Plastic ban: A long way to go for any real effect

Enforcement of a policy for the elimination of plastic is a complex task given the extent to which it has infiltrated our lives

Updated: Sep 19, 2018 07:00:35 PM UTC

Shivanshu Chauhan is the Leader – Urban Infrastructure at PwC India and Antara Ray is the Associate Director, GRID at PwC India.

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

Amidst debates and skepticism surrounding global warming and climate change, an Indian state has recently taken a bold step of imposing a stringent ban on manufacturing, sale and use of plastics. It has given stakeholders three months’ time to come up with alternatives.

While environmentalists are lauding the move, the decision has also been criticised by several quarters for being too ambitious, without providing enough details. Concerns revolve around the availability of alternatives, lack of clarity over buy-back schemes, implications on pricing of goods, loss of livelihoods and lack of suitable plastic waste management systems. Enforcement of a policy for the elimination of plastic is a complex task given the extent to which it has infiltrated our lives. The National Plastic Waste Management Rules had to be amended twice since its inception in 2011 (in 2016 and 2018) to address this concern.

Considering the ripple effects of the decision on a large number of stakeholders, it may be worthwhile to set realistic timelines to implement this drastic but essential change. It needs to be backed by a more comprehensive plan addressing plastics across their life cycle. Policy makers, too need to come together for a multi-pronged strategy to address the issues around this ban and create an enabling environment for all. Some of these could include the following:

Access to alternatives: Are there enough alternatives available in the market?
An average citizen might not be aware of the non-plastic alternatives available to him/her and he/she might not know if the options are ecofriendly. So, there needs to be a database of government-certified environment friendly alternatives made available to the citizens to help them make an informed choice. An awareness campaign on affordable and ecofriendly options might go a long way in changing consumer behaviour.

Supply chain woes – How can the alternatives of plastic products be made more available to the common man?
A move to eliminate plastic bags opens up a huge market for alternative products such as textile shopping bags. This could be especially lucrative for a large number of cottage industries and cooperatives operating in this space. Can subsidy be provided for manufacturing of textile/eco-friendly bags for a limited time-span to encourage this industry? Numerous small manufacturing units of plastic bags may be forced to shut shop as a result of the ban. Could financing instruments such as soft loans or grants be made available to them so that they can move to manufacturing of eco-friendly alternatives? Could micro finance institutions (MFIs) be roped in through added incentive mechanisms and help them design suitable financial products?

Buy back arrangements – Do distributors know what they are supposed to do after buy back?
A buy back arrangement supported by the government could be instrumental to handle plastic waste wherein they set up authorised collection centres or deploy authorised recyclers for collection and management of returned plastic packaging.

Plastic waste management – Are there adequate facilities for recycling the plastic waste present in the system?
On an average, Indian cities generate upwards of 4,000 metric tonnes of plastic waste per day. 43 percent of all plastic is used for packaging purposes. Assuming governments are able to minimise plastic waste generation by even 20 percent (around 50 percent of plastics being of single use variety) through policy deterrents, there would still be over 3,000 metric tonnes of residual plastic waste every day. Treatment/disposal capacities in cities are highly inadequate to address such volumes of plastic waste. Multiple technology solutions and decentralised options could be helpful in removing plastic waste from the environment. Again, incentives would play a crucial role in garnering the  interest of innovators and the private sector to come up with effective solutions for plastic waste management.

Increasing government focus on end-of-life management of plastic waste
There is a lot of public awareness on preventing the usage of single use plastics. There should be equal focus on treatment and disposal of plastic waste. Currently government schemes such as Swachh Bharat Mission support local bodies with designing and funding of plastic waste management projects. However, local bodies should also support the operations and maintenance of these projects to make them financially sustainable.

There should be more strict penalties on burning of waste plastic to ensure that there is no risk to public health and environment. Similarly, technology used to treat or dispose plastic waste should be chosen with utmost care to ensure that the process or byproduct is not toxic. For example, recycled plastics are known to be more harmful than virgin plastics. We should look at the feasibility of using the byproduct for constructive options like using plastic waste for fuel generation, for laying of roads/ pavements, blending into bio polymers and so on. If found viable, they should be considered to tackle the problem of plastic waste.

A study of plastic ban measures in the developed nations suggests that a combination of regulation and taxation, rather than a blanket ban works better. Washington DC was one of the first cities to implement tax on plastic bags. The revenue generated was used to distribute reusable bags to low income and elderly communities in the city and for a river clean up project. There has been an 85 percent reduction in the consumption of plastic bags since the policy was implemented in 2009. Denmark started levying charges on the use of plastic bags as early as 1993. As a result, plastic use dropped by 60 percent in a short time. Canada has voluntary anti plastic advisory for citizens and provides incentives to stores. As a result, usage has dropped by approximately 50 percent.

Given the severity of the situation, an inter-ministerial working group needs to be created at the national level to look at policies that could be adopted to cumulatively address the issue of plastic wastes. At the local level, government departments, private sector and citizens need to come together to fight the war against plastics, before it is too late.

Authors- Shivanshu Chauhan is the Leader – Urban Infrastructure at PwC India and Antara Ray is the Associate Director, GRID at PwC India.

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