The 2nd of October was eagerly awaited this year, especially for all of us working in the waste management sector. To mark the 150th year of Gandhi Jayanti, the central government was expected to make a key announcement regarding banning certain Single-Use Plastic items. The government adopted the UNEP definition of single-use plastics as, “…disposable plastics, commonly used for plastic packaging and include items intended to be used only once before they are thrown away or recycled. These include, among other items, grocery bags, food packaging, bottles, straws, containers, cups, and cutlery.”
Disappointingly, the much-anticipated ban did not come through. However, with the government declaring the year 2022 as a deadline to phase out single-use plastic, the writing is on the wall. A positive development is the growing, public and policy, focus on the term 'Single Use' in India. The public discourse on waste management in the country has shifted from waste recycling to waste reduction and reuse. A large majority is misguided in believing that shifting to recyclable products is enough to solve the problem of waste, while as per the established waste management hierarchy, recycling is placed below reduce and reuse from the overall sustainability perspective. This is because recycling is also a polluting activity, and there are technical and financial limitations on what and how much can be recycled.
In the current scenario reducing and banning, single-use items is of critical importance. The idea has gained momentum across the world, the term ‘Single Use’ was voted the word of the year by Collins Dictionary in 2018. The European Union is bringing a complete ban on plastic cutlery, cotton buds, straws and stirrers by 2021. China is also selectively moving in this direction. The Indian government had also demonstrated a stern resolve in dealing with plastic when it raised the minimum thickness of carry-bags to 50 microns under the Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016. This order was implemented despite a consequential increase in the production cost of such plastic bags by 20 percent, thereby curbing the practice of handing out free plastic bags.
The plastic industry, at large, has been critical of these developments rallying on the ground of significant job loss, and speculations of the economy taking a serious hit. The concerns are not unfounded, apart from the direct employment in the plastic industry, the FMCG and food companies are also critically dependent on plastic packaging.
In light of this situation AIPMA, a leading industry body of plastic manufacturers, organized the Plastic Recycling and Waste Management Technologies workshop on 11th October 2019 at New Delhi, bringing together different stakeholders. Representing Saahas, I chaired the session on ‘Collection and Segregation of Plastic Waste’. The key takeaways from this workshop were:
- The term single-use should be applied across materials, not just plastic, thus single-use paper, metal or glass must also be phased out as their carbon footprint is much higher than single-use plastic. This is necessary to prevent a shift to worse alternatives. The replacement of plastic cups with paper cups is a typical example.Paper has higher carbon and water footprint than plastic, additionally, most plastic cups are recyclable while paper cups used for tea/coffee get too soiled to be recycled. To address the problem of waste management comprehensively, the single-use term should be material agnostic.
- The plastic industry needs to standardize products and packaging material and also reduce hazardous additives to improve recycling. Presently, there are more than 100 types of plastics being used, this makes recycling challenging especially closed-loop recycling. This large variety makes identification and sorting of plastic waste very challenging resulting in contamination and low-quality products. Additionally, hazardous additives make the recycling process polluting. The plastic industry must critically look at what are the must-have properties for different types of packaging and cut down the overall offerings.
- FMCG industry also needs to look at using plastic packaging most pragmatically and establish distribution channels for packaging-free distribution such as https://loopstore.com/ and reverse supply chain networks for collecting and reusing packaging as far as possible.
- Instead of these sudden bans, the government needs to come up with a well thought out plan where every category needs to be evaluated based on its environmental and economic impact. There is a need for a cohesive and uniform national level directive, with time-bound strategies on resource recovery and resource efficiency in the value chains across sectors. Such a framework must provide for a reasonable timeline for the alternate material and production/manufacturing ecosystems to evolve.
- Apart from banning items, the government needs to adopt taxation policies that encourage packaged free [AR1] or reusable packaging. This distributes the responsibility across the value chain, instead of only focussing on the manufacturers.EPR (Extended Producer Responsibility) should be used for driving greater reuse and closed-loop recycling instead of just collection and downcycling. Once the onus of recycling and recovery is on the producer, they would be encouraged to use less packaging and design products for reuse and longer life.
- The government must also encourage R&D on alternate packaging materials and innovative distribution channels, and therein help establish the reverse supply chain network required to support the circular economy.
- Bio-degradable plastics are getting heavily promoted without proper technical assessment and quality control of their composition and degradability. Bio-degradable plastics have existed in developed nations for many years now but the challenges around limited degradability in real conditions; their carbon and water footprint; and issues of food security haven’t enthused many. The European Union has already voted that Biodegradable plastics are not a silver bullet to our plastic pollution crisis. The Indian government needs to do a detailed assessment and come up with a long -term approach from the perspective of both environmental sustainability as well as the overall utility of these materials.
- There is a dire need for building capacity of the local administration such as the municipalities and Panchayats for efficient waste collection. They are responsible for primary collection and if it gets mixed there is no scope for recycling or resource recovery. Infrastructure such as Dry Waste Collection Centres (DWCC), vehicles for separate collection of dry waste and authorized facilities for recycling, are necessary instruments in this system.
- Running mass campaigns to sensitize and educate people on the environmental cost of using single-use products and packaging to enable them in making an informed decision on choosing environmentally sustainable options.
- The challenge of reducing single-use is a complex one however, the government must remain firm with the 2022 timeline and work on developing an action plan engaging all stakeholders. The industry would come on board with innovative solutions once there is clear direction from the government.
 Anon, Single -Use Plastics: A Roadmap for Sustainability, UNEP. 2018. (https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/25496/singleUsePlastic_sustainability.pdf?isAllowed=y&sequence=1)
 USEPA, The Waste Hierarchy, 2017. (https://www.epa.nsw.gov.au/your-environment/recycling-and-reuse/warr-strategy/the-waste-hierarchy)
China is also selectively moving in this direction (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-environment-plastic/chinas-hainan-to-ban-single-use-plastics-by-2025-state-media-idUSKCN1QB013)
 China’s Hainan To Ban Single-Use Plastics By 2025., February 2019. (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-environment-plastic/chinas-hainan-to-ban-single-use-plastics-by-2025-state-media-idUSKCN1QB013)
 Plastic Sector Staring At 4.5 Lakh Jobs Losses, Says Industry Body Official (https://www.businesstoday.in/sectors/jobs/plastic-industry-staring-at-over-4-lakh-job-losses/story/385047.html).
 All India Plastic Manufacturers Association. (https://www.aipma.net/)
[AR1]Need clarity on the term here.