Plastic Waste Is India’s & World’s Most Formidable Environmental Challenge
Centre for Science and Environment
Following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s exhortation for an end to single-use plastics in India, the government had acted with alacrity and announced a phasing out of such plastics by 2022. However, it has now backtracked on that promise: the excuse is, the move to ban would be too disruptive for industry and the economy.
“In such a scenario, how will India ever meet its objective of “freeing” the country from single-use plastics? In fact, the pandemic of 2020 has only made matters worse: the use of plastic — particularly single-use and disposable — has increased manifold,” said Sunita Narain, Director General, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).
Consider the available statistics: A global material balance study on plastics points out that 79 per cent of the total plastics produced in the world enters our environment as waste. Only 9 per cent of the total plastic waste in the world is recycled.
A Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) report (2018-19) puts the total annual plastic waste generation in India at a humungous 3.3 million metric tonnes per year. Even this data, frightening as it is, might be an underestimation. While India’s plastic waste problem is not as huge as that of the rich world, it is definitely growing. Richer states like Goa and Delhi produce as much as 60 grams and 37 grams per capita per day respectively – against a national average of 8 grams per capita per day.
Narain said “We had imagined that we had solved the problem of plastic waste through recycling it, or burying it, or shipping it out of our sight. But we were wrong. Plastic waste is everywhere today. It is in our faces. It is filling up our oceans and destroying marine life and even invading our food chain to get into our bodies. Our per capita use of plastics is growing – and as we become richer, we will end up generating more plastic waste.”
One of the key issues in management of plastic waste has been the lack of credible, actionable data and information.
Recycling has been touted as a panacea. The industry in India claims that 60 per cent of what is generated is recycled – if that is the case, why does plastic continue to be such a big problem, asks Narain. “We need to deconstruct the word recycling, and understand the politics of recycling,” she says. Atin Biswas of CSE elaborates: “The agenda of plastic waste management will depend a lot on our understanding of recycling – what is it all about, who can recycle, what can be recycled, and how economical is the process.”
The CSE recommends a number of other actions:
- Phase out or ban the products that cannot be recycled (such as multi-layered plastics)
- Ban carry-bags
- Define single-use plastics clearly, and ban items made from it
- Make the rules and guidelines for Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) simple and enforceable
- Incentivise the business of recycling
- Segregate at source – this is where municipal agencies must be involved