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Is India genuinely keeping abreast with the worldwide movement against plastic?

Edition: January - March 2018

Over the years, there is a growing awareness of the multiple problems caused by plastic pollution. It is unfortunate that the very factors of durability and resistance to degeneration that make plastics so useful are the very reasons why the management of its waste is so difficult. The 1950s ushered in the widespread use of plastics. It has since enjoyed an unparalleled growth, beaten only by the construction industry with its use of steel and cement. A study published in Science Advances states that plastic packaging is currently creating the largest demand for plastic, a demand heightened by the global shift to single-use containers.  It also calculated that between 1950 to 2015 there has been a generation of 6300 Mt of plastic. Out of this, 12% has been incinerated, 9% recycled once, 10% recycled more than once whereas no less than 60% of this plastic waste is dumped in landfills or the natural environment. These measures do not stop the problem: incineration generates very little energy for the price of dangerous toxins releasing into the air. Recycling could be considered successful if it could manage to divert the generation of virgin plastics which is far from the case. Finally, plastic accumulates rather than decomposes in landfills. 

Plastic debris is expected to take over 100-1000 years to disintegrate which is a long time considering they choke and spread harmful toxins into the environment including wildlife. Ocean life is especially under threat since plastics break down into microplastics which are then ingested by marine life, subsequently killing sea creatures. This, in turn, affects us human beings as well, as the microplastics enter into the food chain and works its way to us. With this kind of unprecedented generation and accumulation of a material that is both harmful and long-lasting, there is a critical need for a comprehensive and thorough system to manage plastic waste.

In light of this changing narrative against plastics, governments have been changing their policies and laws to discourage the mindless production of plastics. Earlier this year in January, EU’s adoption of a new plastic strategy holds as a perfect example of the direction countries are heading towards. Closer home, we were interested to know where our country stood in the fight against the problem of plastics. Since 2011, India has had a set of rules solely dedicated to the management of plastic waste. These rules were reviewed and notified in 2016 to focus more on minimisation of plastic waste, segregation at source, the involvement of waste pickers, recyclers and waste processors in the collection of plastic waste from waste generators and the implementation of the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) to encourage sustainable production. The focus from Plastic Waste Management (PWM), 2011 to PWM, 2016 has simply shifted from the disposal of waste to tackling its production and distribution as well. The scope of jurisdiction too has been broadened beyond the municipalities to include waste generators, gram panchayats, local bodies, manufacturers, producers, brand owners, retailers and vendors, with a special focus on producers and distributors of plastic products and packaging.

In an attempt to track the implementation of these rules, CAG filed an RTI with the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB), with questions specifically focusing on EPR. Of the seven questions asked CAG received replies only for the last two. The following are what CAG felt was important to highlight from the responses received.

To begin with, 79114.792 tons per annum is the official number for the estimated plastic waste generated in all of Tamil Nadu. Although we were provided with the number of multi-layered plastic units (17), there was no response for our enquiry about the list of manufacturers who are registered under the TNPCB, even though the PWM Rules, 2016, clearly states that producers and brand owners have to be registered by the TNPCB for the use and manufacture of multi-layered plastics. Given that the TNPCB was unable to even provide us with a list of registered manufacturers, it was unsurprising that CAG received no response when CAG asked them to list out the measures taken by the TNPCB over the last one year to phase out the manufacturing of non-recyclable multi-layered plastics, another legal requirement mandated by the Rules. This hardly instills confidence in their ability to accomplish the PWM Rules, 2016’s ambitious timeline of two years to phase out all multi-layered packaging.

There are other signs that the rules listed in the PWM, 2016, are not going to be followed through. First, despite a new focus on producers and brand owners taking ownership of their plastic packaging waste, CAG was given no response when for the request for a list of the producers/brand owners that have submitted their “collect back” plans to the TNPCB. This list should not have been difficult to hand over considering it is mandatory for producers to submit their plan to the State Pollution Control Board within 6 months of the rules being notified when they apply for Consent to Establish, Operate or Renewal. It is paramount that producers take responsibility for their own packaging waste because this will promote reuse of material and encourage the reduction of the amount of waste generated in the first place.

One of the positive responses we got regarding waste management in Chennai was that plastics were being collected separately and handed over to plastic shredding centres. It was rather strange, however, that the TNPCB could offer us a very specific number of 45 existing plastic shredding machines spread out in the 15 zones but could not give us a list of the plastic collection centres that the Greater Chennai Corporation has set up in the different wards. The latter is logically the immediate link to the former.

Another one of those seemingly positive responses was the affirmation that plastic waste is collected and segregated to its utmost extent so that it can be used for road laying. While this can seem to be an effective way to make use of plastic waste that would otherwise be accumulating in the landfills and slowly leaching out its toxins into the land and water, there are serious downsides to using plastics for making roads that need to be considered. In an article solely dedicated to explaining the hazards of plastic roads, Mr. Nityanand Jayaraman captures succinctly the flawed logic behind this admittedly honest attempt. He mentions among many other points how not all kinds of plastics can be used for this venture. Given the current state of affairs, it is difficult to trust that there is a proper system for sorting the right plastics from the highly toxic ones, especially when the difference is not easily distinguished. Added to that, even the ones that are picked for laying roads need to undergo a process of heating. This is done at levels of temperature, which research has proven to release toxic emissions. Naturally, the workers involved in the making of these plastic roads will be most vulnerable to these toxins released.

And finally, his strongest argument is that if plastic is such a toxic polluting problem, putting it in our roads does not solve anything; it only transfers the problem to a new form and location. Despite the claim that plastic roads will last longer than regular roads, there is the inevitable point where plastic roads will eventually wear out with use and then we will face the same issue of leachates, pollution, and microplastics.

All in all, there needs to be much more action around the issue of plastic pollution and the importance of a proper waste management system that involves all the different stakeholders, right from big brand owners to individual consumers. This can only happen when there is more awareness around these subjects which would translate to stakeholders taking more responsibility to do their bit in following the mandates of the rules, something which does not reflect so far, either in practice or from the response to our RTI.

The final question had been to ask for a list of meetings conducted by the Board with local bodies in Chennai city to spread awareness on plastic waste, something that is mandated by the PWM Rules, 2016. The reply informed us that there had been a meeting with the second level officers of the local bodies on both the SWM Rules, 2016 and PWM Rules, 2016, with a copy of the minutes of that sole meeting attached.

Clearly while the existence of a set of laws made specifically to tackle the issue of plastic waste might give the appearance of the Indian government keeping up with the current worldwide movement against plastic pollution, there is much left wanting in its implementation, and therefore its sincerity in believing this to be an actual issue that urgently needs to be addressed.

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