Plastic waste is India’s and the world’s most formidable environmental challenge today, and the COVID-19 pandemic has made matters worse: CSE

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Plastic Pollution
Plastic Pollution

Plastic waste is India’s and the world’s most formidable environmental challenge today, and the COVID-19 pandemic has made matters worse: CSE

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 SunitaNarain, director general, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), speaking at a webinar today on ‘Managing plastic waste in India’.

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.

Releasing CSE’s background paper on management of plastic waste in India, 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. Most of the speakers at the webinar – who included GeetaMenon, Joint Secretary, Union Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change; PrashantGargava, Member Secretary, CPCB; Sanjit Rodrigues, Commissioner, Corporation of the City of Panaji, Goa; and Atin Biswas, Programme Director, Solid Waste Management Unit, CSE – agreed with CSE’s first agenda: improve the inventory of waste and understand the material balance of plastic. “We need to understand what is being wasted and why. If we understand the characteristic of the plastic waste, we will be able to manage it better,” said Narain.

GeetaMenon, who praised the CSE background paper as a “very thoughtfully put together publication that focuses on doable things”, seconded this opinion and listed some of the government’s key priority areas for action – these include a ban on import of plastic waste, a clearer definition of single-use plastics, ban on some items made of single-use plastics, a review of use of multi-layered plastics, and the establishment of an online platform for trading in plastic credits.

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 background paper also 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.
Pratyusha Mukherjee
Pratyusha Mukherjee

By Ms. Pratyusha Mukherjee, a Senior Journalist working for BBC and other media outlets, also a special contributor to IBG News & IBG NEWS BANGLA. In her illustrated career she has covered many major events.