Photo: HT
Photo: HT

Plastic ban won’t work, reshaping its economics will

Mint explains how changing the economics of plastic can be an alternative to bans—or complement them

India has held off on imposing a blanket ban on single-use plastic to combat pollution, choosing instead to strictly enforce existing rules for curbing their use. Mint explains how changing the economics of plastic can be an alternative to bans—or complement them.

What is the plastic waste challenge?

Global plastic consumption is increasing. Every year, 8 million tonnes of plastic ends up in the oceans. That is the equivalent of dumping a truck load of plastic in the ocean every minute. India generates 9.46 million tonnes of plastic waste a year, half of which is single-use plastic. India’s commitment to eliminate single-use plastic by 2022 is among the world’s most ambitious targets. An unprecedented scale of research and innovation is needed to achieve this goal. The real challenge, however, is to rethink the role of plastic in society and the economy. The business-as-usual attitude won’t work anymore.

What has India done so far on this front?

India rolled out Plastic Waste Management Rules in 2016. Plastic is to be marked as per categories— 1 for PET, 4 for low density polyethylene, 5 for polypropylene—to ensure that the right industrial process is used for recycling. Self-sustaining business models that yield economic returns for all those involved in waste collection and recycling are working in cities like Bengaluru. In his Independence Day address, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for a movement to eliminate single-use plastic beginning on Gandhi Jayanti. However, to avoid further disruption during the slowdown, no ban has been announced.


Will a ban on plastics have the intended effect?

Sikkim banned plastic bags back in 1998. Bans are in place in about 22 states and Union territories. Yet, both the plastic packaging industry as well as plastic consumption are growing rapidly. Bans are difficult to regulate, enforce and monitor. Strict enforcement is needed to eliminate the possibility of rules being flouted.

What are the current economics of plastic?

The intended useful life of plastic packaging is typically less than a year. The energy and resources spent on producing it become a waste after just a single use. Then it just leaks out of the value chain and remains in the oceans or the soil for centuries. This represents estimated annual losses of $80-120 billion to the world economy. Also, the natural capital cost because of the pollution it causes is valued conservatively by the UN at $75 billion annually. The conventional plastics economy, thus, is characterized by heavy losses.

Is there an alternative to bans?

Eliminating plastic pollution requires reshaping the economics of plastic. This entails creating a cost-effective after-use plastic ecosystem for which economics of recycling, reuse, and controlled biodegradation of consumer and industrial plastic will have to be improved. Companies use plastic to package every kind of product.

To move away from it, they will have to redesign materials and develop new technologies.

Puja Mehra is a Delhi-based journalist and the author of The Lost Decade (2008-18).

Graphic: Mint
Graphic: Mint
Close