Did Covid-19 accelerate India’s plastic waste problem?

Call me Pack-Pooh. I’m the new sustainability mascot for WhatPackaging? — here to tell you why must we talk about sustainability, and the myriad issues surrounding it.

31 Jul 2021 | By WhatPackaging? Team

Let’s begin with some statistics. A global material balance study on plastics points out that 79% of the total plastics produced in the world enters our environment as waste. Only 9% of the total plastic waste in the world is recycled. A Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) report (2018-19) puts the total annual plastic waste generation in India at a humongous 3.3-million metric tonnes per year. Even this data, frightening as it is, might be an underestimation. While India’s plastic waste problem is not as huge as that of the rich world, it is definitely growing. Richer states like Goa and Delhi produce as much as 60-grams and 37-grams per capita per day respectively — against a national average of 8-grams per capita per day.

Against this backdrop, last year, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) released a background paper on plastic waste and its management. You can download the paper here

Speaking on a webinar that followed the release, Sunita Narain, director general, Centre for Science and Environment, had said, “In such a scenario, how will India ever meet its objective of “freeing” the country from single-use plastics? In fact, the pandemic of 2020 has only made matters worse: the use of plastic — particularly single-use and disposable — has increased manifold.”

Covid-19 and plastic waste

Did Covid-19 accelerate India’s plastic waste problem? Of course, yes. Take a look at yourself. How much takeout, groceries, and eCommercial deliveries did you receive during the lockdown? We’d assume it was more than average. Now consider all the plastics that these deliveries produced which you conveniently disposed of in the garbage bin, which your neighbourhood kachdawalla picked up and consequently dumped in a landfill. Now, multiply this amount to the number of households in the country. You get the idea — the number is massive.

So, Narain was right when she said, “We had imagined that we had solved the problem of plastic waste through recycling it, or burying it, or shipping it out of our sight. But we were wrong. Plastic waste is everywhere today. It is in our faces. It is filling up our oceans and destroying marine life and even invading our food chain to get into our bodies. Our per capita use of plastics is growing — and as we become richer, we will end up generating more plastic waste.”

So, what’s the solution? The industry would answer — recycling. The industry in India claims that 60% of what is generated is recycled. If that is the case, why does plastic continue to be such a big problem?

Dealing with plastic waste

Perhaps it’s time we deconstruct the word recycling, and understand the politics of recycling. The agenda of plastic waste management will depend a lot on our understanding of recycling — what is it all about, who can recycle, what can be recycled, and how economical is the process.

CSE also recommends a number of other actions. These include phasing out or ban the products that cannot be recycled (such as multi-layered plastics); ban carry-bags; define single-use plastics clearly, and ban items made from it; make the rules and guidelines for Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) simple and enforceable; incentivise the business of recycling; and segregate at source – this is where municipal agencies must be involved.

Phasing out single-use plastics by 2022?

Meanwhile, the Union environment ministry has proposed to implement a countrywide ban on manufacture, use, sale, import and handling of some of the single-use plastic products by 2022. The ministry issued a draft notification on 11 March which lays down how various single-use plastic products will be prohibited in phases next year.

For example, the manufacture, import, stocking, distribution, sale and use of ear buds with plastic sticks, plastic sticks for balloons, plastic flags, candy sticks, ice-cream sticks, polystyrene for decoration will be prohibited from 1 January 2022. Further, the ban will be extended to single-use plastic (including polystyrene and expanded polystyrene) plates, cups, glasses, cutlery such as forks, spoons, knives, straw, trays, wrapping/packing films around sweet boxes, invitation cards, and cigarette packets, plastic/PVC banners less than 100-micron and stirrers from 1 July 2022.

The Centre has also decided to increase the thickness of polythene bags from at least 50-microns in thickness to at least 120-microns from 9 September 2021.