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Posted at: Jul 1, 2018, 1:52 AM; last updated: Jul 1, 2018, 2:42 AM (IST)

Ban no solution

There are enough rules and guidelines in place to check plastic waste. However, with no one monitoring, ignoring the law seems an easier option
Ban no solution
Making a mountain out of rubbish: The Central Pollution Control Board acknowledges many states do not have organised mechanisms for waste management Photo: Mukesh Aggarwal

Vibha Sharma in New Delhi

Firstly, the so-called “plastic” ban is all about the single-use, disposable variety and environmentally hazardous polythene carry bags, daily adding tonnes to mountains of garbage dumps and clogging urban and rural India. Due to their low cost, ease of manufacture and resistance to water, versatile plastics are widely used in packaging products, ranging from a paper clip to aircraft to space ships.

Secondly, while plastic bags less than 50 microns are banned in 20 states, including Delhi, they can be easily purchased, used, and dumped carelessly without “punishment or fine”.

This is the bottom line and the situation in the Capital where a blanket ban on polythene carry bags was imposed in 2012. It was re-enforced in August 2017 when the NGT prohibited the use of single-use, disposable non-biodegradable plastic along with a penalty of Rs 5,000 on violators.

A few months and some initial enthusiasm later, the situation is back to the normal (if it can be called that). The authorities claim to have seized thousands of kilos of banned variety but neighbourhood shops and street vendors can be seen dispensing stuff freely in such bags.

While a majority may not even know of any such prohibition, those who are aware claim they are using bags of prescribed limits — above 50 microns and biodegradable.  There is no way to ascertain the claims. 

No fear of law

There are enough rules and guidelines, including on manufacturing and stocking, but with no one monitoring it seems easy to get away with false disclaimers on thickness.

The fact is plastic bags are cheap and are now an integral part of Indian consumers and consumerism. In the absence of viable, environment-friendly alternatives (a packet of bags with thickness of 20 to 30 microns costs only around Rs 20), ignoring the law is an easier option. 

Though big retailers in showrooms and malls and some shop owners are using biodegradable paper bags, but it is more of  an individual choice than fear of law. 

Fulfilling the promise of a plastic-free India requires a much more radical approach than a ban. After all, environment conservation is also about an individual’s conscious and social responsibility.

Earlier this year, the Centre also “omitted” the Rule 15 on “explicit pricing” from the Plastic Waste Management Rules, surprising those who believed adding price to a bag for consumers was starting to show results, albeit small. If consumers were charged, next time they would bring their own bag. 

The fact is the so-called “plastic ban” experience has been far from encouraging, whether in Delhi or elsewhere. The only heartening piece of news is from the northeastern state of Sikkim.  

“While the Centre has been proactive in drafting rules and legislations, their enforcement and implementation remains an issue due to the lack of alternatives, easy availability of cheap plastic bags and lack of awareness,” says environmental expert Ravi Agarwal of NGO Toxics Link.

The good news, however, is the younger lot seems to be responding to causes like ban on polythene bags and cleanliness. But Agarwal says that if the government really wants its Swachh Bharat Abhiyan to be successful and make India plastic-free, it has to back up with cheap alternatives and strict regulations for which there seems to be “no political will”. “Legislations cannot be enforced through half-hearted measures. The government must improve its monitoring mechanism and levy fines on defaulters,” he says.

Mechanism missing

The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) also acknowledges that majority of states, including the Capital, have not established organised mechanisms for waste management. Also, in states that have enforced a complete ban, plastic bags are being stocked, sold and used “indiscriminately”. 

And that is not all. States are lackadaisical when it comes to accounting for work done. Even though states like Delhi, Haryana, HP and Uttarakhand have a complete ban, they have not bothered to furnish details to the CPCB. Punjab did but partially, or so says the last Annual Report (2015-16) on Implementation of Plastic Waste Management on the CPCB website.

Consider this: According to Rule 17(3) of the Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016, each State Pollution Control Board or Pollution Control Committee (SPCB/PCC) has to prepare and submit an annual report to the CPCB on the implementation of rules by July 31.

But as per the CPCB, of the 35 SPCBs/PCCs, only 24 provided the information. As per provision 13(1), all plastic manufacturing/recycling units have to be registered with the SPCBs/PCCs. However, around 312 unregistered units were still running, including in Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh. No wonder then that despite complete bans in Delhi and Chandigarh, traders find an easy access from neighbouring states.

The Rule 6 says municipal authorities will be responsible for setting up, operationalisation and coordination of waste management system. But according to the CPCB, most states/UTs did not have an organised system for management, “resulting into widespread littering of plastic waste in towns and cities of the country”.

So while the authorities in Delhi claim they are disposing plastic waste properly, DPCC officials say the three MCDs in Delhi are as clueless as ever about what to do with hundreds of thousands of seized polythene bags of less than 50 microns. In the absence of clear directions on disposal, some were dumped at  landfills and mountains of trash and some in waste-to-energy plants, even though experts say plastic should neither be burned nor buried.

According to Rule 14(1), shopkeepers/retailers will be responsible for the use of properly marked and labelled plastic carrybags. Most states/UTs are not following the practice, especially when it comes to street vendors and small retailers.

It’s amply clear that unless the established rules and regulations are enforced in true spirit and viable alternatives to plastic are found, the situation on the ground will change little.

Disturbing figures

  • 5.72 million tonnes of plastic manufactured by 22,000 units in India each year
  • 178 lakh tonnes is likely to be the country’s plastic consumption in 2018
  • 25,000 tonnes of plastic waste is generated across the country daily 
  • 50 microns plastic bags below this thickness banned under the Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016
  • 20 states have completely banned manufacture and storage of plastic bags, five states partially 
Top five plastic waste-generating states

  • Maharashtra 4,69,098 tonnes
  • Gujarat 2,69,294 tonnes
  • Tamil Nadu 1,50,323 tonnes
  • Uttar Pradesh 1,30,777 tonnes
  • Karnataka 1,29,600 tonnes

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