7 PM | Single Use Plastics: Challenges and way forward | 30th October, 2019

Context: Single Use plastic.

More in news:

  • Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a dramatic announcement on August 15, 2019, that India would eliminate single-use plastics by 2022. 
  • In another statement on October 2, Gandhi Jayanti, PM said that single-use plastics (SUPs) will be phased out by 2022, and officials indicated that states will play a major role in ensuring this happens.


  • Plastic is a word that originally meant “pliable and easily shaped.”
  • It only recently became a name for a category of materials called polymers. The word polymer means “of many parts,” and polymers are made of long chains of molecules.
  • Polymers abound in nature. Cellulose, the material that makes up the cell walls of plants, is a very common natural polymer.
  • The first synthetic polymer was invented in 1869 by John Wesley Hyatt.
  •  It has been an integral part of our lives, contributing much to the convenience of modern living because of the flexibility, durability and lightness of this material. 

Single Use Plastic (SUPs) and associated problems:

  • Single-use plastics are disposable plastics meant for use-and-throw.
  • These comprise polythene bags, plastic drinking bottles, plastic bottle caps, food wrappers, plastic sachets, plastic wrappers, straws, stirrers and Styrofoam cups or plates.
  • According to World Wildlife Fund (WWF), plastic is harmful to the environment as it is non-biodegradable, takes years to disintegrate.
  • Single-use plastics slowly and gradually break down into smaller pieces of plastic known as microplastics.
  • It can take thousands of years for plastic bags to decompose, thus contaminating our soil and water in the process. The noxious chemicals used to produce plastic gets transmitted to animal tissue, and finally, enter the human food chain, the WWF claims.
  • It has a big impact on wildlife too.
    • Birds usually confuse shreds of plastic bags for food and end up eating the toxic debris.
    • Fish consume thousands of tons of plastic in a year, ultimately transferring it up the food chain to marine mammals.
    • Plastic kills an estimated 1 million sea birds every year and affects around 700 species which get infected by ingesting plastics.
  • WWF further claims that a person could be consuming 5 grams of plastic a week.
  • According to Un-Plastic Collective Report, an estimated 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced since the early 1950s, about 60% of which has ended up either in a landfill or the natural environment.

Plastic in India:

  • Average per capita consumption of plastic in India is about 11kgs.
  • An estimate by the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural gas suggests that the annual per capita consumption in India would be 20 kgs by 2022.
  • As per CPCB reports, plastic contributes to 8% of the total solid waste, with Delhi producing the maximum quantity followed by Kolkata and Ahmedabad.
  • Only 60% of the total plastic waste is being recycled. Households generate maximum plastic waste, of which water and soft drink bottles form a large number.
  • India alone generates 9.46 million tonnes of plastic waste every year, around 43% of which comprises single-use plastic.
  • It poses a mammoth problem for India since 40% of plastic waste remains uncollected.
  • The growing volume is, to a great extent, because of rising e-commerce in India with people buying from companies like Amazon and Flipkart that use single-use plastic for disposable packaging. 

Collection of Plastic Waste:

  • Plastic Waste Management Rules 2016 mandated the producers and brand owners to devise a plan in consultation with the local bodies to introduce a collect-back system. This system is known as the Extended Producers Responsibility (EPR).
  • CPCB has estimated the collection efficiency as 80.28% in 2014, out of which only 28.4% was treated. Remaining quantities were disposed in landfills or open dumps.
  • ULBs could take cue from some best practices followed in cities like Bangalore where Dry Waste Collection Centres have not only been established but also have a self-sustainable business model. Need to establish a monetized collection model for plastic waste that has economic returns for all those involved.
  • Virgin plastics (e.g. those used in food packets, etc) should be collected separately because of the higher value it draws.

Flaws in enforcement:

  • Sikkim was a pioneer in banning plastic bags as far back as 1998. Others followed, and so far, around 22 states and UTs have bans in place. But merely announcing a ban will not solve the problem of plastic disposal. It has to be regulated at all points, strictly enforced and monitored.
  • Due to ineffective monitoring, everybody flouts the rules so the ban does not serve the purpose. In Maharashtra, for example, the ban on single use disposable plastic was strictly enforced initially. But now it’s back to square one.
  • Plastics Waste Management Rules 2016 included a clause in Rule 15 which called for explicit pricing of carry-bags. This required vendors to register and pay an annual fee to the urban local bodies. But lobbying by the producers of plastics ensured that this clause was removed by an amendment in 2018.
  • The Plastic Waste Management Rules of 2016 require creators of such packaging waste to take it back at their cost or pay cities for its management under Extended Manufacturer Responsibility. But there is little compliance.

What needs to be done?

  • We need to build awareness of the damage caused by SUPs and develop consumer consciousness to minimise their use.
  • SUPs can potentially be converted by thermo-mechanical recycling into plastic granules for blending into other plastic products, usually irrigation piping for agriculture.
  • Recycled plastic can be used to strengthen roads. Use of plastics more than doubles or triples road life — it has been approved by the Indian Road Congress and mandated by the National Highway Authority in November 2015 for upto 50 km around every city with a population of over 5,00,000. 
  • Another ingenious idea is to replace the use of thermocol with totally biodegradable pith from the shola/sola plant (Aeschynomene aspera) — this was used in huge quantities till the 1950s for making sola-topees or pith helmets for colonials and their armies.
  • Strict enforcement and implementation of Plastic waste management rules 2016.

Source: https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/cities-at-crossroads-in-a-plastic-world-6093444/

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