Expert Dialogue: Discussing India’s move to ban single-use plastics

Single use plastic items (Credits: Pixabay)

The incumbent Modi Government has promised to announce a nationwide ban on single-use plastics on 2 October, which also marks the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. CPCB has already come out with a list having several single-use plastic items that will be banned during the first phase. Surprisingly, it does not include the multi-layer plastic used for packing the snacks like chips, nuts and candies.

TA talks to a few experts from the Plastic Waste Management sector and tries to understand their thoughts on the ban proposed by the government.

Swati Singh Sambyal
Programme Manager, Environmental Governance (Waste Management)
Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi

Swati Singh Sambyal (far left). Swati has a long experience of working in the domain of waste management, circular economy and resource efficiency. She is a part of many national and international advisory boards on sustainable waste management.

According to the Central Pollution Control Board’s (CPCB) 2015 report on Assessment and Quantification of Plastics Waste Generation in Major Cities, approximately 25,940 tonnes per day (TPD) of plastic waste is generated in India. Of this, around 15,600 TPD (60 per cent) gets recycled, still leaving behind nearly 10,000 tonnes of it, which eventually ends up clogging drains, rivers, seas, or simply as the litter that we see everywhere around us. Almost 66 per cent of plastic waste comprised of mixed waste—polybags, multilayer pouches used for packing food items etc. (belonging to HPPE/ LDPE or PP materials) sourced mainly from households and residential localities- most of these items are single use.

Ban is one part of the solution, however, what we need is robust waste management systems that ensure segregated dry waste further gets sorted into different fractions and gets channelized for recycling/processing. If this happens, we shall be able to resolve fifty per cent of the plastic challenge. Also, a thorough social, economic and environmental analysis on the feasibility of alternatives needs to be done considering some alternatives presently have a higher environmental/carbon footprint than plastics. We need to resolve the issue, not just solve one problem and create another.

Social engineering is another necessary tool that is a must to change behaviour. If all this happens, in integrity along with a clear definition and a phase wise implementation of banned items, things would change on the ground. Through my work on implementation in Muzaffarpur and in cities in Bihar, in Global South and through our initiative called the ‘Forum of Cities that Segregate’ wherein cities have voluntarily agreed to participate in the zero waste movement, I have learnt that if there is a political and administrative will, and a proper implementation plan, things can change on the ground.

Anoop Nautiyal
Founder Chairperson
Gati Foundation, Dehradun

Anoop Nautiyal (In pic). Anoop has been a vocal social leader for sustainable waste management in the Indian Himalayan Region. He is part of several technical and regulatory committees dealing with environmental sustainability.

It’s really heartening to see Government coming up with Swachhata Hi Seva Abhiyaan against single-use plastics, which are majorly responsible for causing plastic pollution all over the world. I still remember the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan which was introduced by the incumbent BJP government in 2014, it had such wide social ramifications. It really empowered the communities and encouraged them to practice safe hygiene habits. Somewhere it nudged the societies to change their attitude and behavior towards open defecation. Now the time has come to adopt a similar approach against plastic pollution.

However, I do believe that there are several other factors which need to be addressed in this mission against single-use plastics. In regulatory terms, we need to have a clear definition framework for defining ‘single-use plastics’. Not only this, the onus needs to be on the companies too. We need to make multinational corporations accountable for the plastic packed products they are introducing in the Indian as well as global market. The legal principle of Extended Producer Responsibility enshrined under our waste management laws needs to be implemented in a target-oriented manner. At last, we have to work on techniques and practices which can trigger behavior change amongst the masses at the grassroots. Our past policy experiences have highlighted that behavior change is extremely crucial in deciding the outcome of any policy.

We at Gati are already working with government and private organizations in executing projects aimed at driving behavior changes amongst the communities and start realizing the importance of sustainably handling the plastic waste.

Richa Agarwal
Student of Masters in Environmental Sustainability
University of Pennsylvania

Richa Agarwal (In pic). Richa has done extensive research and advocacy work on sustainable waste management in India. She was also associated with Delhi based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).

When I first started researching about single-use plastics, that’s all I saw everywhere. It is indeed an irony that something so omnipresent is only visible when you start looking for it. It is difficult for me to not look at a single-use plastic and wonder the impact it is going to have on our immediate environment, health, and the ecosystem. I have been trying to be single-use plastic-free, if not completely, but whenever I can. I try not to get a plastic bag from any store (2 straight years in Delhi I managed to do so), use my takeaway cup as much as possible, carry my bottle, not pick up plastic cutlery at parties, use things that come with little or no plastic packaging, etc. Surely, it is tedious sometimes, but it is not as complicated as it is a choice and once you make the choice you find ways to avoid it.

But maybe now it needs to go beyond a personal choice to be the only option. Being in the United States now, I realize that the people in India are far more aware and vigilant about plastic usage. Frugality is in our culture and the stubborn plastic ban in India reiterates that we are leapfrogging in this context. It is never going to be easy to implement a plastic ban as it is always going to hurt someone. But it should encourage the industries in India and across the globe to innovate, explore and switch to ‘better’ alternatives because they are next. With ‘better’ being the word, we need to ensure that we define and plan it so that we do not unintentionally end up hurting our planet or people for profits and consumption more than we already are. 

Saksham Singh
Centre for Social and Behavioral Change, Ashoka University

Saksham Singh (In pic). He conducts research in the field of behavioral development economics at the Centre for Social and Behaviour Change, Ashoka University. His interests revolve around human behavior in aspects of health and sustainability.

The Ban on Single-Use Plastic comes at a very opportune time. It not only marks the birth anniversary of the Mahatma but also should mark the start of a new phase of the Swachh Bharat Mission to tackle solid waste. If implemented in equal measures by all states, it would serve as a strong push in the larger challenge to switch from plastics to its alternatives. However, more actions would need to be pushed, beyond such one-shot policy measures to ensure the system becomes more eco-friendly.

Logical next steps would be promoting investments in local recycling infrastructure and green industries. These measures would only be effective when pushed at the city or panchayat level, through a dedicated office of an executive. Kerala and some other states have shown the way by introducing several such ‘green’ initiatives. This ban presents a great opportunity to initiate roll-out of supplementary measures to tackle the environmental impact of all kinds of plastic.