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View from India: Managing plastic waste, a moral responsibility

Image credit: DT

The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has notified the Plastic Waste Management Amendment Rules 2021. As announced in the media recently, the rule prohibits the use of identified single-use plastic items, which are low on utility value and high on littering spread.

The manufacture, import, stocking, distribution, sale and use of single-use plastic (SUP), including polystyrene and its expanded commodities, will be prohibited. The proposed ban will come into effect from 1 July 2022.

The identified SUPs are the use-and-throw variety found in sticks for ear buds, balloons and flags, candy and ice-cream sticks, polystyrene for decorations, cups, packing film around sweet boxes, invitation cards, cigarette packets, plastic or PVC banners less than 100 micron, and stirrers, for instance.

The thickness of plastic carrier bags has been increased from 50 microns to 75 microns; this will be implemented from 30 September 2021 and further scaled-up to 120 microns with effect from 31 December 2022. Thicker bags can be recycled by waste collectors whereas thinner ones are difficult to recycle and most often find their way into water bodies and refuse bins, thereby increasing pollution levels.

Plastic packaging waste, which is not covered under the phase out of SUP items, will be collected and managed in an environmentally sustainable manner. This will be executed through the extended producer responsibility (EPR) of the producer, importer and brand owner, as per the Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016. For effective implementation of the EPR, the guidelines have been given a legal force through the Plastic Waste Management Amendment Rules, 2021.

The Swachh Bharat Mission, a national drive to keep the country clean, will help strengthen the infrastructure for waste management across the States and Union Territories (UT). State governments and UTs will develop a comprehensive action plan for elimination of single-use plastics and awareness campaigns are being rolled out. The Ministry has constituted a National Level Taskforce to fulfil this goal.

This vision doubles up as a means of encouraging digital innovations. The India Plastic Challenge – Hackathon 2021 has been organised for students of higher educational institutions and startups recognised under the Startup India Initiative.

While 2022 will ring in the new guidelines, already a clarion call has come from the Department of Science & Technology (DST), which has opened its doors to usher in fresh ideas through its Waste Management Technology programme. A case in point is the Indian Institute of Technology, Hyderabad (IIT-H): with financial support from DST, IIT-H has hit upon a fruitful idea.

Research backed by doses of imagination has led the IIT-H team to arrive at a means of using plastic and agro waste and a new technology has been developed to recycle waste polystyrene. Briefly, polystyrene is dissolved in a solution of orange peel extract and then drawn into fibres before being developed into a non-woven fabric. Its applications are diverse, ranging from napkins and flexible packaging to oil spillage remediation. Citrus peel extract has turned out to be an eco-friendly way of recycling polystyrene. 

Segregating plastic waste at source is an important aspect of plastic-waste management. For India to gravitate towards a low-plastic economy, it’s important to take into account waste segregators, rag pickers, recyclers and disposal units. Plastic waste – directly or indirectly, in some form or the other – has been their source of income and somewhere a compromise needs to be worked out for everyone. The alternatives to plastic bags need to be environment friendly and yet it should not impact the livelihood of the backend people.

Managing plastic waste is a moral responsibility. With government backing, plastic-waste management can probably be implemented through stakeholders including urban local bodies and plastic organisations, who can combine their efforts to spread awareness and initiate action using social-media platforms. Scalable solutions may be developed. Manufacturers of raw materials such as polymers may have to upgrade their machinery or replace it; as well train their staff to meet new requirements. With the new rules, the number of waste-management bodies is expected to increase.

All this reinforces the fact that India had piloted a resolution on addressing the pollution coming from SUP products at the 4th United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) held in 2019. The adoption of this resolution at UNEA 4 is a significant step towards plastic pollution control.

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