From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :
Prelims level : Single Use Plastics
Mains level : Phasing out single-use plastics: Prospects and Challenges
- On 73rd Independence Day, PM appealed to the citizens to make the country free of single-use plastics (SUPs) and to work towards this mission whole heartedly.
- Earlier this month, at the UNCCD, the PM said recalled that the time has come for the world to say goodbye to single-use plastics.
- This has not only bought plastics in the national spotlight but has also started debates around the ban being a good proposition or bad.
- As the name suggests, single-use plastics (SUPs) are those that are discarded after one-time use.
- Besides the ubiquitous plastic bags, SUPs include water and flavoured/aerated drinks bottles, takeaway food containers, disposable cutlery, straws, and stirrers, processed food packets and wrappers, cotton bud sticks, etc.
- Of these, foamed products such as cutlery, plates, and cups are considered the most lethal to the environment.
Poor response from states
- The 2019 CPCB report remarked that states/UTs were not furnishing information regarding Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016 in their jurisdiction.
- This included PW generation records, creating state level advisory body, framing bylaws, marking and labelling of MPLs, plastic manufacturing/recycling units etc.
- States/UTs were not taking concrete steps to take preventive and regulatory measures envisaged under the rules.
Why are states reluctant?
- A bigger debate over the SUP ban issue is on the fact that more than a million workers will lose jobs.
- According to a 2018 estimate, there are more than 3,500 organised recycling units and more than 4,000 unorganised units.
- Approximately, 7 crore workers are employed in the industry.
- This is a critical number and there needs to be a clear roadmap on how these workers will be transitioned to any other industry.
What could work to phase out plastics?
I. Baseline and inventory
- There is a need for a thorough analysis of environmental, social and economic impacts of SUPs.
- Inventorization studies in order to estimate how much fraction of single use plastics is there in our plastic waste, how much of this fraction comprises packaging waste, cutlery items, carry bags, PET bottles, etc., are to be done.
- These numbers shall help assess the scale of such waste and look for a clear alternative.
- There needs to be an initiative at state level to push cities to inventorize their dry waste. Since the composition of our waste has changed drastically with more plastics, it is important that this be done.
- Only then we can assess the extent of their impact before imposing bans. Such a study has not been done so far and has now become the need of the hour.
II. Clear definition of SUPs
- For this ban to be successful, we need a clear definition of SUPs. Currently, different definitions are used by governments.
- Single use simply means products that are used once and then discarded. This includes a huge amount of packaging waste, including water bottles and so a clear definition is critical.
- Any plastic that is made from polymers of HDPE, LDPE, PET, PS, PP, EPS is single use plastics, according to the United Nations.
- The definition in Australia is that single-use plastic includes shopping bags, cups, straws and packaging.
- The IEEP’s and European Commission’s definition says single-use plastics can include any disposable plastic item designed to be used only once.
- Therefore, specific definitions pertaining to the composition, uses and categories of single-use plastics should be framed.
III. National Action Plan for phasing out SUPs
- There is a need for a National Action Plan or guidelines that should focus to implement plastic ban in a phase-wise manner in terms of urgency.
- This means products that have alternatives available should be phased out earlier than those that don’t have alternatives, simultaneously reinforcing R&D funding for different alternatives and eco-friendly products.
- The phase-wise banning should be developed based on materials, recyclability, availability of alternatives and livelihood security to the informal sector.
- Keeping this and current post-consumption patterns in mind, a framework indicating range of SUP products needs to be devised to assist the policy makers in ideating, planning and executing the phase-wise SUP ban.
IV. Strengthening waste management systems
- Imposing a ban on SUPs is only a part and not the whole solution. However, better waste management systems with focus on segregation incentive models can help achieve long-term impacts.
- If cities segregate waste into three fractions — wet, dry, and domestic hazardous waste — and if municipalities create infrastructure in terms of material recovery facilities or sorting stations, dry waste can be sorted into different fractions.
- This then has value and a market and will not end up as litter. We need to source segregate.
- Establishing and monitoring domestic recycling units in every state and Union territory, incentivising the recyclers in the unorganised sectors should be promoted.
- There should be training of low-skilled recyclers, setting up effective grievance redressal mechanisms, life cycle and cost analysis of plastic alternatives should be formulated and explored by the legislative bodies.
- This is to increase the recycling efficiency in the country and implement effective and sustainable solutions at every stage of banning single-use plastics.
VI. Effective EPR implementation
- Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) policy tools and its implementation is still lax in the country.
- An effective EPR framework, therefore, should be formulated keeping into context the applicability of EPR for certain items like PET, PP or dairy industry.
- However, EPR implementation for multi-layered plastic (MLP) can still be a constraint considering the vast unorganised industry and present waste management systems.
- The roadmap can, therefore, let producers implement their EPR obligations utilising the flexibility of brand and geography neutrality.
VII. Discourage small pack MLP sachets
- Lighter, portable and cost-effective nature of single serve sachets/pouches makes them a major environmental menace as it is one of the major sources of plastic waste and litter, as their collection is economically non-viable.
- Hence, the production of small packs such as single-use pouches and sachets should be discouraged and a regulation be enforced.
- Instead Polypropylene packaged items can be brought into the stream to cater to low-income groups and also have a high recyclability.
VIII. Reducing plastic content in MLP
- Ideal packaging materials were tailored by combining different materials with customised functionality to sufficiently protect sensitive food products and thus obtain extended shelf life.
- Latest feasible techniques and technologies may be employed to cut down the use of multiple polymers/plastics.
- More research in this area must be done. Use of single polymer/layer recyclable packaging materials should be encouraged.
Alternatives to single-use plastics
- Devising feasible alternatives for single-use plastic items and targeting consumers and retailers for better marketing is needed.
- However, their availability and affordability remain a challenge.
- Solutions: providing robust infrastructures, strengthening market, innovation and entrepreneurship, subsidy or incentives to consumers at domestic level.
- Also, a thorough analysis on the alternatives versus their carbon footprint as compared to SUPs needs to be done to push for any kind of alternative.
- For instance, cotton bags sourced from virgin cotton, kulhad cups baked in kilns have a higher environmental footprint than plastics.
- Also, options of giving enough time of transition to industry along with tax rebates for alternative industry need to be explored.
- In the present context, jute and upcycled cloth bags, bamboo and wooden cutlery, leaf-based plates, glass and metal containers etc. are some of the immediate alternatives available.
- Presently, consumer awareness about negative impacts of littering single-use plastics and available reuse systems and waste management options for all these products are still limited.
- This further need to be strengthened through communication, strategic planning, consumer awareness, media outreach, scientific research, constructive amendments in legislation(s) and sustainability.
- These mechanisms will not only improve eco-consciousness among citizens but will also empower and encourage widespread actions.