Fixing Plastic Pollution

By Shailaja Tripathi May 31, 2023

The World Environment Day campaign #BeatPlasticPollution requires proactive action from all stakeholders—governments, industry bodies, businesses and common citizens—for the health of people and the planet

Fixing Plastic Pollution
Turtle caught in plastic net. Photo: WWF

This World Environment Day, June 5, the spotlight is aptly on plastic pollution. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has launched the campaign #BeatPlasticPollution to focus attention on solutions to plastic pollution.

According to UNEP, one garbage truck’s worth of plastic is poured into our oceans every minute. Approximately 7 billion of the 9.2 billion tonnes of plastic manufactured between 1950 and 2017 ended up as waste, either in landfills or dumped. If this is to continue unchecked, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050. These statistics underline the urgency to address the plastic pollution crisis.

The Global Plastics Outlook database, set up by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), notes that only 15 per cent of global plastic waste is collected for the purpose of recycling. Out of this, close to half is disposed off as residues, which results in only 9 per cent of plastic waste getting recycled. Another 19 per cent gets incinerated, 50 per cent  ends up in landfill and 22 per cent evades waste management systems. This goes into uncontrolled dumpsites, is burned in open pits or ends up in terrestrial or aquatic environments, especially in the poorer countries.

Clearly, the existing recycling machinery in the world will not be sufficient in combatting the plague of plastic pollution. “We will not recycle our way out of the plastic pollution crisis; we need a systemic transformation to achieve the transition to a circular economy,” Inger Andersen, executive director at UNEP, said some time ago.

The #BeatPlasticPollution campaign underscores the need to reduce the production and use of Single-Use Plastics (SUPs), which are the leading contributors to plastic pollution. SUPs not only cause harm to our natural ecosystems but also impact human health. Microplastics, tiny fragments of plastic less than 5 mm in length, are finding their way into our food chain, with unknown consequences for human health and wellbeing.

Ravi Agarwal, founder-director of an environmental NGO, Toxics Links, says, “Plastic pollution is a global challenge, and it is a humongous task to eliminate it completely.  A new global plastic treaty, which is currently being negotiated by UNEP, is in the offing to address these issues.”

To fight the menace of plastic pollution, action is required from various quarters: the government, industry bodies, businesses and general public. Agarwal adds, “How national governments take the necessary action to reduce production and implement Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) to collect plastic waste efficiently is important. Citizen action can be a key driver to minimise the risk of plastic pollution.”

The latest Plastic Industry Status Report, prepared by Plastindia Foundation, highlighted that India’s plastic demand was over 20 million tonnes in 2021-22, and is expected to exceed 22 million tonnes in 2023. Consumption of plastic increases at an annual rate close to 10 per cent in India. This is also seen in the Innovation in Plastics: The Potential and Possibilities report published by Marico Innovation Foundation. The report notes how the country’s plastic consumption increased at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 9.7 per cent between 2016-17 and 2019-20.

To ensure that the increasing consumption of plastic does not add to India’s existing plastic woes, the government came up with the Plastic Waste Management (PWM) Rules in 2016. PWM requires plastic waste generators to take steps to reduce plastic waste generation, prohibit littering of plastic trash, and provide segregated garbage storage at the source, among other things.

The rules also state that local governments, Gram Panchayats, trash generators, retailers, and street sellers must manage plastic waste. The amendment to PWM rules, brought about in 2022 by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, notified the instructions on EPR for plastic packaging. Under EPR, businesses are now accountable for recycling their plastic packaging trash. Offenders will be liable to pay environmental compensation as per the ‘Polluter Pays Principle’ principle.

However, the EPR guidelines have their limitations. Bharati Chaturvedi, founder and director of Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group, says, “EPR is clearly not the way out for low-value plastics. We need to additionally find incentives to promote a refillable economy.” To overcome the limitations of EPR, she suggests imposition of taxes on imported plastics. “We need to impose taxes on imported plastics, so they are picked up and paid for, as the EPR mandate does not fully manage this.”

The government of India also went on to ban the manufacturing, import, stocking, distribution, sale, and use of designated SUP items throughout the country from July 1, 2022, onwards. The list of banned items included plastic or PVC banners less than 100 microns, stirrers, plastic flags, thermocol for decoration, wrapping films, candy sticks, plastic plates, cups, glasses, cutlery, etc.

One year on, experts are of the opinion that the ban on SUPs has not succeeded in creating the required impact. Pinky Chandran, founding member of Solid Waste Management (SWM) Round Table, a cohort of SWM practitioners, says, “The SUP ban, unfortunately, has not been successful. Poor enforcement is the main reason. On paper though, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) has gone to great lengths to issue directions. Some of the states have a much stricter ban than that of the centre, and this is also an issue because it does send conflicting information.”

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

Poor implementation of the law and the absence of measures for course correction are key reasons behind the failure of the SUP ban, says Chandran.  Other factors include poor communication, lack of engagement with stakeholders, and absence of transparent data collection and information in the public domain.

Chaturvedi recommends other strategies to better manage our plastic. She says, “We need to focus more on environmentally fragile areas where even a little plastic waste is a crisis. We need to usher in behaviour change because without this we will not have large scale dematerialisation. This is also the essence of life.”

On this World Environment Day, the UNEP is pushing for comprehensive measures to tackle the ill effects of irresponsible plastic use. UNEP is calling upon governments, industries, and individuals to make a concerted effort to reduce the production and use of single-use plastics. In the past, commitments made by various governments have led to significant policy milestones, including the implementation of plastic bag bans in numerous countries and cities around the world with encouraging results.

Last month, UNEP launched a seminal report, Turning off the Tap, in Nairobi. The report was released ahead of a second round of negotiations in Paris on a global agreement to beat plastic pollution. It calls for a holistic life-cycle strategy for plastics, which entails rethinking every stage from product and system design to plastic production, usage, recovery, and disposal. It also emphasises the safe disposal of anything that has not yet been engineered to be circular, as well as dealing with the huge legacy of existing plastic pollution.

At the launch of the report, UNEP executive director Andersen listed down the responsibilities that various stakeholders hold in the fight against plastic pollution. She said, “Governments can deliver a strong deal to end plastic pollution. Businesses can show innovation and commitment to move away from virgin plastics – starting immediately. The financial sector can put its capital behind the transformation. International financial institutions and other large investors need to move significant investments towards solid waste management and collection systems, which must include recycling and organics. And citizens can use their voices, votes and wallets.”

When discussing plastic, the importance of circularity cannot be overstated. Circularity offers a sustainable solution to the plastic problem. By embracing a circular economy approach, we can minimise the extraction of raw materials, reduce energy consumption and decrease the amount of plastic ending up in landfills or polluting our oceans.

Implementing circularity requires collaborative efforts from governments, industries, and individuals. It involves designing plastic products for durability and recyclability, as well as investing in innovative technologies. Circularity not only helps protect the environment but also boosts the economy.

The fight against plastic pollution is a fight for our future—and it is a battle we can’t afford to lose. The need of the hour is to do whatever it takes to win for the health of people and the planet.