Schoolgirls look at items which are an alternate to plastic at an event to create awareness about eco-friendly products in New Delhi, India, on Friday. AP
India on Friday imposed a ban on single-use plastics on items ranging from straws to cigarette packets to combat worsening pollution in country whose streets are strewn with waste.
Announcing the ban, the government dismissed the demands of food, beverage and consumer goods companies to hold off the restriction to avoid disruptions.
The country generates around four million tonnes of plastic waste per year, about a third of which is not recycled and ends up in waterways and landfills that regularly catch fire and exacerbate air pollution.
Rapid economic growth has fuelled demand for goods that come with single-use plastic products, such as straws and disposable cutlery. But India, which uses about 14 million tonnes of plastic annually, lacks an organised system for managing plastic waste, leading to widespread littering.
Streets across towns are littered with used plastic goods that eventually choke drains, rivers and oceans and also kill animals.
India’s ban on single-use plastic items includes straws, cutlery, ear buds, packaging films, plastic sticks for balloons, candy and ice-cream, and cigarette packets, among other products, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government said in a statement.
PepsiCo, Coca-Cola Co, India’s Parle Agro, Dabur and Amul had lobbied for straws to be exempted from the ban.
In a relief to consumers, the government has for now exempted plastic bags but it has asked manufacturers and importers to raise the thickness to promote reuse.
For the first stage, it has identified 19 plastic items that aren’t very useful but have a high potential to become litter and makes it illegal to produce, import, stock, distribute or sell them. These items range from plastic cups and straws to ice cream sticks. Some disposable plastic bags will also be phased out and replaced with thicker ones.
Pulses packed in single use plastic bags are seen at a stall in a local market in Chennai. AFP
Thousands of other plastic products — like bottles for water or soda or bags of chips — aren’t covered by the ban. But the federal government has set targets for manufacturers to be responsible for recycling or disposing of them after their use.
Plastic manufacturers had appealed to the government to delay the ban, citing inflation and potential job losses. But India’s federal environment minister Bhupender Yadav said at a press briefing in New Delhi that the ban had been in the pipeline for a year. “Now that time is up,” he said.
This isn’t the first time that India has considered a plastic ban. But previous iterations have focused on specific regions, resulting in varying degrees of success. A nationwide ban that includes not just the use of plastic, but also its production or importation was a “definite boost,” said Satyarupa Shekhar, the Asia-Pacific coordinator of the advocacy group Break Free from Plastic.
Most plastic isn’t recycled globally and millions of tons pollute the world’s oceans, impact wildlife and turn up in drinking water. Scientists are still trying to assess the risks posed by the tiny bits of broken-down plastic, known as microplastics. In 2020, over 4.1 million metric tonnes (4.5 million US tonnes) of plastic waste was generated in India, according to its federal pollution watchdog.
A girl holds a plastic glass as she prepares to drink Shaved ice at Juhu beach in Mumbai. AP
The creaky waste management system in the country’s burgeoning cities and villages means that much of this waste isn’t recycled and ends up polluting the environment. Nearly 13 million metric tonnes (14 million US tonnes) of plastic waste was either littered or not recycled by the South Asian nation in 2019 — the highest in the world, according to Our World in Data.
Making plastic releases earth-warming greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and India is home to factories that make over 243,000 metric tons (268,000 U.S. tons) of disposable plastic each year. This means that reducing the manufacture and consequent waste of plastic is crucial for India to meet its target of reducing the intensity of emissions in economic activity by 45% in eight years.
A recent study identified over 8,000 chemical additives used for plastic processing, some of which are a thousand times more potent as greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide. Products like single-use packaging, plastic resins, foamed plastic insulation, bottles and containers, among many others, add to global greenhouse emissions.