A plastic heap in
Delhi’s Ghazipur dumpyard,
September 18 (Photo: Ashish Sharma)
THE ECONOMY is staring at a recession and all sectors, from automobiles to banks, are in distress with one exception—paper—which has been in blistering form over the last few weeks. Take Tamil Nadu Newsprint and Papers Ltd (TNPL), one of the largest paper companies in India. A year ago, its stock price had been around Rs 300. It began to steadily go down in line with the faltering fortunes of Indian business. By the beginning of August this year, the stock was almost 50 per cent down at the Rs 150 level. The direction then suddenly changed and TNPL’s stock price started creeping up again, and has risen close to 30 per cent. The market was expecting some bounty for the company. TNPL was not a special case. A Moneycontrol report said that stocks of as many as 20 paper companies had risen by 10 per cent since August 15th. That was the date when Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his Independence Day address, exhorted the country to give up single-use plastics and to time the resolve with Gandhi Jayanti.
He had said, “My dear countrymen, I would like to put forward a small request to you. On this 2nd October, can we make India free from single- use plastic? Let us move around, form teams and move out from home, school, college. Remembering revered Bapu, we should move out of home collecting single-use plastic from homes, streets, chowks and drains. Municipalities, municipal corporations, gram panchayats should make arrangements to collect single-use plastic. Can we take the first big step on 2nd October, towards making India free from single-use plastic? Come, my countrymen, let us take this forward. I will request startup organisations, technicians and entrepreneurs to see what we can do to recycle this plastic? Plastic is being used in making highways. Many such remedies can be there. But to get rid of such problems, we have to initiate mass movement but at the same time, we have to think of the alternate systems…” Since then, Modi has repeatedly reinforced the position. On Twitter, he periodically lauds personalities and institutions taking measures against single-use plastic. The war on plastic would not be voluntary either. On October 2nd, legal measures are expected against plastic pollution. On September 9th, the Prime Minister told the 14th session of the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification: “My Government has announced that India will put an end to single-use plastic in the coming years. I believe the time has come for even the world to say goodbye to single-use plastic.” If plastic goes, something has to replace it. And hence the rise in stock prices of paper companies.
Bharati Chaturvedi, founder of the NGO Chintan, remembers successive committees set up in the past to look into plastic pollution being ineffective. As someone who had been working on the issue for over two decades, she hadn’t expected such an unambiguous stand by the Central Government against single-use plastics to happen. “It’s a surprise, and I think it’s a good thing. After they formally announce everything, I can’t wait to be a watchdog to some of it.”
The exact nature of the policy is not clear yet. Chaturvedi expects it to be graded measures, with a few single-use plastic items being banned as a first step. “They are drawing up an action plan. If they ban multi-layered plastics in packaging, there will, for example, be no chips that can be sold. So they are not going to do that. But I think they are going to look at cutlery and things like that. Those are manageable. I’m hoping that there will be a focus on smaller water bottles, like the 200-millilitre ones, as well as non-recyclable waste, like tomato ketchup sachets. Those really need to go because they’re nothing but a menace,” she says.
Plastic has remained an environmental problem despite a majority of the Indian states having some form of ban on it. According to a PTI report, in July this year, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) told the National Green Tribunal that 18 states had a complete ban on plastic carry bags, five other states had done so in religious and historical places. This was stated during a CPCB plea ‘seeking implementation of Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016 and directions issued by it to implement the thickness norms for carry bags, constitution of squads for vigilance, preventing littering of plastic waste in public, submission of annual reports and action plan for management, etc.’ The fact that such a plea was needed despite the bans everywhere indicated the lack of implementation. “A plastic ban does not mean anything,” says Chaturvedi. “Even like, 15 years ago, people were banning. One morning, I read that Rajasthan had banned plastics. One just reads these things. And then, you know, they disappear into thin air.” The two main substantial bans in recent times have been by Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. And while both have not been a total success, she finds that some change has happened. “It’s a struggle. Tamil Nadu only started this year, 1st January. And, you know, I was there on third, fourth and fifth of January. And I got everything in cloth bags. So, first of all, that’s noteworthy. There is a change. Anyone will tell you that you see less plastic lying around, at least less fresh plastic, in Maharashtra,” she says.
The Centre coming out with a policy could be a gamechanger because there will be a united offensive against plastic pollution. “The big thing that we will see is a harmonisation across the country because right now, Chennai is doing whatever it feels like and Maharashtra has its own rules. It’s a real pain if you’re selling in this country. How many policies should you adhere to?” says Chaturvedi.
Plastic became prevalent because of its durability. That very property also makes it a hardy pollutant. It remains without decomposing for centuries, clogging drains or ending up in garbage dumps
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Kaushik Chandrasekhar, Assistant Professor, Urban Governance, Administrative Staff College of India, whose expertise is plastic waste management, says now there is a national and political consensus on single-use plastics. “I equate its parallel to how Swachh Bharat Abhiyan drew consciousness and unparalleled attention to a clean India, something we already knew was an issue hampering society. The Prime Minister has kindled a dialogue over an imminent issue that has got experts and practitioners to think vigorously in one direction.” He too thinks the approach must be structured in phasing it out because of the convenience that plastic has provided in the last few decades. “Providing affordable alternatives remain the biggest challenge. I still feel that lack of affordable alternatives and effective planning prior to roll out were reasons for the failure of previous ban calls at the state level,” he says.
The Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs came out with a book on plastic waste management in March this year that gave an overview of the seriousness of pollution from the material, noting, ‘It is estimated that approximately 70% of plastic packaging products are converted into plastic waste in a short span… According to the reports for year 2017-18, Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) has estimated that India generates approximately 9.4 Million tonnes per annum plastic waste (which amounts to 26,000 tonnes of waste per day), and out of this approximately 5.6 Million tonnes per annum plastic waste is recycled (i.e. 15,600 tonnes of waste per day) and 3.8 Million tonnes per annum plastic waste is left uncollected or littered (9,400 tonnes of waste per day)… Additionally, there is a constant increase in plastics waste generation. One of the major reasons for this is that 50% of plastic is discarded as waste after single use. This also adds to increase in the carbon footprint since single use of plastic products increase the demand for virgin plastic products.’ The CPCB study also showed that India’s plastic consumption had risen close to 300 times from the late-1990s.
Plastic became so extraordinarily prevalent because of its durability. That very property also makes it a hardy pollutant. It remains without decomposing for centuries, clogging drains or ending up in garbage dumps where it leeches out dangerous chemicals. It pollutes oceans, destroying marine life. It breaks into micro plastics, which we ingest and whose long-term effects on our bodies are still not known. On the other hand, it is inextricably woven into the economy. Goods are cheaper because plastics allows for low-cost packaging. It sustains a large number of small businesses and millions of poor waste pickers.
Any blanket ban is therefore out of the question but already the intent of the Government has led to changes, believes Priti Mahesh, Chief Programme Coordinator of Toxics Link, an NGO that works on waste and environmental protection. Even before a ban has come into effect, she finds that ecommerce businesses are taking a hard look at the plastics in their packaging. “I see that a lot of the bigger online ones [e-tailers] at least have started reducing packaging or are asking about the packaging. I think it’s good those moves have already started.” She too thinks that a crucial aspect is finding alternatives to replace plastic and that means focusing on research on such materials. “We are lacking completely in research in looking at alternate materials. Because even if you say that there is global research, every country has a different kind of dynamic, like weather, geographic characteristics, etcetera. India is obviously unique. What may be applicable elsewhere may not be feasible here. We need to look at our conditions, our people, our mindset and see what alternatives will work here. Also, bans might work well in other countries but in India, it might not. The focus has to be on finding alternatives to replace plastic.”
The Central Pollution Control Board estimates India generates about 9.4 million tonnes a year (26,000 tonnes a day) of plastic waste, of which 5.6 million tonnes a year (9,400 tonnes a day) are left uncollected or littered
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Plastic manufacturers are anxious about what the future could entail for their businesses. Ravi Jashnani, president of the Maharashtra Plastic Manufacturers Association, who is based in Pune, says they are confused about what the Government means by single-use plastic. Because if the definition is plastics which are used one time, then all the wafer packets, biscuit wrappers, sachets for soap and oil, grocery packs in supermarkets and shops would have to go. PET bottles and some carry bags are used more than once by households and so might not fit the definition. Also, he asks about the replacement. “The option is tin, bottle or paper. Do these industries have the ability to replace plastic and is the Government ready to transplant everything to them?” Manufacturers say the problem is not plastic but waste management in India. “The Government needs to make laws for recycling. Recyclers have no norms. Once they are regularised, things will be better and that is how to think of the problem. Banning would lead to unlimited job losses. Plastic is used everywhere. Also, once there is a ban, there would immediately be an underground illegal market.”
Corporate bodies are also trying to find solutions to the plastic problem. Different airports, Indian railways, a number of leading companies have all announced measures to reduce plastic in their ambit. Recently, the Confederation of Indian Industries launched a joint initiative called ‘Unplastic Collective’ along with the UN-Environment Programme-India and WWF-India. They intend to rope in businesses to collaborate with government and civil society to address plastic pollution. CII’s press release mentioned Modi’s Independence Day speech as having spurred momentum and action across stakeholders. For Modi, curbing plastics, besides being an environmental legacy, also has a political bonus. Cow protection is one of BJP’s traditional planks and eating plastic waste is known to be a major reason for fatalities among cattle.
Environmentalists say no matter what is announced by the Government, it will be a long-haul journey. Chandrasekhar lists a series of measures that need to be done as follow-up, which includes releasing a well-planned, comprehensive roadmap; innovative schemes for promotion of plastic alternatives to provide the user with cheap, durable and alternate options; exploring economic incentives to change consumer behavior, such as buyback schemes for PET bottles and milk sachets; plugging possible dilution factors by charging carry bags, whether plastic or alternatives, at a predefined price which will not only negate use of fresh bags but introduce behaviour change; ramping up service delivery of waste collection and management. He says, “The call for a ban on single-use plastics demonstrates a clear political will towards cleaning up the menace, however, there is still a need for a realistic assessment and a roadmap on how the phase out needs to be shaped taking ground realities and previous experiences from states into consideration. Though we would not be able to create a quick fix to a two decade-long problem, this must be seen as a call for serious concerted action.”