A national policy on single-use plastics currently being put together is proving to be a humongous task involving inputs from several ministries, led by the consumer affairs ministry. Currently, consultations are underway with plastic industry, while technical inputs have also been sought from environmental experts and economists.
Officials are preparing to release the contours of the policy by October 2, Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary, the official cited above said.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call on August 15 to eliminate the use of these polluting items by 2022 has been widely welcomed, but banning a huge chunk of the informal economy could come with its own costs.
“It will most likely be a phase-wise plan. Single-use plastics are not all of one type or one standard. Some are less polluting than others, while some leave the worst impact,” the official said.
Disposable plastics, which have the “lowest recyclability” and “highest harm factor”, meaning they are the least biodegradable and with the lowest possibility of being reconverted, are likely to be banished first, the official said.
A tricky aspect is that officials are trying to have a legal definition of what is single-use plastic. Last year, the chemical and fertilisers ministry formed a committee to define single-use plastic. However, its conclusions never found its way into any statute. The government is also grappling with “extended plastic processing rules”, which will be a set of recycling guidelines.
The exercise could involve statutory or legal changes.
“Many polymers would fit the definition of single-use plastic. Essentially, the guiding principle is all plastic that is generally not used more than once and has a use-and-throw utility can be called single-use plastic,” said Dinesh Raj Bandela, a waste management expert with the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).
“The government should not rush into it. Any plan has to take into account social and economic impacts for the ban to be successful,” Bandela added.
The CSE and Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group are among organisations the government has consulted.
“We do not think there will be stringent action that will jolt the economy. There are various lists of items to be banned. At a minimum, the first round of action will result in the shutting down of 10,000 units involving a workforce of 300,000,” said Deepak Ballani, director-general of the All India Plastic Manufacturers Association.
Some popular items such as plastic cups, plates, and straws are readily thought of as single-use items. However, the panel overseeing the impending ban is technically evaluating a host of items. Polystyrene or thermocol is a highly damaging single-use plastic but it has virtually no alternative.
Items with no alternative are likely to be taken up at later phases, the official cited above said. Experts like Bandela agree that “high nuisance” and “low recyclability” should be the first items to go. Officials are also studying the experiences of Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, which have plastic bans in place.
According to a 2018 report by the Down To Earth magazine, India consumes an annual estimated 16.5 million tonnes of plastic.