Since its inception in 1957, when polystyrene was first produced, the plastic industry has grown and diversified. Currently, it employs about 4 million people in India and comprises more than 30,000 processing units, of which 85 to 90 per cent are small and medium sized enterprises (IBEF, 2017). Today, plastics have a wide range of applications, including packaging, wrapping materials, shopping and garbage bags, fluid containers, clothing, toys, household and industrial products and building materials (CPCB, 2013). While the usage of plastic was initially meant for convenience, both consumers and producers now see it as a necessity. However, this large scale usage of plastic inarguably leaves behind high amounts of waste that pose multiple liabilities. In 2017, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) estimated that India generates 25,940 tonnes of plastic waste on a daily basis, amounting to approximately 9.4 million tonnes per annum (CPCB, 2017). While state governments have brought about measures to contain increasing pollution from plastic through statutory bans on its usage, they have been mostly been confined to plastic waste and in the absence of rigorous implementation the laws continue to exist merely on paper.
Measures to Curb Plastic Pollution
Keeping in mind the necessity of regulating and controlling the waste generated through the usage of plastic, the central government enacted the Plastic Waste Management (PWM) Rules, 2016. These were a modification of the previous PWM Rules of 2011 and sought to introduce new rules including a countrywide ban on the usage of plastics below the thickness of 50 microns, extended producers responsibility (EPR) to institute a collect back system for producers and generators of plastic products and phasing out of non-recyclable multi-layered plastic which has no alternate use within two years of implementation of the rules.
More than two years have passed since the rules were brought into force, but the present situation shows barely any change on the ground with regard to the control of pollution brought about by plastic wastes. The central government has, however, been taking continual measures to curb plastic pollution. In April 2018, the central government introduced new amendments to the 2016 rules. So far, implementation of the 2016 rules has been difficult and the new amendment does not include any mechanism to strengthen it (Agarwal, 2018). Bans introduced in different states have not been able to control plastic waste generation and the consequent pollution in their respective territories. As seen in Table 1, despite a partial or complete ban introduced in some states, large-scale generation of plastic waste has continued.
Plastic Ban in India | The Ban in Delhi
Till date, about 18 states and union territories have imposed a complete ban on the use of plastic bags. However, thorough and rigorous implementation of the ban has proved unsuccessful. For instance, in 2008 the Delhi High Court directed the Delhi government to raise the minimum thickness of plastic carry bags from 20 to 40 microns (before the PWM Rules imposed a countrywide minimum standard of 50 microns). Following the directions, the state government passed a legislation imposing a complete ban on use of plastic carry bags in market areas. However, the absence of a cost effective alternative combined with a lax enforcement found traders openly flouting the ban (Businessline, 2013). In October 2012, the Delhi Government, by powers vested in it under Section 5 of The Environment Act, 1986, brought about a blanket ban on the manufacture, import, sale, storage, usage and transport of all kinds of plastic bags. The notification that brought the ban about also included provisions to impose penalties on the violators (DelE, 2012).
In 2014, a sample survey on 834 vendors and consumers conducted by the non-profit Toxics Link found that usage of plastic carry bags continued despite a ban. Almost 62 per cent of the 460 vendors and 78 per cent of 374 consumers were using plastic carry bags to sell and carry different products. The usage was found to be high among vegetable and fruit vendors. As far as the issue of reuse and recycling was concerned, 89 per cent of the consumers who were a part of the survey stated that they throw the bags into dustbins after use. Both vendors and customers cited convenience and the lack of a cheaper alternative to plastic as the key reasons behind persisting with plastic usage despite the ban (Toxics Link, 2014).
Further, while the notification also prohibited the production of plastic bags within city boundaries, manufacturing units continued to function in Delhi in the areas of Mangolpuri, Narela and Bawana. It was mostly larger outlets and corporations, easy to identify and penalise, that had made the shift to alternatives such as paper and jute bags. Nevertheless, there was no evidence to suggest that the paper bags were being reused to the extent that is required to qualify as more eco-friendly than single-use plastics (Maloney, 2018).
As far as the vigilance of the Delhi government is concerned, no clear effort was made to aid the introduction of the ban. While some steps were indeed taken for enforcement such as spot-checking and fines, implementation of even these measures fizzled out over time. Lack of strict enforcement is one of the key factors behind the poor implementation in Delhi.
Plastic Ban in India | The Success Story in Sikkim
In 1998, Sikkim became the first state in India to introduce a complete ban on the use of plastic bags. Prior to the ban, the problems caused by increasing usage of plastics were wide ranging—from clogged drains to even landslides (Dhillon, 2018). Following the ban, plastic waste generation in the state has decreased and currently stands at 1,600 tons per annum, the lowest in the country (CPCB, 2015). Following a blanket ban on the use of plastic bags, the Sikkim government took another step to curb pollution from plastic and banned the use of packaged drinking water in government offices and events. The use of Styrofoam and thermocol plates was also banned in the State (UNEP, 2018).
Under the notification issued by the government of Sikkim in 1998, delivery of goods or materials purchased or otherwise to any person, firm, shop, company or any other agency or organisation in plastic wrappers or plastic bags is prohibited. Following the issuance of the notification, the government took steps to carry out continuous checks on the usage of plastic bags in big cities. Fines were imposed on offenders. The penalising provision created a sense of fear among would be offenders and the ban therefore proved effective (Bari, 2018).
It was found that in Gangtok and Soreng, the usage of plastic bags had decreased following the ban—in Gangtok, 62 per cent of users had made the switch. Alternatives such as newspaper wrap and jute bags were being used in Gangtok by 29 per cent and 1 per cent users, respectively. Conventional plastic bag packaging was being used only to the extent of 8 per cent in Gangtok (Maloney, 2018).
However, in Soreng 26 per cent of the users were still using plastic bags. Nearly 18 per cent of the users had started using paper bags, while newspaper wraps and jute bags were being used by 32 per cent and 26 per cent of users respectively (ibid).
But in both the towns, non woven polypropylene (PP) bags were widely used—28 per cent in Gangtok and 24 per cent in Soreng. PP bags, while advertised as eco-friendly, are quite the opposite as they are woven out of plastic. Effective implementation requires inclusion of PP bags among the items that have been banned.
The plastic ban in Sikkim has thus been fairly effective save for a few areas that required better implementation. This is especially important in the case of rural areas, where a large number of people are still using plastic carry bags. All in all, penalties and state-level policies, combined with an awareness programme have helped Sikkim curb use of plastic bags to a large extent.
Plastic Ban in India | Ban in Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh
Maharashtra is India’s biggest generator of plastic waste, producing more than 4.6 lakh tonnes of waste every year. A large proportion of this waste is comprised of polythene bags below 50 microns in thickness, which as mentioned earlier had been banned by the PWM rules of 2016 (CPCB, 2016).
In March 2018, Maharashtra enforced a complete ban on polythene bags, specified types of plastic sheets, non-woven polypropylene bags and thermocols. The notification specifies a complete stop on ‘manufacture, usage, transport, distribution, wholesale and retail sale and storage, import of the plastic bags with handle and without handle, and the disposable products manufactured from plastic and thermocol.’ The plastic items exempt from the ban are milk pouches, wrappers for processed food, dustbin liners and polyethylene terephthalate ester PET bottles. The milk pouches and PET bottles will be sold to customers at an additional cost of 50 paise and one rupee respectively, which is to be refunded when the customers return the plastic product for recycling (MPCB, 2018).
The notification was challenged in the Bombay High Court in April, but the court refused to stay the ban and held that it was reasonable and valid (Thomas, 2018). On June 23, 2018, the law came into effect, thereby providing three months to consumers, vendors and the stakeholders in the plastic industry to find an alternative to plastic products.
Producers have been brought into the ambit of the notification by the initiation of a mechanism wherein they will be responsible for collecting or ‘buying back’ the plastic products manufactured by them under EPR (MPCB, 2018).
In April 2018, it was reported that retailers in both organised and unorganised sectors had made the switch to cloth and paper bags (Agarwal and Janardan, 2018). Further, in July 2018, the buy-back scheme came into effect in the State. Till date, no other Indian state has implemented a buy-back scheme. The rule relating to buy-back puts the onus for collection of plastic waste on manufacturers, for which they are required to set up collection and recycling centers. A buy back price needs to be clearly printed at the back of the PET bottles. The rule relating to EPR has strictly laid down that recycling and collection plants need to be set up within three months from the publication of the notification (ibid). However, no information has been published or made available so far on whether the producers have taken steps as is required of them and whether the implementation of the rules have been desirable.
For ensuring strict implementation of the ban at airports, ports and railway and metro stations, the state government has stated that an authorised officer will be provided the power to take action against violators (Express News Service, 2018). But it is important for Maharashtra to take leaf out of the books of both Sikkim and Delhi, as discussed earlier, in order to gain insight into why and how the bans brought about by their respective governments have succeeded or failed (Agarwal and Janardan, 2018).
On July 15 2018, Uttar Pradesh also introduced a complete ban on the sale and use of plastic bags. Steps for banning plastic had been taken earlier, but since no rules had been prepared for the same, no concrete measures could be taken. The ban covers products made from plastic, including polythene, plastic bags and glasses, in the first phase. During the second phase, starting August 15, the ban will be enforced on all plastics and thermocols, including cups and plates (Mirror Now, 2018).
Measures for Effectiveness
Considering the cases of Delhi and Sikkim it is clear that the bans on plastic bags only becomes effective with an effective monitoring policy and measures to spread awareness about both the ban and the harmful effects of plastic. Successful restrictions on prohibitions on usage in limited geographical areas are more likely to succeed. In its present form, the Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016 imposes a nationwide ban only on the usage of plastic bags below 50 microns of thickness (MoEF, 2016). The remaining rules lay down the basic duties of urban and rural governing bodies to ensure safe disposal of plastic waste and to encourage reduced use of plastics (Johari, 2018). While many state governments have started recognising the need to prohibit the use of plastic products, it is at the same time important to bring about a law that imposes a uniform ban on a national scale. The issue of plastic pollution is not one that should not be seen as restricted to respective states.
Most importantly, infrastructural improvements, especially for the segregation and collection of waste and the disposal of existing plastic waste in a cost efficient manner is imperative at present. The government’s efforts should be to empower municipalities to improve recycling and also enhance energy-conversion from non-recyclable plastic waste. The demand and use of plastic packaging is likely to grow in line with growing demand for processed food and beverages. Therefore management of plastic waste needs to be a priority area of work within the mandate of a clean-India mission.
The PWM Rules, 2016 are but one step towards controlling the nuisance of plastic pollution. To further strengthen the regulation of plastic products and to curb the pollution caused by plastic waste, the government now needs to develop a mechanism where stricter monitoring can bring about better enforcement and strengthen the existing rules, especially those concerning extended producers’ responsibility so that pressure can be brought upon the interest groups that are always seeking to dilute the provisions regulating or banning usage of plastic. Rigorous implementation, combined with improvements in existing infrastructure are the pillars upon which a plastic waste-free future rests.
Agarwal R., 2018. Centre amends Plastic Waste Rules, but misses out on strengthening implementation, Down to Earth, April 2
Agarwal S., and Janardan A., 2018. How Maharashtra is coping with the plastic ban, Livemint, April 7.
Bari P., 2018. Plastic ban has worked in Sikkim but not in Delhi, finds Pune-based NGO, Hindustan Times, March 25.
Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), 2017. Consolidated Guidelines for Segregation, Collection and Disposal of Plastic Waste, Available at: https://bit.ly/2L7YNDo
________________, 2013. Overview of Plastic Waste Management, Available at: https://bit.ly/2Gm6XEV
Maloney K., 2018. An analysis of the effectiveness of bans on plastic bags, EcoExist, Available at: https://bit.ly/2M2V7Gz
Mirror Now Digital, 2018. Plastic ban in Uttar Pradesh enters first phase, polythene below 50 microns banned, Times Now, July 15.
Express News Service, 2018. Officers to act against plastic ban violators at railway stations, metro, ports, airports, The Indian Express, August 4.
Indian Brand Equity Foundation (IBEF), 2017. Indian Plastic Industry, Available at: https://bit.ly/2IoVp9B
Johari A., 2018. Why have laws to completely ban plastic bags failed in India? Scroll, March 21.
PTI, 2013. Traders openly flout ban on plastic bags in Delhi, The Hindu Businessline, February 10.
Delhi Directorate of Education (DElE), 2012. Notification, Available at: https://bit.ly/2rIjQ7N
Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB), 2018. Notification, Available at: https://bit.ly/2IMPD14
Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), 2016. Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016, Available at: https://bit.ly/2GBYQ7O
Thomas S., 2018. Bombay high court refuses to stay plastic ban in Maharashtra, Times of India,
Toxic Links, 2014. Plastics and the Environment Assessing the Impact of the Complete Ban on Plastic Carry Bag, Available at: https://bit.ly/2rM0EFc