The Centre has adopted a two-pronged approach to containing the scourge of plastic waste — banning certain types of single-use plastic (SUP) “which have low utility and high littering potential”, and making a certain level of recycling mandatory for producers, importers and brand owners of plastics. The rules for recycling were announced last February, while the ban order on SUP used in plastic sticks, ice-cream sticks, thermocol for decoration, plastic plates, glasses, cutlery, stirrers, PVC banners less than 100 micron, wrapping material around sweet boxes, among others, was announced last week. A crackdown on frivolous plastic use, with an effort to recycle as much of it as possible, has not come a moment too late. The Centre has also said that carry bags of below 120 microns will not be permissible after December; the limit now is 70 microns. The health hazards of consuming food or cosmetics packaged in thin plastic are only too well known; such plastic also clogs drains and ends up in landfills as it cannot be easily collected, and therefore recycled. The advantages of plastics — its strength, lightness, malleability and protective qualities — are undeniable, but its impacts on health and the ecosystem are truly alarming. A focus on recycling is likely to be more effective than a mere reliance on bans (which have been in effect in many States) to get rid of mountains of plastic waste. Bans could turn out to be ineffective, not least because plastics are indeed useful. A 2018 UNEP report on plastics points out that some European countries have chosen economic incentives and disincentives instead.

According to the Ministry report, “about 26,000 tonnes of plastic waste is produced everyday in India.” In other words, of the annual plastics consumption of about 20 million tonnes, about half is plastic waste, with little reliable data on how much is recycled. There can be no room for complacency, given that the packaging sector in India is expected to grow at 18 per cent annually. Efforts to create a ‘circular economy’ need to be stepped up. The principle of ‘extended producer responsibility’ (EPR) — under the February rules, they are mandated to recycle at least half the plastic used in three years’ time — must be implemented in right earnest. However, the EPR mechanism is modelled on carbon credits, wherein a producer, importer or brand owner who exceeds the stipulated recycling target can sell ‘credits’ to a defaulter. It is safe to hazard a guess that this system can be gamed.

Instead, another set of market incentives can drive a reverse supply chain from the end user of plastics to the waste processor. Consumers can be encouraged by brand owners of FMCGs, such as toothpaste and shampoo producers, to return their empty containers or tubes for a discount. The same discount can run all the way up the value chain back to the producer, who in turn can be given a tax break or a CSR benefit to more than offset this discount if she processes the waste. The same can be implemented by municipalities, with the government setting aside a sum. This effort should be accompanied by an awareness campaign against the needless use of carry bags. Such a campaign has worked in curtailing the purchase of crackers. It cannot be business as usual with respect to managing plastics anymore.