2018 is turning out to be a watershed year for plastic, or rather, the demonisation of plastic. From Starbucks’ announcement that it is phasing out plastic cups from its stores to the slew of pledges from multiple Indian companies to reduce plastic use, in time for the World Environment Day’s Beat Plastic Pollution theme, the days of endless and reckless plastic use seems to be over. In June, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced an ambitious plan to eliminate all single-use plastics by 2022.

Plastic-fuelled nation
But how bad is the problem? Let’s see.

India generates over five million tonnes of plastic waste annually. Three of the world’s 10 rivers which carry 90 per cent of plastic to the world’s oceans are in India– namely the Indus, the Ganga, and the Brahmaputra. In a 2015 study published in the journal Science, India, with 0.60 million tonnes per year of mismanaged plastic waste that enters the oceans, was ranked 12th in the list of top 20 countries. The author of the study did point out that there was a lack of national data and possible under-reporting of statistics to the World Bank, in terms of kilos of waste generated per person per day and the share of plastic waste, especially since after China, India has the highest number of people living on its coastline. Hence, the odds of India being in the top 10 are quite high.

Every day, Indian cities generate 15,000 tonnes of plastic waste, of which 9,000 tonnes are collected and processed/recycled, while the remaining 6,000 tonnes, or 600 truckloads, usually litter drains and streets or are dumped in landfills. As per a 2015 Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) report, about 66 per cent of plastic waste is mixed waste, with polybags and pouches used to pack food (mainly from residential localities) being the biggest source of plastic waste. Plastic additives from landfills cause pollution by contaminating the soil and ground and surface water.

Mumbai alone generates 500 metric tonnes of plastic which is nearly 10 per cent of its total waste. In a study conducted at multiple cities, the same CPCB report found that the total municipal solid waste collected at two dumpsites in Mumbai was about 6,500 metric ton (MT)/day, while the average plastic waste generated was about 62.81 kg/MT. A large portion of the waste generated comprises of polythene bags below 50 microns in thickness. This kind of plastic has been banned as per a government directive in 2016 but, not surprisingly, they are still easily available.

In Maharashtra, three to five per cent of all garbage generated consists of plastic, with carry bags, PET bottles and pouches responsible for the bulk of this waste. Plastic clogs the city’s archaic storm-water drainage system during the infamous Mumbai rains, making a bad situation worse. It also destroys natural water sinks such as marshlands, wetlands and lakes and is a major contributor to marine pollution.

The Maharashtra plastic ban
To combat this urgent problem, earlier this year on March 23, the Maharashtra government, issuing the Maharashtra Plastic and Thermocol Products Notification, banned the manufacture, usage, sale, transport, distribution and storage of plastic bags and disposable products made out of plastic and thermocol including plastic packaging. The ban was imposed to minimise environmental risks and harm caused to wild animals from accidental ingestion or entanglement. The government had given the manufacturers, distributors and consumers a period of three months to dispose of their existing stock and come up with alternatives to plastic. The notification mandates that manufacturers take responsibility for what they produce and set up collection and recycling infrastructure.

June 23 onwards, anyone found using plastic products, including single-use disposable items, is to be penalised. Fines range from Rs 5,000 to Rs 10,000 for first- and second-time offence, while third-time offenders will have to pay Rs 25,000 and/or face imprisonment for three months. The Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) and district and local administration are implementing the ban. The government has also formed an association comprising of plastic manufacturers, ministry officials and environmental experts to oversee the overall implementation. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) has deployed 200 inspectors to catch hold of defaulters and also formed three teams to ensure further compliance – namely the market department, which is an umbrella body of 200-odd BMC markets, the shops and establishments department for shops in the city, and the licensing department for street hawkers and vendors.

Additionally, the government has come up with a buyback policy whereby a retailer is expected to offer money in return for the plastic bottle (or plastic milk pouches for dairy sellers) deposited by the user. Consumers will have to pay a minimum of 50 paise per milk poly pack and Re 1 and Rs 2 for 1-litre and 500-ml water bottles, respectively. This money will be refunded after they return the used bag or bottle to retailers. Plans to extend this to tetra packs and retail packaging in three months is in the works. However, plenty of logistical challenges such as shortage of recycling capacity remain. For this scheme to actually work, mechanisms to track the bottles and pouches through barcodes will be needed. Dairy retailers are understandably concerned since it will be difficult for them to set up collection and recycling mechanisms.

Not surprisingly, within four days of the ban going into effect, the government relaxed the rules by allowing small retailers to use plastic bags (above 50 microns) for packaging for the next three months. This about-turn came after the association of retail traders assured the government of coming up with a recycling plan. Then, on July 10, the government postponed the implementation of the buyback scheme by another month. Meanwhile, e-commerce companies have been given three extra months to phase out plastic packaging and change to corrugated (cardboard) boxes which are about 30 per cent more expensive than plastic.

As expected, commercial bodies like the All-India Plastic Manufacturers Association, the Maharashtra Chamber of Commerce and Industry (MCCI), and the Clothing Manufacturers Association of India claimed that the ban would have an adverse impact on the Rs 50,000 crore plastic industry, with a projected loss of Rs 15,000 crore and a loss of nearly 3 lakh jobs. As per an MPCB survey, 265 factories that used to manufacture plastic products have closed down, costing many jobs. India’s plastics industry employs about 4 million people and has more than 30,000 processing units, of which 85 to 90 per cent are SMEs.

Plastic bans in India
It might come as a surprise to some that Maharashtra is the 18th state to ban plastic (partial or full) in India, probably because it has been done with much fanfare. Where it differs is that while most bans in the country are imposed on the manufacturer or retailer, Maharashtra’s ban is applicable to every person, organisation and venue. It is also the first state to implement a buyback scheme, similar to systems implemented in 40 countries around the world. Another thing to note is that plastic ban in 17 other states haven’t met with much success except in Sikkim, where the extensive efforts to create awareness on the evils of plastic usage have had some positive results, with one 2014 study finding that around 66 per cent of shops in Sikkim use paper bags or newspapers instead of plastic. Nevertheless, plastic usage is still common in the rural areas. A 2014 study by Toxics Link found that many people in the state are using non-woven PP bags assuming that these are cloth bags, when in reality these are made of plastic and are non-biodegradable. Other states where there seem to be moderate amounts of success are Uttarakhand and Rajasthan, mainly due to the various awareness campaigns.

In Jammu and Kashmir, many vendors have not heard of the ban there even though it went into effect in January 2018, with only shopkeepers being penalised. Polythene bags continue to be used by the locals in Karnataka and Punjab; in Arunachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, there is confusion about permissible grades of polythene. The poor response in Karnataka is blamed on the fact that several authorities are responsible for enforcing the ban, leading to a loss of accountability. The lacklustre implementation and response is summed up in a 2016 report by CPCB, which found that most states haven’t implemented the Plastic Waste Management Rules of 2011 including failing to establish an organised waste-management system, not following the practice of plastic carry-bag labelling, and continued functioning of unregistered plastic manufacturing/recycling units.

What the Maharashtra ban has got wrong
The good news is that there is overwhelming support for the ban among ordinary Mumbaikars, which says quite a lot about the level of awareness about the specific ill-effects of plastic and about environmental consciousness in general. The bad news is that the state government has bizarrely ignored the lack of affordable alternatives to plastic. Even though plastic has become a basic necessity in every citizen’s day-to-day existence, precious little has been done to ensure that the demand for ecofriendly options has a functioning supply mechanism. Even in cases where alternatives are available, such as jute or corn-starch bags, the quantities available currently is very limited since no large-scale manufacturing has started yet.

One of the main criticisms levelled against the Maharashtra ban is that products like ready-to-eat snack packets and shampoo sachets have been left out. Even multi-laminated packaging, which is plastic lined with foil, is not covered even though it is a significant part of the waste generated and is not easily recyclable.

Then there’s the ambiguous notification text, which means that the actual implementation can become ineffective as people find ways to get around it. For effective bans, the rules need to be extremely detailed with actionable solutions. Critics contend that the wide scope of the ban, unrealistic timelines, and lack of phased regulation to ease in various stakeholders (especially small retailers) make the probability of success quite low. The lack of a detailed action plan for disposal and recycling, and scant thought for the development of alternatives are some of the other major criticisms of the Maharashtra ban.

The ban neither acknowledges the existence of the unorganised, informal system of recycling, nor does it plan to include and integrate it into a more formalised structure that will help these mostly indigent recyclers. Maharashtra has a large unorganised recycling sector that recycles more than 90 per cent of PET. As per estimates, every day around 30 lakh 250 ml bottles are discarded and 25 lakh 500 ml bottles are used. The total number of PET and PETE bottles generated daily is 1.25 crore.

Some (mostly helpful) suggestions
So the question arises: what else can be done? Here are some obvious and some not-so-obvious answers:

  • Stop littering. India’s per-capita consumption of plastic is 12 kg, compared to the world average of 35 kg per capita. While this low figure may be slightly under-reported, it can be directly attributable to the fact that India is still a poor country and therefore has relatively lower consumption of goods. What the numbers imply is that while plastic is an issue, littering and inadequate waste management are equally responsible for pollution. Strict implementation of existing laws related to the latter two issues and awareness creation are needed if this pollution has to be curbed.
  • Let there be an abundance of alternatives. As noted earlier, for plastic ban to work, cheap and abundant alternatives need to be provided. Governments should be incentivising and facilitating the manufacture and sale of ecofriendly products as well as invest in R&D for the same.
  • Reduce, reuse, recycle. At the same time, the ‘reduce, reuse’ part of the three Rs should be emphasised. While recycling and substituting materials are important, substituting practices is even more so.
  • Enable enforcement. India already has a variety of waste-management rules but these are poorly enforced. The various government bodies responsible for enforcement need to ensure that these are implemented with clear accountable structures. Enforcement needs to be measured, monitored and periodically reported.
  • Create awareness. Behavioural change at a mass level can only happen through sustained, innovative and relatable education campaigns (akin to the one on pulse polio). Until such time as the public understands that plastic use is harming them and the environment, laws can only be effective to a moderate extent.
  • Lead by example. Government bodies and corporate India need to be taking the lead by shunning plastic and setting an example for the rest of the country. For example, Indian Railways is one of the biggest employers in the world and a strict mandate to phase out plastic by them will have as big an impact as the state-level bans.
  • Check on interstate supply. The ineffectual ban in many states is partly due to the fact that plastic bags can easily be sourced and transported from neighbouring states. Most of the times, authorities are unable to clamp down on this illegal supply. It goes without saying that this can only be countered with strict enforcement of the ban and measures to prevent and penalise such interstate supply.
  • Create a comprehensive waste-management policy. While plastic ban is a critical part of the drive towards a pollution-free environment, it is only one step among many that should form a comprehensive solid waste-management strategy. This kind of policy should have multiple, connected moving parts including reducing plastics, recycling, and elimination of those that cannot be recycled.

There are suggestions that the central government should ban plastic nationwide and that only biodegradable/recyclable plastic should be allowed. Since plastic is banned in many states, this seems like the logical next step. However, the above points will still be the critical difference between a plastic-free and plastic-full India.

While it is easy to be critical of plastic ban, the fact that it is being taken up by governments and supported by the public should be seen as a huge positive. Five years ago this wouldn’t have been possible, and this change is largely due to the increasing awareness about climate change and the harmful effects of plastic. This is a global phenomenon and it was only a matter of time till it reached India. Bans like the one in Maharashtra need to be encouraged but more importantly, planned for and enforced carefully and seen as part of the larger fight against environmental degradation which, after all, affects every living being on earth. Rich or poor, there’s simply no escaping a polluted, warming planet.