Waste Legislation

India: Loophole in plastic ban renders legislation toothless

India’s plastic ban is seen as a leap forward in the country’s move to eliminate single-use plastics. Yet the nitty-gritty of the legislation speaks another tale.

India’s single-use plastic ban has evoked mixed reactions from environmental activists and experts.

Amendments to existing plastic waste management legislation will see the phasing out of 20 flexible plastic items according an index that weighs up said single-use plastics against their relative utility level as well as potential environmental impact.

The items will be banned from markets as of July 1, 2022.

Products to be banned include non-woven carry bags, plastic straws, foamed cups, bowls and plates as well as disposable rigid cups, trays and containers.

Yet there is a loophole in the new legislation-select plastic commodities judged to be environmentally unsustainable as well as of negligent usefulness may still be manufactured, stocked, imported as well as sold from the July 2022 cut-off date onwards.

These commodities include plastic water bottles as well as plastic bottles for food and non-food applications, diverse plastic cutlery, multi-layered packaging as well as plastic films.

Multi-layer as well as composite plastic films, ranging from plastic based crisp packets with aluminium coatings to pet food pouches incorporating whole layers of aluminium, are often hard to recycle due to their multi-material consistency. As plastic films are also very thin, they are more easily contaminated which also renders recycling complex. Said thinness of material may also serve to damage the machinery in a conventional materials recycling facility. Even when these difficulties can be surmounted, these items often remain unrecycled as the cost needed to treat them does in no way generate enough value for governments to take on the fiscal burden.

In India, 43% of manufactured plastics-most of them single-use- are intended for the packaging sector. From 2021-2026, the sector is projected to grow by 27%.

Considering this, the 2021 Plastic Waste Management Amendment Rules appear weak as they do not truly address the need for a gradual phasing out of plastic packaging.

The Indian government has provided the plastics industry with a 10-year grace period to comply with the new regulations. Government officials claim that the decision was made to accommodate the needs of plastic manufacturers, who claimed that the economic cost of adopting alternative solutions for plastic packaging is a cause for leniency.

As a whole, plastic packaging waste is intended to be collected and managed by individual manufacturers as part of their EPR responsibility. This practice, however, may encourage brands to market EPR as part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy, thereby automatically limiting the reach and extent of recycling activities which, in this context, are defined as ‘voluntary’ rather than as actually enforced by the government.

Equally concerning is the fact that compostable plastics do not fall under the purview of plastic items to be eliminated in the near future.

Though technically recyclable, reality shows that treating biodegradable plastics is not feasible in the Indian context. Often, locals are liable to equate ‘compostable plastic’ with ‘home compostable plastic’, being unaware that many plastics that are technically biodegradable are only so under industrial conditions. As such, these plastics often end up mixed with regular household waste, thereby contaminating the waste stream and rendering them unfit for recycling. The necessary infrastructure in form of industrial processing units, found in relevant compost facilities, can also be scarce, which further complicates recycling in this instance.  

India has sought to curb plastic pollution since 1999, when the sale of thin polythene bags was first prohibited, yet the attempt has so far met with little success.

Much of this hinges on the lack of a strategic approach to the problem-in fact, the new national ban was imposed after poor enforcement of individual plastic bans across states failed to provide any satisfactory results to the plastic problem.

A lack of financial incentives to speed up the development of plastic packaging solutions as well as a relatively short time span (running from September 2021 to July 2022) to achieve what is essentially the phasing out of an entire plastic regime, despite plastic packaging not making the cut are other reasons for India’s failure on the plastic pollution front.

The disparity in waste collection, sorting and recycling systems across states has similarly hampered legislative efforts to ban single-use plastics.

In order for the new national ban to take, the Indian government is tasked to improve the prevalent recycling conditions as well as general environment.