Plastic purge may take effect over several phases, low recyclability items to go first
A national policy on single-use plastics currently being put together is proving to be a humungous task involving inputs from several ministries, led by the consumer affairs ministry.Updated: Sep 18, 2019 15:38 IST
The Narendra Modi government’s decision to eliminate disposable single-use plastics is likely to be carried out over several phases, with officials ruling out an outright ban, an official with knowledge of the matter has said.
Officials are preparing to release contours of the policy by October 2, Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary, the official said.
A national policy on single-use plastics currently being put together is proving to be a humungous task involving inputs from several ministries, led by the consumer affairs ministry. Currently, consultations are underway with the plastic industry, apart from technical inputs from environmental experts and economists.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call on August 15 to eliminate the use of these highly polluting items by 2022 has been widely welcomed, but banning a huge chunk of the informal economy could come with its own costs.
“It will mostly likely be a phase-wise plan. Single-use plastics are not all of one type or one standard. Some are less polluting than others, while some leave the worst impact,” the official who has knowledge of the matter said.
Disposable plastics which have the “lowest recyclability” and “highest harm factor”, meaning they are the least biodegradable and with the lowest possibility of being re-converted, are likely to be banished first, the official said.
A tricky aspect is that officials are trying to nail a legal definition of what is a single-use plastic. Last year, the chemical and fertilizers ministry had formed a committee to define single-use plastic. However, its conclusions never found its way into any statute. The government is also grappling with “extended plastic processing rules”, which will be set of recycling guidelines.
The exercise could involve statutory or legal changes. A category of items called multi-layered packaging—those used for popular snack munchies—fell under the ambit of single-use items. But changes to the Plastic Waste Management Rules 2016 brought these packaging materials out of the meaning of single-use items when two phrases were added to the rules: “no alternative” and “no energy recoverable”. Any item meeting these criteria were deemed a nuisance.
However, this change also meant that the number of snack packaging items that qualified to be banned came down because snack packaging can be used to extract energy.
“Many polymers would fit the definition of single-use plastic. Essentially, the guiding principle is all plastic that is generally not used more than once and has a use-and-throw utility can be called single-use plastic,” said Dinesh Raj Bandela, a waste management expert with the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).
“The government should not rush into it. Any plan has to take into account social and economic impacts for the ban to be successful,” Bandela added.
The CSE and Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group are among organizations the government has consulted.
“We don’t think there will be stringent action that will jolt the economy. There are various lists of items to be banned floating. At a minimum, the first round of action will result in the shutting down of 10,000 units involving a workforce of 300,000,” said Deepak Ballani, director general of the All India Plastic Manufacturers Association.
Some popular items such plastic cups, plates and straws are readily thought of as single-use items. However, the panel overseeing the impending ban is technically evaluating a host of items. Polystyrene or thermocol is a highly damaging single-use plastic but it has virtually no alternative. Items with no alternative are likely to be taken up at later phases, the official said. Experts like Bandela agree that “high nuisance” and “low recyclability” should be the first items to go.
Officials are also studying the experiences of Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, which have plastic bans in place. According to 2018 report by the Down To Earth magazine, India consumes an annual estimated 16.5 million tonne of plastic.
A category of plastics is those with no alternatives because substitutes for such products, like thermocol, are so expensive that they are deemed as virtually irreplaceable. India’s fish transportation could come to a halt without it. Experts have told the government during consultations that the government needs to fund R&D to find substitutes for such items.