Hidden in plain sight
- The plastic problem needs to be reframed. The issue is not just how plastic waste is disposed of, but also how the material enters the supply chain and for whose benefit. India cannot end plastic pollution until it holds the petrochemical behemoths and the plastic industry accountable for manufacturing the menace.
- Packaging plastic accounted for 59 per cent of India’s plastic waste generated in 2018-19.
- Greenhouse gas emissions from plastics alone would contribute to around 15 percent of the global carbon budget by 2050, warns a 2019 study published in Nature Climate Change.
- India’s consumption of plastics is almost 15 per cent higher than its production. This is being bridged through import.
Petrochemical Industries and the Manufacturing sector
- India produces 29 million Tonnes of petrochemicals and almost 58 per cent of them are used to manufacture plastics. There is no policy to fix the responsibility of petrochemical industries to curb environmental plastic pollution
- While brand owners are concerned with the price, durability and consumer appeal , recyclability is usually overlooked. As a result, a high percentage of plastics that are manufactured are either difficult or even impossible to recycle.
Plastic waste management (Amendment) Rules,2022
- The new rules envisage guidelines on Extended producer responsibility coupled with the prohibition of identified single use plastic items which have low utility and high littering potential, with effect from 1st July 2022.
- Under the new rules , plastic waste is classified as Category 1 will include rigid plastic packaging , category 2 will include flexible plastic packaging , category 3 will include multi layered plastics , category 4 will include plastic sheets or like used for packaging
- EPR(Extended Producer Responsibility) means the responsibility of a producer for environmentally sound management of the product until the end of its life.
Issues with the new Rules
- Policy focus has been largely on waste management rather than curbing plastic pollution.
- The August 2021 amendment of the 2016 Rules prohibited the production, sale, and use of single-use plastic.
- The February 2022 amendment exempted plastic packaging, which accounts for roughly 59 per cent of the plastic.
- Energy recovery involves the conversion of plastic waste into usable heat, electricity or fuel through a variety of chemical processes such as combustion and gasification. These processes are polluting and inefficient.
- Majority of plastics used by producers, importers and brand owners are non recyclable by design.
Loopholes in EPR
- The amendment says that the entity that introduces plastic into the market is to be held accountable for collecting and recycling plastic waste through EPR. This means that the petrochemical companies have zero accountability when it comes to plastic waste management.
- While producers, importers and brand owners need to start collecting waste immediately, they can defer recycling the waste till 2024-25.
- The current EPR regime does not have an audit system and relies on voluntary disclosure by producers, importers and brand owners.
Management of Plastic waste
- It involves two distinct steps: collection and recycling or end-of-life disposal.
- The CSE report reveals that as high as 42-86 per cent of the plastic waste in India flows through the informal sector, managed and driven by rag pickers to material recovery facilities operated by multinational corporations.
- The government claims that almost 60 percent of plastic waste is recycled in the country, though such high recycling is only restricted to pet bottles that account for 12 percent of the total plastic waste.
- The primary reason behind the low recycling rate in the country is the way it is handled. For instance, ragpickers majorly collect PET but in the process, other plastic waste is hardly collected or recycled.
- Almost 97 per cent of the pet bottles are converted into synthetic fabrics such as polyester and nylon in the country. Here recycling happens only once, and the fabric when it reaches its end-of-life is handled as textile waste.
- The starting point should be strengthening the plastic inventory and generating credible data.
- A step in this direction is the recently released Centralized Extended Producers Responsibility Portal for Plastic Packaging by CPCB which allows for producers, importers, brand owners to furnish details on plastic handling.
- The informal sector engaged in plastic collection is often exploited by brand owners. This can be substantially reduced through the setting up of trade unions and cooperatives.
- Incentivizing the industry to invest in research and development of plastic packaging, will help them transition to a market with a higher percentage of recyclable materials
- India can also consider introducing deposit refund schemes to increase waste collection, where consumers pay a deposit fee while buying a plastic product, which is refunded when the used plastic is returned to the formal recycling chain
- Placing a considerable amount of responsibility on the source, and regulating plastic production quantitatively and qualitatively, will go a long way towards plugging the problem
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