India was the global host on World Environment Day 2018. With the theme this year being “Beat Plastic Pollution", the focus clearly is on controlling the pollution caused by single-use plastic. India is already struggling to manage its plastic waste. Plastic is being dumped into oceans and rivers, drains are getting choked and animals are dying of plastic ingestion. Environmental activists have been criticizing the government for its lax enforcement of environmental standards in order to attract foreign investment. However, the fact remains that 18 states have banned plastic use and the laws to regulate plastic use and recycling have been in place since 1999, almost two decades.

The Central government had notified the Recycled Plastics Manufacture and Usage Rules, 1999, to regulate the manufacture, sale, use and recycling of plastic bags. These rules were replaced by the Plastic Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2011, which sought to regulate the use, collection, segregation, transportation and disposal of plastic waste.

In 2016, the Central government came up with the Plastic Waste Management Rules. These sought to extend the responsibility of the plastic producers and generators to create an effective waste management system, including collection, recycling, and a phase-out of plastic which could not be recycled. They allocated responsibilities to all the stakeholders and provided that all the tasks mentioned under the rules be implemented within six months of their notification. It has been more than two years since the rules were notified and we still find ourselves clueless about managing our plastic waste.

Like most environmental laws, the missing key remains implementation. Our lawmakers draft excellent laws but we are terrible at ensuring their implementation. The reasons cited are lack of adequate infrastructure, absence of trained and adequate staff, overall lack of awareness, information asymmetry, and, possibly, wavering political will.

The Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016, have their critics but many would still agree that the rules are fine. The challenge, as anyone would have imagined, was, and remains, implementation. If only we had strong local bodies with trained staff, implementation would be so much better.

The plastic waste management issue has been brought up before the National Green Tribunal (NGT) and various high courts, with the latest instance being the Maharashtra government’s ban on plastic being challenged before the Bombay high court. The Maharashtra Plastic and Thermocol Products (Manufacture, Usage, Sale, Transport, Handling and Storage) Notification, 2018, was issued in March to ban the manufacture, transport, distribution, wholesale and retail sale, usage, storage and import of certain plastic products. After it was challenged, the high court provided an extension of three months as it would have been difficult to implement the ban with immediate effect. The NGT has also passed a number of orders reaffirming the plastic ban in various states, prohibiting plastic disposal in rivers and other water bodies, and providing for an imposition of fine on violators. But we fail at enforcing and implementing such orders.

While the world struggles to “beat plastic pollution", issues like the use of plastic microbeads by Indian fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies have been under scrutiny for the last couple of years. Microbeads are solid plastic particles usually less than 5mm in size and are used in personal care products. They are non-biodegradable, and, hence, have a long-term impact on biological diversity and ecosystems. Many countries, including the US, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, The Netherlands, Austria, Luxembourg, Belgium and Sweden, have either banned or are planning to ban the use of plastic microbeads.

Be it plastic waste in general or certain forms of it, like microbeads, the law has sufficient provisions to prohibit their use in forms that pollute, and which thus threaten the natural environment. For a country which generates more than five million tonnes of plastic waste per year, reliance on the informal sector for managing our plastic waste will not yield results.

Despite the 2016 rules having been amended in 2018, there is still not much clarity on how concepts like extended producer responsibility and deposit refund scheme will actually play out. Plastic manufacturers and users, quite a few of them, are willing to comply with the law, but still find it difficult to do so simply because there is a mismatch between the law and ground reality.

It is unfair to put the blame solely on those who manufacture and use plastic. They have been doing so because, possibly, the enforcement agencies have turned a blind eye to violators. Also, law-making is a consultative process. It is unfair to frame and implement any law abruptly. While this consultation cannot be an endless process, it also cannot be completely ignored.

There is definitely much left to be desired. We could very well ban plastic in all states and Union territories, but, given the poor planning and weak implementation, this would not serve the purpose. Sure-footed baby steps are way safer than hasty giant strides.

Nawneet Vibhaw is associate partner at Khaitan & Co.

Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com

Close