This article was first written for an international publication for an expected announcement on a plastic ban in India. However, due to the announcement not occurring it was held back from publication. Therefore, this version (published a month and two days after the expected announcement date) has been adjusted from the original because the announcement by the government was not made for various reasons. Hopefully the thoughts and information throughout will help in ensuring that an announcement and a planned transition to a circular economy will be made in the near future.
Plastic bag bans have had varying degrees of success throughout the world. Some positive examples can be seen from France who has had a plastic ban since 2016, where within the law there are clauses that specify that “the replacements of these items will need to be made from biologically sourced materials that can be composted” (source). To assist with a ban since 2008 Rwanda’s plastic bag ban is “not effective just because of strict enforcement but also because of hefty penalties. According to the law, the offenders smuggling plastic bags can face jail time” (source). While returning focus to Europe, Sweden has implemented one of the world’s best recycling systems that is so effective that “less than one percent of Sweden’s household waste goes into landfill dump” (source), similarly in Ireland a dramatic decrease of plastic was seen due to a plastic bag tax in 2002, which saw “within weeks of its implementation… a reduction of 94 percent in plastic bag use” (source). On a larger scale that parallels India’s population “China made it illegal for stores (small or big vendors) to give out plastic bags (in 2008) and allowed them to keep any profit they made for themselves. End result, after two years of the laws implementation, usage of plastic bags dropped by a whopping 50%” (source).
This, unfortunately, does not offer any guarantees to India. The announcement that was due to be made on October 2nd by the Indian government had been described as “comprehensive and will cover manufacturing, usage and import of (plastic) items” (source) that include “plastic bags, cups, plates, small bottles, straws and certain types of sachets” (source). Yet it was also downplayed by other individuals in the government including “Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar (who) clarified at a press conference that there is no imminent ban on the use of single-use plastic in India, that the Prime Minister Narendra Modi didn’t say ‘ban’, but said ‘goodbye’ to SUP waste” (source).
SUP, or single use plastic, waste is highly detrimental to the environment as a single use item of this unsustainable material. The word plastic originally meant ‘pliable and easily shaped’, but more recently it has become the name for a category of polymers, this word meaning ‘of many parts’ (source). Notably the issue is that humans, over the last century or more, have learned how to design and create synthetic polymers, with the most plentiful being made from petroleum and other varieties of fossil fuels. These designs and creations have become incredibly useful, however it has caused humanity to become reliant on the material, which, due to its properties, is damaging to the environment, especially those that are single use, which means that the products end up in landfills or the oceans.
This method of production and consumption has meant that “every day, India generates plastic waste that weighs as much as 150 large blue whales—the biggest animal known to exist” (source). The announcement that was not made on October 2nd was neither a ban or a strongly worded ‘goodbye’ or a step toward replicating methods in other locations in the world, despite this, the reality is that something needs to be done with the amount of waste being produced.
An important note to bare in mind is that “banning single use plastic will hurt a large part of existing investments in machinery and impact jobs in the plastics industry” (source), which is inherently linked with others throughout the country and the world. “It is one of the fastest growing industries in India as it sees its fortunes linked to the growth of every other industry” (source), with an expected growth rate of “22 million tonnes a year by 2020 and nearly half of this is SUP” (source). However, far more importantly, is that the “future costs of removing all single use plastics accumulating in the environment will most certainly be higher than the costs of allowing this polluting industry to grow” (source). Solutions to this issue relate to green jobs, implementing new sustainable methods of living in cities and promoting alternatives, among others that are achievable providing those in place to make a change choose to.
The question then is whether Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) companies and other mass producing retailers view long term sustainability over short term financial gain or the other way around. The FMCG sector is the “4th largest sector in the Indian economy with Household and Personal Care accounting for 50 percent of FMCG sales in India” (source). It fits into a complex system of stakeholders from an estimated “1.5- 4 million waste pickers in India, who pick up, clean, sort and segregate recyclable waste and sell it further up the value chain” (source) to consumers and policy makers among others. All of this complexity suggest that a one off announcement is not going to eliminate plastic in this country. However, there are positives notes from, among others, The United Nations Environment Programme that suggests that “bans will be effective only if there’s a concerted effort by the policy makers and the public at large” (source). Importantly, structures need to be put in place such as formalising the informal waste picking sector (utilising all of the waste pickers as a valuable resource for the country) in order for a transition to occur.
Thus, the first step should have been the announcement on the 2nd of October (but this can be substituted to a degree by the conversations that have occurred surrounding this). The next step needs to be a concerted- planned or done together for a shared purpose (source)- effort to transition the system away from the use of harmful products and mass production and consumption. India’s blue whale sized (source) waste problem must be addressed by “ensuring sustained effort to cut down consumption and investing in the recycling sector” (source). Without the involvement of all stakeholders from the waste picker evaluating each piece of material in her or his hand to the policy makers at the top level of government a transition away from plastic is unlikely to be achieved because a systemic change needs to occur. One that encourages industry to not rely on any plastic (in a linear economy- the take, make, dispose method- of production and consumption), not just single use- “about 47 percent of the plastic waste generated globally, came from multi layered packaging” (source)- for their packaging, distribution and other areas of their operations.
More than just the waste pickers and large companies, the everyday consumer in this country must be educated about the reasons why the country has to move away from the use of plastic. They need to be critically aware of what they are buying and what material is used. There is a need for all stakeholders to be involved and organised in the way products are produced and consumed. While most poignantly, consumers need to practice sustainable consumption themselves and be responsible to their environment (source).
There is a need to utilise new sustainable options and to refuse plastic, which businesses are already providing due to a demand. There is a need to constantly review the system, to keep it transparent and to know whether it is sustainable. There is a need for consumers to take responsibility for their habits pertaining to consumption, disposal and all other areas that today produce plastic waste. There is also a need for consumers to change their perspective on waste in order to value everything and everyone as a resource.
India must ensure that the conversation about the announcement that did not occur on October 2nd, is not the only step. It has to be the first of many that helps educate and raise awareness of this problem, which may lead to new solutions. The conversations cannot be made flippantly. They must be genuine. They must be transparent. From those conversations, the government must join in with positive steps forward that must have clear timelines and dedicated metrics that allow companies to transition to more sustainable operations and products. The move toward a more sustainable lifestyle in India must be inclusive of all stakeholders but most of all. An announcement in the near future must be voiced, heard and actioned upon.