How India has Responded to the Plastic Crisis vis-à-vis how other countries reacted to it

When Government of India first published the Plastic Waste Management (PWM) Rules in 2016, a key element of it consisted of “Extended Producer Responsibility” or EPR. The concept of EPR revolved round the theme that the polluters should pay for their misdeeds, resulting out of introducing plastic as packaging material. In other words, this meant that all sellers of plastic packaging should, within a period of six months, bring about a structure to collect their (plastic) waste and do something about it. Two years hence, after much confusion about how EPR would or should work, it was found that the ball has just started rolling.


Be that as it may, it was a poor beginning, hardly enough to make a dent on the problem of India’s annual plastic waste of 7-9 million tonnes (CPCB estimates). Regrettably enough, it was found that only around 45 organizations cared to submit their EPR plans to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), whereas the number of such organizations runs into several thousands, as per information gathered by S.K. Nigam, nodal officer for PWM at the board.


Nevertheless, in course of the last one year period, the CPCB has started organizing EPR waste-recovery targets. Alongside, it also activated listing of Producer Responsibility Organizations (PROs), to whom manufacturers could outsource their commitments. These efforts, no doubt had given a fillip to recycling processes due to operate soon.


Meanwhile, let us analyze (through competent News Reporters) how people in some of the Indian States had reacted to the plastic ban imposed by the government.


Following Jammu & Kashmir’s ban on use of polythene bags, the reporters spoke to local shopkeepers to assess the level of implementation, with the following outcome.


“I heard about the ban only from you,” Abdul Majeed Paul, a shopkeeper in Ompora-Budgam, told IndiaSpend when asked why he was packing goods in plastic carry bags. “No other customer talks about it. In fact, they ask for more polythene bags if they buy a lot of things.”


Most shopkeepers and vegetable sellers whom the reporters spoke to said that the government should have started with regulating polythene manufacturing and penalizing those carrying plastic bags.


“Fining only shopkeepers and vendors will not help,” said Gulzar Ahmad, a vendor in Srinagar’s busy Batamaloo area. “Let the government ban manufacturing of polythene, people will automatically use non-plastic bags.”


In Karnataka, where there is a blanket ban on manufacture, storage, distribution and use of plastics such as carry bags, banners, plastic plates, cups and spoons, the ban is “ineffective in several areas though it is certainly making some impact in some parts”, said Megha Shenoy, adjunct fellow at the Bengaluru-based Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE).


“Several authorities are mandated to enforce the ban, often leading to shunting responsibility from one department to the next,” Shenoy affirmed, adding that, “The ban will be effectively enforced only when there is a robust system to aggregate the proofs of enforcement while also giving due credit to the concerned officers and departments.”


“There is no system to audit or validate this enforcement. This validation should be done by a third party that is not an enforcer [itself],” Shenoy concluded.


In Punjab, where there is a similar blanket ban, “Polythene bags continue to be used,” said Harminder Pal Singh, a professor of Environmental Science at Punjab University. “Even polythene bags of low grade quality [which cause more damage] are in use across Punjab and they are also used for carrying food items--both raw and cooked,” Singh added.


“Officials sometimes fine shopkeepers, but such measures have to be consistent,” commented Singh, ruefully regretting that the ban is “Not even working in Chandigarh, a Union Territory, where it could have been implemented far more firmly than in Punjab.”


“We had managed to close down all the plastic carry bags manufacturing units in Punjab,” Krunesh Garg, chief environmental engineer at Punjab Pollution Control Board confirmed.  

“But, polythene is being pumped into Punjab from other states--mostly from Gujarat--and its distribution and use is not being stopped by the local authorities which renders the ban ineffective,” Garg added.


The complete ban vs. partial ban has created a lot of confusion

In several Indian States, confusion is rife in regard to whether the ban is total or partial.


While Tapek Riba, Member Secretary at the Pollution Control Board of Arunachal Pradesh maintained that polythene carry bags were not completely banned in his state, information collected by press reporters confirmed that the ban was total “The restriction is only on [polythene bags of] thickness of less than 50 microns,” Riba told the same reporters. “In some districts, it is completely banned, but in others, it is partially banned,” Riba said, adding that on random checks, the authorities ascertain thickness by feel/touch.


In Uttar Pradesh, political unrest turned blanket ban to partial ban (on bags with thickness below 50 microns), clarified a ruling party spokesperson.


“We conduct raids and impose fines, but it doesn’t seem to be working,” observed Pankaj Bhushan, environmental engineer at Lucknow Municipal Corporation.


Now, let us turn our attention to a few world countries to analyze how they have reacted to the plastic pollution problem.


France- Pioneer of Plastic Ban: France is the first country to pass a law banning all kinds of plastic - plates, cups, and utensils while waging a war against plastic pollution. In order to abide by the ‘Plastic Ban' law promulgated in the country in 2016, replacements made with the plastic items ‘must be bio-degradable which can be further composted.’ The law, incidentally has totally banned plastic shopping bags, while aiming to reduce plastic usage to half its present state, positively by 2025.

Rwanda- Plastic Bag Free: While this East/Central African country, in course of its fight against the use of plastic bags that almost destroyed the country’s ecosystem was one of the firsts to impose ban on plastic bags in 2008, also enforced heavy fine and/or jail term for offenders.

Sweden- the incredible Plastic Recycler: The country, amazingly enough, while running out of plastic waste for recycling, now asks neighboring countries to dump such trash for recycling in their plants to keep these recyclers alive and kicking about.. The country which is the birthplace of Alfred Nobel, the great inventor-cum-philanthropist, Sweden does not believe in ‘Plastic ban’, but insists on ‘Plastic recycling’.

Ireland- Tax Leverage on Plastic: The country where the great playwright and international satirist George Bernard Shaw was born had enacted a law in 2002 that made every consumer to pay a tax on buying a plastic bag. No wonder, people refrained from buying such ‘taxable bag’ within weeks of the promulgation of the law, and as a result, the use of plastic bag in Sweden was reduced to 4%, as compared to earlier days. However, use of plastic is now illegal in Ireland.

Marketplace ban on plastic bag in China: In a pioneering effort to fight worsening pollution and energy waste caused by unbridled use of plastic bag, the State Council, China’s cabinet, more than ten years ago, instituted marketplace ban on plastic bag that covered supermarkets, food markets and sundry shopping centers all over the country. The results are more than evident today – plastic bags are no more found all over the People’s Republic of china.