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How India is looking to put lid on plastic waste

May 19, 2023

NEW DELHI: Life without plastic seems unthinkable today. Global plastic production has grown from 2 million tonnes in 1950 to 348 million tonnes in 2017. But this non-biodegradable material has polluted air, soil and water. Some 11 million tonnes of plastic waste flows annually into oceans, and more than 800 marine and coastal species are estimated to be affected by plastic pollution.India made its first big pitch to curb plastic use on June 5, 2018 – World Environment Day – when it vowed to phase out single-use plastics (SUP) by 2022. The 2018 pledge has led to two major recent developments – last month’s notification of guidelines to make manufacturers and brand owners accountable for managing plastic waste in India, and a global resolution by 175 countries at the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) early this month to forge a “legally binding” international agreement by 2024 to end plastic pollution.These developments have turned the focus on minimising plastic pollution in a manner that helps India move towards a circular economy through efficient collection, recycling and reuse of plastic waste. But there are process and policy hurdles in the path to circularity.“There are two versions of the circular economy idea. The original idea had no space for end-of-pipeline interventions like incineration and landfilling,” said Dharmesh Shah, senior technical advisor, Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE) who attended the UNEA in Nairobi. However, the version that was subsequently introduced by big businesses “does not challenge unsustainable production practices and considers the end-of-pipeline technologies that destroy resources an integral part of circularity,” said Shah. Most governments endorse this approach as it does not ruffle the system, but it is far from the true idea of a circular economy, he added. India’s early efforts on plastic waste were mostly confined to the unorganised sector, but Siddharth G Singh, deputy programme manager of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), said plastic regulations in India have acquired an edge with the SUP ban notification that lists single-use items such as carry bags, straws, stirrers, plastic cutlery and earbuds for phase-out.The ministry in February also notified extended producer responsibility (EPR), streamlining collection and recycling of plastic waste, and fixing accountability of producers, importers and brand owners for managing products in an environmentally sound manner until the end of their life cycle. It has for the first time also set up a ‘market mechanism’ for plastic waste management where an efficient approach lets waste generators earn credits that can be sold and purchased.Singh, however, believes the absence of recycling targets between 2021-22 and 2024-25 creates ambiguity. “No technology exists to verify the claims of the use of recycled content in plastic packaging,” he said. Previous attempts to ban or phase out multi-layered plastic were scuppered by the ‘politics of recycling’. High plastic industry representation in committees drives policies in their favour, leaving municipalities to deal with plastic pollution using taxpayers’ money, he said.Once the global agreement to end plastic pollution is in place, international scientific and technical cooperation to manage plastics over their full life cycle, and design reusable and recyclable products and materials will pick up.Shah said the new approach will “target the unsustainable production of plastics, which is where the real resolution lies…. This also addresses the largely ignored issue of toxic substances in plastics. Over 10,000 chemicals are used in manufacturing different types of plastics. They will have to be phased out for a clean circular economy. ”

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