India wants to ban single-use plastics, but experts say more needs to be done

A cyclist protects himself from rain with a plastic sheet on August 1, 2021 in Sector 27 in Noida, India.

Sunil Ghosh | Hindustan times | Getty Images

India will ban most single-use plastics by next year as part of its pollution reduction efforts – but experts say this is only a first step towards mitigating its environmental impact.

India’s central government announced the ban in August this year after it decided in 2019 to tackle plastic pollution in the country. The ban on most single-use plastics will come into force on July 1, 2022.

Enforcement is key to the effectiveness of the ban, environmental activists told CNBC. New Delhi also needs to address key structural issues such as guidelines regulating the use of plastic alternatives, improving recycling and improving waste separation, they said.

Single-use plastic refers to single-use items such as grocery bags, food packaging, bottles, and straws that are only used once before being thrown away or sometimes recycled.

“They need to strengthen their systems on the ground to ensure compliance and ensure this reporting is enforced across the industry and with various stakeholders,” Swati Singh Sambyal, an independent waste management expert from New Delhi, told CNBC.

Why plastics?

Because plastic is cheap, light, and easy to make, it has sparked a production boom over the past century, and this trend is expected to continue in the coming decades, according to the United Nations.

But countries are now struggling to cope with the amount of plastic waste they generate.

Roughly 60% of India’s plastic waste is collected – which means the remaining 40%, or 10,376 tons, will not be collected, according to Anoop Srivastava, director of the Foundation for Campaign Against Plastic Pollution, a nonprofit advocating policy change to combat Use plastic waste. in India.

Independent garbage collectors typically collect plastic waste from households or landfills to sell to recycling centers or plastic manufacturers for a small fee.

However, many of the plastics used in India have low economic value and are not collected for recycling, according to Suneel Pandey, director of environmental and waste management at the Energy and Resources Institute (Teri) in New Delhi.

In turn, they are becoming a common source of air and water pollution, he told CNBC.

Banning plastic is not enough

Countries, including India, are taking steps to reduce plastic use by promoting the use of biodegradable alternatives that are relatively less harmful to the environment.

For example, grocery sellers, restaurant chains and some local businesses have started introducing biodegradable cutlery and cloth or paper bags.

At the moment, however, there is “no guideline for alternatives to plastics,” said Sambyal.

That could become a problem when the plastic ban goes into effect.

A machine that picks up garbage from the garbage heap of the Ghazipur landfill, where the city’s daily garbage has been dumped for 35 years. The machine separates waste into three parts: firstly stone and heavy concrete material, secondly plastic, polyethylene and thirdly fertilizer and soil.

Pradeep Gaur | SOPA pictures | LightRakete | Getty Images

Sambyal said clear rules are needed to encourage alternative options that are expected to become commonplace in the future.

The new rules also lack guidelines on recycling.

Although around 60% of Indian plastic waste is recycled, experts fear that too much of it is due to downcycling. This refers to a process in which high-quality plastics are recycled into new, lower-quality plastics – such as plastic bottles, which are made into polyester for clothing.

“Downcycling shortens the lifespan of plastic. Typically, plastic can be recycled seven to eight times before it goes to an incinerator … but if you do downcycling it has to be disposed of yourself after a lifetime or two, ”said Teri’s Pandey.

In the Indian state of Maharashtra, people are seen carrying bags made of other materials, mainly cotton, for their daily routine and shopping in Pune, India on June 24, 2018.

Rahul Raut | Hindustan times | Getty Images

Combating waste separation is also essential.

If household waste and biodegradable cutlery are disposed of together, it fails to serve the purpose of using plastic alternatives, according to Sambyal.

“It is high time that the separation of sources of household waste was implemented vigorously,” said Srivastava of the Foundation for Campaign Against Plastic Pollution, referring to the current waste management laws, which, however, are not strictly followed.

Keep it up

Environmentalists generally agree that the ban alone is not enough and needs to be supported by other initiatives and government regulations.

The amount of plastic that is collected and recycled needs to be improved. That comes from regulating manufacturers and asking them to clearly label the type of plastic used in a product so that it can be appropriately recycled, Pandey said.

A woman collecting plastic bottles and other plastic materials in a boat by the banks of the Brahmaputra River in Guwahati, Assam, India on Monday October 29, 2018.

David Talukdar | NurPhoto | Getty Images

In addition to improving recyclability, investments in research and development for alternatives should also be a priority.

Pandey stated that India was a large, price-sensitive market where plastic alternatives could be produced in large quantities and sold at affordable prices.

Several Indian states have put various restrictions on plastic bags and cutlery in the past, but most have not been strictly enforced.

Still, the recent ban is a big step towards India’s fight against landfill, marine and air pollution – and according to the experts, it is in line with its broader environmental agenda.

In March, India said it was on track to meet the Paris Agreement climate change targets, adding that it had made a voluntary commitment to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions intensity of its GDP by 33% to 35% by 2030.

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