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Published on: Oct. 7, 2022, 5:11 p.m.
Plastic ban fiasco
  • Single-use plastic ban: doomed to fail?

By Rakesh Joshi. Executive Editor, Business India

India is the fifth highest generator of plastic waste in the world. That is why it made a lot of sense when Prime Minister Narendra Modi appealed to the people to rid India of single-use plastic in his Independence Day speech in 2019. India notified the Plastic Waste Management Amendment Rules in August 2021, and the ban came into effect a year later. The government banned single-use plastic items that have low utility but are frequently littered around.

The aim of the ban was to curb plastic pollution, since single-use plastic harms terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. However, three months since the ban came into effect, little has moved on the ground. 

Banned plastic items are still in circulation in market places, eateries and other public places. These products are available wholesale as usual. Neither has there been any punitive action nor any advisory to stop using these products. Experts say the ban was doomed for failure as it covered too little of what makes up total plastic waste. The share of plastic used for these banned single-use plastic products is less than 2-3 per cent of the total plastic waste generated in India.

From 1 July, India banned the following single-use plastic items: ear buds with plastic sticks, plastic sticks for balloons, plastic flags, candy sticks, ice-cream sticks, polystyrene (thermocol) for decoration, plastic plates, cups, glasses, cutlery such as forks, spoons, knives; straws, trays, wrapping or packing film around sweet boxes, invitation cards, cigarette packets, plastic or PVC banners less than 100 micron, and stirrers.

It also turned out that the ban was skewed against the smallest segment of the plastic industry, which is the one that needs the maximum hand-holding in order to transition away from single-use plastic. Experts say India needs to make the big players accountable for their share of plastic pollution. 

A ban is already in place on carry bags having thickness less than 75 microns and, from 31 December, 2022, bags up to 120 microns will also be banned. Also, there is a complete ban on plastic sachets used for storing, packing or selling gutka, tobacco and pan masala.

In 2020-21, nearly 3.5 million tonnes of plastic waste were generated all over India, as per details provided by 35 states and Union Territories. Plastic goods manufacturers are expected to recycle around 800,000 tonnes per annum as part of their Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) but the recycling being done is a fraction of this figure.

  • The share of plastic used for these banned single-use plastic products is less than 2-3 per cent of the total plastic waste generated in India

The fact that the ban as it stands impacts the most vulnerable segments of the plastic industry and causes economic damage and job losses is also being overlooked. It also directly impacts consumers, as Kotak India found in its July report.

Costly alternatives

Among banned items, with a move from plastic to paper, the cost of straws could increase for low value packs of juices and other beverages, from Rs0.25-0.30 to Rs1-1.25 per unit, as per industry estimates in the Kotak India report. These low-value packs make up for more than 30 per cent of overall volumes, and switching to alternatives could increase packaging costs, especially in the case of sachets. "Thus, any broad-based ban in the medium term could impact volumes as well as profitability of the sector," the report warns.

Larger plastic goods manufacturers are expected to diversify their operations to produce sustainable alternatives. However, the hefty price of these alternatives like disposable straws, for instance, at an average of Rs1 to Rs5 disposable straw [in comparison to plastic straws] deters buyers.

Hiten Bheda, ex-President, All India Plastic Manufacturers Association (AIPMA), fears that small manufacturers will get wiped out thanks to the ban. "The lower segment of this industry primarily offering monolayer packaging which is easier to recycle are affected the most, whereas multi-layered plastics used by large brands which are difficult to recycle, and retrieve from the environment, continue to grow," says Bheda. "The latter are the main contributors to visible pollution and leave a deeper carbon footprint. How is it fair that the policy based on the "Polluter Pays" principle has failed to recognise this?"

Behda says small manufacturing units at the bottom of the pyramid have the largest employment generation potential. But it is these very units that are being penalised.

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