Nowhere in the world has civil society put so much pressure on the government to act against plastic bags and multi-layered packaging as in India. A new rule by the Ministry of Forests and Environment, applicable to multi-layered packaging and compostable and non-compostable plastic bags, will now compel us all to delve deeper into the issue. The Plastic Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2011, seek to establish accountability for waste disposal. They are based on the idea of extended producer responsibility: the plastic industry have to take the responsibility of its products from the beginning to their disposal.
Of course, the rules have their shortcomings: the word ‘multi-layered packaging’ is used indicatively; there are no fiscal incentives for recycling, or taxes on raw materials. The shifts in language hold the plastic industry less accountable than the committee (set up to examine the draft rules of 2009) envisaged.
Despite such inadequacies, it is important to know the key aspects of the rules: first, while the municipalities are responsible for operationalising the collection and disposal of waste, they ma involve the plastic industry. An urban local body can identify areas where multi-layered packaging and plastic (above at least 40 microns) can be bought for sale. Investing in a collection centre and a lucrative buy-back system will involve the plastic industry and also empower citizens to put pressure on their municipalities to hold those responsible accountable.
Second, it is now mandatory to integrate wastepickers into the system. For several years, the plastic industry kept a lid on who recycles the waste? India’s recycling system comprises wastepickers, kabaris and junk dealers. Till now, their work was unrecognised. By including them, the rules will undo several-decade old injustice.
Third, the rules ban plastic packaging, including multi-layered packaging and recycled and compostable plastics bags for food. They allow bags over 40 microns (only to be sold) and other multi-layered packaging, on condition it is collected (with the industry’s help) and sent off for appropriate recycling. If this collection is not done, then the permission to put into the market the permitted plastics becomes invalid.
Continued public vigilance and pressure will be key to implementing these rules. Municipalities should not be the only ones negotiating with the industry, because the industry is strong and united and frequently acts against public interest. It is hard for officials to resist its pressure and the counter-arguments all the time. From the earliest rules in 1999, to the present, we have been given rules that were deeply influenced by vested interests. These new rules, despite their imperfection, could bat on the side of the environment and the public, if only the citizens relentlessly monitor their implementation.
Bharati Chaturvedi heads a green non-profit, Chintan The views expressed by the author are personal