The ban has to be enforceable, says Sunita Narain, director of Centre for Science and Environment. We need to understand where and why plastic isn’t getting recycled and devise our plan accordingly, she tells Amit Bhattacharya
Q. The government banned single-use plastics last year. Has the ban been effective and what else needs to be done?
A: The government’s single-use plastic legislation is too little, too late. Take carry bags. The ban is based on the micron, or thickness, of the bag. Now, if I was to ask what is the micron of the bag you’re holding, you will say ‘I don't know’. This is why it is very difficult to enforce a ban based on microns. Bans on carrybacks that have been successful all over the world have been ones where there is a total ban on these items.
As for other banned products, apart from earbuds which are made by a few known companies, all others are unbranded items. Now, unbranded items are very difficult to stop at the production stage. For instance, it’s very laudable that the ministry has put plastic cutlery in the banned list. But its production happens in the unorganised sector. So, you can't really enforce it through production, but only through its sale or use. That means, you are talking about raising awareness in millions of people about the ban. Usually, if you go to a shop and see plastic cutlery, you will assume that the government has in some way allowed it and you will pick it up.
That’s why this ban is too little. The way the items have been chosen, you will never be able to enforce it. We need to rethink our plastic strategy and move out of just single-use plastic to something where we can really understand what the problem is, where plastic is not getting recycled and why it is not getting recycled. Those are the items you need to ban.
Q. Should other kinds of products such as multilayered plastics, whose use has grown manifold in the past few years, be brought into the ambit of a more comprehensive ban?
A. We need a review of our plastic strategy. In the government strategy, multilayered plastics are covered under what is called EPR — extended producer responsibility. A gutka manufacturer would be told he has to set a target of how much plastic he will collect and recycle. He is not told how many gutka pouches to recycle. He can collect any kind of plastic and give a quantity to the ministry. Obviously, this is not going to help us deal with the pouch problem or the multilayered plastics that are filling our landfill sites.
Let's understand that the plastic problem in India is due to the fact that there is a type of plastic that's increasingly found in our waste because of two things. One, we are not segregating the plastic at source. So, it gets dirty and contaminated, and therefore we are not able to reuse it. Two, there is a type of plastic which cannot be recycled. If we understand this, the focus of our strategy would be to make sure there’s wet and dry waste segregation. Once you separate the dry waste, you can start looking at what in it cannot be recycled. And that's the plastic you need to ban.
Obviously, one of the most important materials there would be multilayered plastic. It’s a very simple science. Anything that you want recycled has to be a single polymer. The minute you mix different types of polymers, it is difficult to recycle. The only thing you can then do is send it for co-processing or incineration. But even for incineration and making good quality RDF (refuse-derived fuel) from it, you need to have the incinerable plastic separated. So, that's really where the policy for plastic should go.
Q. You talked about the importance of segregation. As organisations responsible for waste collection, how do you assess the role of civic bodies and what they have done so far?
A. Here is some good news. Actually, a lot of progress has been made on household-level segregation. Maybe not in Delhi, and that is why you and I don't see it, but it is happening in other cities, and we need to acknowledge and celebrate it. Two things have happened. One, the government policy has changed and that's a big thing. The ministry of housing and urban affairs (Mohua) has come up with a fantastic policy for Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) 2.0, where they have said household-level segregation is the bottom line of waste management. They have also said cities will be rewarded, and in their ranking, they have given maximum weightage to household-level segregation because they know without this you can never have a circular economy and you can never recycle. So, the Mohua policy itself has been a fantastic guidance. It’s a new approach for India and it needs to be understood that we have moved ahead.
Secondly, if you look at cities, there are some amazing examples. We talk a lot about Indore but there are others. There is Bhopal, there is Ambikapur… There are so many cities now in India doing incredibly powerful work for household-level segregation and waste recycling. The tragedy is that for you and me, our city of Delhi is failing. That’s why we can't believe that it can work anywhere else. But India is moving, even if Delhi isn’t.
Q. So, you’re saying the government strategy of Swachh rankings is working. It's playing a role in people trying to clean up their acts.
A. Absolutely. The ranking is just a number. It has weightages under it, which is the design of the policy. In 2017, the maximum weightage was given to a city which was visibly clean, where you had a collection system in place. In 2023, the weightage is focused on how much waste a city processes. How much household-level segregation happens. So, the weightage has changed and that is an important nudge point for cities to adopt a different waste management strategy.
Q. Would you say that one of the problems with waste management in India is the big role of the informal sector in it?
A. I'll be very blunt. The only reason this country is not completely drowned in waste is because we have an incredibly sophisticated informal sector, which in spite of all the safety concerns, collects every piece of recyclable plastic and is able to sort, segregate and recycle it. We should be immensely grateful to these true waste warriors of India. And, the more successful cities are those which have integrated the informal sector into the waste management systems. And, they have done so very intelligently. There are two models. In one — the city of Pune is an example — the waste management operations have been outsourced to the informal sector, which runs through cooperatives. The other model is where the city has worked out an arrangement in which the dry waste goes to the informal sector for further recycling.
Without incorporating the informal sector into our waste management systems, India will never succeed in going forward. We need to make sure those livelihoods are secured and they get better employment conditions. It doesn't necessarily mean that they get formal employment but that they get more money and better safety conditions. All this is possible. In Odisha, they have given transgenders the contract for the entire waste management of Bhubaneswar.
In Delhi, we thought we could just privatise the waste collection and the system would improve. It hasn’t happened. The best examples are coming from cities who are learning that the wealth from waste is best made from the labour of the poor.