If conversations in the first few weeks of a global lockdown were about how “nature is healing”, the subsequent months have brought home another ugly reality: the resurgence of single-use plastic and disposables. The material that had begun to get a bad rap has suddenly become ubiquitous in our bid to protect ourselves from Covid-19, whether it’s in the form of disposable cups or single-use masks. It puts India’s ambitious goal of eliminating single-use plastic by 2022 far out of reach, say experts. “Anecdotally, Covid is undoing all the work we have done on the elimination of single-use plastic. Another very big downside (of the pandemic) has been the increased use of single-use plastic and the legitimacy it has got as a sign of safety. This is what worries us,” says Sunita Narain, environmentalist and director general of Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).
Accurate data on the increased use of single-use plastic and disposables is hard to come by. But the initial signs are not promising. An ongoing survey on plastic use since May by Mumbai-based environmental social enterprise Earth5R found that while there was a fall in single-use recyclable plastics till September, there was a spike in the use of multilayer packaging. Overall, it found a 47% rise in single-use plastic in Mumbai, Bengaluru, Delhi and Pune, says founder Saurabh Gupta.
D Randeep, special commissioner of solid waste management in Bengaluru’s civic administrative body, says while the quantum of waste going to landfills outside the city has not increased as many commercial establishments have yet to reopen, the proportion has changed. “You can see that the nature of the waste coming in is different; there are a lot more disposables. There is at least a 10-15% jump in disposable waste.” The civic body, he says, had taken up a huge drive to eliminate the use of single-use plastic before Covid-19. “But people are now shifting to disposables. We are seeing a resurgence of paper cups, which is a major problem because, invariably, these have some contact with wet waste, become part of the stream of mixed waste and end up in landfills.”
Shekar of Hasiru Dala, which works in 33 wards in Bengaluru, says household waste has increased, with a huge rise in single-use, disposable plastic items.
Similarly, in Hyderabad, waste management services company Waste Ventures has seen the composition of waste change in the last few months. “Singleuse plastic waste like cutlery, which is generated by big events, has come down. At the same time, plastic waste from fastmoving consumer goods and ecommerce has increased,” says cofounder Roshan Miranda.
Many Steps Back
It was in 2018 that the then Union environment minister Harsh Vardhan announced that India would phase out single-use plastic by 2022. This was reiterated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at various national and global forums. In his Independence Day speech in 2019, Modi indicated that there would be a major announcement towards this end on October 2. Yet, when the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi came around, no concrete guidelines were announced.
Still, by then, most states and Union territories had announced a host of bans on single-use plastic, from plastic bags to plastic cutlery and tumblers. Maharashtra, for instance, announced hefty penalties for people caught buying and selling a host of disposable items, such as cutlery and decorative thermocol pieces, in 2018.
These announcements did not come a moment too soon. In 2015, according to an assessment by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), which extrapolated data from 60 cities to the rest of the country, roughly 25,000 tonnes of plastic waste were being generated daily, or around 5.5 million tonnes a year. In 2018-19, the CPCB’s annual report on the implementation of the 2016 Plastic Waste Management rules, revised this to 3.3 million tonnes a year, based on estimates received from states and Union territories. (For perspective, a Boeing 747-8 passenger airplane weighs close to 500 tonnes.) But a crucial question is, how much of that plastic waste gets recycled and how much ends up in landfills, rivers and oceans.
A recent background paper by CSE, titled “Managing Public Waste”, says, “The nub of the plastic problem lies in the politics of recycling.” It questions a figure often touted publicly that about 60% of India’s plastic waste is recycled. This figure, says Narain, comes from the 2015 CPCB analysis extrapolated from visits to landfills, which found only about 6% of the waste was plastic. “We have no evidence on how much plastic is being recycled, how it’s being recycled and who is doing it,” she says. For instance, a 2018 study by IITKharagpur found that over a fifth of the silt clogging Delhi’s drains was made up of empty gutka and pan masala packets, which are made of multilayered plastic (MLP), considered difficult to recycle. Another 27% was from plastic bags and plastic film.
Globally, a study by University of California, Santa Barbara, found that a mere 9% of 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste generated during 1950-2015 has been recycled.
Complicating India’s fight against plastic was a 2018 amendment to the Plastic Waste Management Rules of 2016 dealing with MLP. This is the material that chips, biscuits and various other FMCG products are packaged in and is prized by the industry for its low price, the ease with which it can be printed on and its ability to retain the freshness of products, thereby increasing shelf life. Since it is made of multiple materials, recycling is almost impossible. According to the 2016 rules, “non-recyclable multi-layered plastic” was supposed to be phased out in two years. But the 2018 amendment changed that to “multilayered plastic which is non-recyclable or non-energy recoverable or with no alternate use”. Environmentalists point out this made it easy for producers of MLP to argue that it could always be put to alternate use or incinerated, making a phasing out unlikely. “The 2018 amendment torpedoed the intent to eliminate single-use plastic, wherein even burning could be considered recycling,” says Shibu KN, India coordinator, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA).
Dinesh Raj Bandela, deputy programme manager focusing on plastic waste at CSE, says that even as the government talked about phasing out single-use plastic, there was no attempt to define single-use plastic. “The plastic waste management rules, for instance, say no state will produce plastic carry bags of less than 50 microns. But there was no definition of single-use plastic or a list of items (to be banned),” he says. The pandemic, he says, has added to the burden of single-use plastic despite studies showing that the virus can survive on plastic surfaces for 72 hours.
The Centre is currently reviewing comments to draft guidelines for a uniform framework for extended producer responsibility, introduced in the 2016 rules, which put the onus of collecting plastic waste on the companies using and importing these. At a recent webinar, Geeta Menon, joint secretary in the Union environment ministry, said the government was about to publish an action plan to phase out single-use plastic, starting with a ban on a few items, when the lockdown was announced. While an email to the ministry about the plan did not elicit a response, Menon had said priorities would include coming up with a clear definition of single-use plastic, banning and phasing out certain items of single-use plastic and reviewing the use of multilayered plastic packaging.
Other countries and cities which announced similar bans on single-use plastic have pushed these deadlines in the wake of the pandemic. India, too, might do so. But environmentalists point out that first a plan needs to be in place to implement the phasing-out. “There needs to be clarity in the approach, items must be specified and implementation must be phase-wise. Otherwise, it just becomes a populist sentiment,” says Earth5R’s Gupta.