover the entire range of products, Ballani explained.

Seeking relaxations on deadlines has been a standard demand from the industry and has been seen in the past as well, said Satish Sinha, associate director of Toxics Link, adding that it was time to phase out the items included in the draft notification. "Industry always wants more time and a relaxed environment to operate and I don't see why they will not argue from that point of view. However, in the larger context, I don't think these are items which will actually impede or will have a direct impact on our living and on how they sell or manufacture materials."

Sinha said the items proposed to be banned would not make a huge difference to consumers. "But now, I also fear that because of the pandemic and the current growth trajectory, they [trade body] will make this argument more forceful. But I think if you look at the larger environmental impact, we should move towards the target."

Besides manufacturers, the government's proposed ban on SUP will also affect e-commerce giants such as Amazon India and Flipkart which not only sell plastic items but also use them in packaging. In September 2020, the NGT had pulled up both companies while hearing the plea of a 16-year-old boy on the plastic packaging used by the two companies.

The CPCB had submitted in the same case that the two companies are required to fulfil their responsibilities and comply with EPR norms under the 2016 rules.

IndiaSpend sent detailed queries to Amazon India and Flipkart to seek their response on the draft notification and to understand how they are tackling the issue of plastic waste. However, neither company responded to the specific queries. Instead, they shared publicity material available on their websites. Flipkart shared an August 2019 release which claimed it had achieved a 25% reduction in SUP while Amazon India shared a blog post which said that it had eliminated all single-use plastic in packaging originating from its over 50 fulfillment centres or warehouses.

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