Single-use plastics ban in India facing enforcement road bumps and packaging industry backlash

By Lester Wan contact

- Last updated on GMT

In India, plastic bags are carelessly thrown on the streets and block sewers and storm drains, and even end up in the sea. ©GettyImages
In India, plastic bags are carelessly thrown on the streets and block sewers and storm drains, and even end up in the sea. ©GettyImages

Related tags: Plastic packaging, India, Pollution

India’s ban on single-use plastics is now in effect in most states and union territories across the nation, but a number of road bumps threaten to derail the movement.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had previously expressed the desire to completely put an end to the use of single-use plastics in the country by 2022.

By June 23, Maharashtra — the state in which the nation’s capital is located — along with other states had begun to officially enforce the ban, after a fragmented roll-out. Out of the 29 states and seven union territories of India, 25 now have either a partial or complete ban on plastics.

The Maharashtra ban covers the manufacturing, usage, distribution, wholesale and retail sale, and import of plastic bags, especially single-use polyethylene (PE) bags with a thickness of less than 50 microns.

The ban also covers disposable products made from plastic and thermocol (polystyrene), such as single-use disposable dishes, cups, plates, glasses, forks, bowls, containers, disposable dishes or bowls, spoons, straws, non-woven polypropylene bags, cups/pouches to store liquid, packaging with plastic to wrap or store products and packaging of food items.

Penalties start from Rs5,000 for the first offence, and up to Rs25,000 for the third offence, with three months’ jail.

However, a number of factors including industry pushback, a lack of enforcement by state governments and officials, and ‘dilutions’ by government policymakers have limited the mandate.

Industry pushback

Beverage firms, plastic industry organisations and other lobbyists have called for the softening of rules as well as extensions.

According to Reuters​, some of the firms that met state officials to urge the government to implement the regulations in stages and to relax certain rules included Amazon, H&M, Pepsi and Coca-Cola.

One of the updates since has been the extension of the deadline for e-commerce companies, to allow them to use plastic packaging for three more months.

“Plastic packaging material used for products intended for sale in the state of Maharashtra through e-commerce shall be allowed only for three months, however, they shall develop environmental-friendly alternative for packaging of materials within three months,”​ stated the Environment Department notification.

“They shall create a mechanism for the collection of the plastic packaging material used during three months and ensure the recycling and final disposal.”

Last month, the All India Plastics Manufacturers Association (AIPMA) said: “Despite efforts from AIPMA and the Plastic Manufacturers Association, the plastic industry is still suffering from the ban.”

“The plastic industry is devastated ever since the implementation of plastic ban in Maharashtra.”

According to AIPMA, the Indian plastic industry is worth Rs5,000 crore. It said that a total of 2,150 ‘Plastic Industrial Units’ have been closed due to the ban, which has resulted in large-scale unemployment throughout the state.

“It is estimated that directly more than 3 lakh individuals will loose their jobs due to the ban and more than 4 lakh individuals indirectly connected to the plastic industry will loose their jobs,”​ said AIPMA.

Littering the real issue

Furthermore, AIPMA said the plastic manufacturers in Maharashtra have been trying hard to solve littering, which it claims is the real problem.

“Plastic serves, littering pollutes,”​ it stated.

Similarly Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment, recently stated in ‘Single-use Plastics: A Roadmap for Sustainability’: “Plastic isn’t the problem. It’s what we do with it.”

He added that plastic packaging accounts for nearly half of all plastic waste globally, and much of it is thrown away within just a few minutes of its first use.

Plastic pollution is a major problem for India. Plastic bags are often carelessly thrown away on the streets and eventually make their way to block sewers and storm drains.

The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) under the Ministry of Environment and Forests stated in 2015 that Indian cities produced more than 15,000 tonnes of plastic waste each day. Of this amount, 9,000 tonnes were collected and processed, while the rest were left littered on the streets and in drains, or dumped in landfills.

AIPMA, along with other associations, had initiated the ‘Mobile Plastic Waste Bank’, in which plastic waste can be deposited. The collection bins were placed at railway stations, bus depots, markets, temples and other public places.

Supported by various associations, AIPMA also supplied and installed various PET bottle crushing machines at various locations across Maharashtra.

Lack of enforcement?

The CPCB has commented that in the states that had imposed a complete ban on the use and sale of plastic carry bags, plastic bags were still “stocked, sold and used indiscriminately”​.

Other related rules and regulations were being violated across the states.

Part of the problem, noted the report, was that while municipal authorities are responsible for the setting up, “operationalisation”​ and coordination of waste management systems and “performing the associated functions”​, it had been observed that most of the states had not established an organised system for plastic waste management.

Therefore, this resulted in the widespread littering of plastic waste in cities and towns across the country.

It is yet to be seen how effective the recent official widespread implementation of the ban will be.

Some firms in Maharashtra have, however, responded positively to the ban, with retailer Walmart pledging to stop using single-use shrink wrap, while beverage giant PepsiCo announced plans to collect and recycle PET waste.

Exemptions and ‘dilutions’

Still, there have been a number of complaints by citizens, environmental lobby groups and the media about various exemptions and ‘dilutions’ that have arisen since the announcement of the ban.

The government has backtracked and permitted the use of PET bottles, provided that they are converted to pellets for recycling, carry barcodes to identify the bottlers and work with NGOs and ‘ragpickers’ to ensure that the pellets are recycled.

According to First Post​, the state is also expected to allow retailers to pack groceries in pouches made of plastic over 50 microns, with conditions such as bearing the source and setting up collection and recycling mechanisms.

Some of the other exemptions include plastic and thermocol used by manufacturing companies, plastic bags used for storing grain, and milk pouches above 50 microns in thickness.

Moreover, the government has given small retailers a three-month extension for the use plastic bags for packaging. Other considerations include relaxing restrictions on retail packaging, garbage bin liners and restaurant takeaway containers.

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