The sharp edge of India’s war on plastic9 min read . Updated: 17 Sep 2019, 10:33 PM IST
The Centre’s campaign against low-grade plastic could disrupt the value chain of items used by millions of Indians
New Delhi: Babloo Srivastava is a worried man. A supervisor in a small plastic factory in Narela on the outskirts of Delhi, Srivastava earns ₹20,000 per month but could lose his job any day. About 40 workers have already left the unit as work came to a grinding halt few weeks ago, after Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged Indians to shun single-use plastic (SUP) in his Independence Day speech.
“I believe the time has come for even the world to say goodbye to single-use plastic," the Prime Minister reiterated last week while addressing the 14th Conference of Parties, or COP14, of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification. However, India is yet to define what constitutes SUP. Perhaps we’ll get to know on 2 October, on the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, when the Prime Minister is expected to announce measures to reduce plastic use.
As of now, 12 items are proposed to be banned by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). The dirty dozen includes items used by millions of Indians—thin carry bags, wrapping films, straws and stirrers, disposable cutlery, plastic sticks used in balloons, ear buds and candies, cigarette butts, thermocol, small beverage bottles less than 200ml, and roadside banners. Interestingly, the list excludes multilayered packaging in which snacks like chips, nuts, and candies are sold, which are almost never recycled and, therefore, shunned even by rag-pickers.
In the universe of plastic items used daily, SUPs constitute about a fifth in volume, estimates the All India Plastic Manufacturers Association (AIPMA), an industry lobby. Plastic used to make other products, from buckets and wall clocks to cars and consumer durables, is usually recycled.
There’s no denying that Indian cities are drowning in plastic waste. Sure, India’s per capita consumption of plastic at 11 kilograms (kg) per year is still among the lowest in the world (global average is 28 kg per year), yet it generates a staggering 26,000 tonnes of plastic waste every day. There is no estimate on how much of that is recycled—it’s safe to assume a significant amount ends up in rivers, oceans and landfills.
For now, the confusion regarding what could be banned or phased out is taking a toll on small manufacturers. “Distributors have stopped placing orders, and retailers do not want to stock plastic cutlery items fearing an impending ban. So we stopped production," said Ankur Nagpal, owner of the Narela unit mentioned earlier. Nagpal has also shut operations at three other units, retrenching over 100 people.
Nagpal grudges the reality that it is small manufacturers like he who are paying a price, though his products can be recycled in the same way as packaged drinking water bottles. The Thermoforming and Allied Industries Association, of which Nagpal is general secretary, estimates that 125,000 jobs in 850 registered units manufacturing “rigid" plastic packaging for food and beverages are on the line. Other than “rigid" plastic items, the entire SUP industry comprises of over 10,000 small and medium enterprises employing between 300,000 and 400,000 people who could be out of job, said Deepak Ballani, secretary general, AIPMA.
Ballani’s concerns were echoed by India’s former environment minister Jairam Ramesh when he admitted to resisting a blanket ban on SUPs in the past. “Plastic industry employs lakhs and the real problem is how we dispose and recycle waste," Ramesh tweeted on 11 September.
Use of carry bags
Concerns on job losses aside, it is hard to deny the power of a public movement to shun plastics, spearheaded by none other than Prime Minister Modi whose pet schemes—be it improving access to sanitation to educating the girl child—are packaged on the lines of a campaign. “Saw cows being operated and heaps of plastic being removed from their bodies. This is deplorable and should inspire us to work towards reduced and careful plastic usage," the Prime Minister said on 11 September, following a visit to Mathura in Uttar Pradesh.
Modi’s appeal and emphasis on reducing plastic use was much required, said Sourabh Manuja, fellow at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), Delhi. “A lot of single-use plastic items end up in landfills and oceans since they cannot be recycled, or like straws and thin films, is economically unfeasible to collect and recycle," Manuja said. He added that any move to restrict SUP is likely to impact manufacturers of plastic cutlery and bags. “So it is best to have a plan on how the same machines can be used to manufacture recyclable items as well as provide alternatives."
According to Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), India needs to put a ban on SUP urgently, but for it to be successful a definition is required which goes beyond carry bags. “The problem is not about carry bags but about packaging of food and other items—particularly in multilayered bags, which are difficult to collect and have limited recycling options," said a recent note prepared by the Delhi based think-tank.
Since most households do not segregate waste, managing it becomes a difficult task, said Swati Singh Sambyal, programme manager at CSE. “We also have to keep in mind the carbon footprint of alternatives. Replacing plastic bags with the cloth ones using virgin cotton may not be environment friendly. A better option is to upcycle by using textile waste," she added.
Even here, the past results have not been encouraging. Many states in the recent past—Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Telangana and Himachal Pradesh—have banned use of SUP items, but when it comes to implementation it has been limited to restrictions on using plastic carry bags. Maharashtra, for instance, had to backtrack on a ban it imposed in June 2018 by later allowing PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles and use of plastic in retail packaging.
A November 2018 status report by the CPCB said even in those states which have imposed a complete ban on use of plastic bags, they are “stocked, sold and used indiscriminately".
While multilayered plastic packaging is likely to escape the impending ban (due to a lack of an alternative and concerns around food hygiene), 200ml PET bottles are expected to be discontinued. Industry estimates suggest these comprise 40% of all beverages and liquid sold in India. The demand is largely driven by institutional sales—hotels, corporates, airlines, weddings and offices which use disposable bottles in large quantities.
“As a business person I’m shaken up as we don’t know where the industry is headed," said Shiroy Mehta, director at Ahemedabad-based packaged water company Aava that draws 40% of its sales from 200ml packs. Mehta’s company that employs over 450 people sells largely to airlines, hotels, and corporates.
Mehta said the government’s narrative around plastic has created a negative sentiment around the usage of the medium. “We support the move for curbing the use of single-use plastic but we should do it in a way where we have clarity. We will clearly see a dip in the growth of 200ml (plastic) bottles going forward," he said. Already some hotels have stopped placing orders for water bottles with 200ml capacity in response to the Prime Minister’s call. In July, Visatara airlines announced that it will stop serving small water bottles in India in a phased manner as it seeks to curb plastic use in its flights.
Manufacturers of PET bottles, however, are convinced that PET remains a more viable and economical option to sell packaged beverages when compared to glass bottles and aluminium cans. Cost aside, most manufacturers suggest that PET bottles used in India are mostly recycled and used to manufacture apparel, toys, and bags—a ₹7.5 trillion ecosystem which involves manufacturers, brands, rag-pickers and recyclers. “World over there is no alternative to PET bottles apart from cans and bottles, but you cannot move to cans entirely because they are very costly," said Vimal Kedia, managing director at rigid plastic manufacturing company Manjushree Technopack, which works with some of the country’s largest packaged consumer goods companies.
At the New Delhi-based PACE or PET Packaging Association for Clean Environment, an industry body that counts CavinKare, Parle Agro, Dabur India, and Coca-Cola as its members, work has been underway to make representations to several ministries regarding PET bottles. “We are trying to explain our side—the side of the industry where we are saying that irrespective of the size, the PET bottles and containers will be picked up and recycled. Because it is already a raw material for another industry," said Pankaj Uppal, manager, public policy, PACE.
Searching for an alternative
There’s no denying that a large middle-class is receptive to issues of conservation and recognizes concerns around plastic use. That said, an outright ban without viable alternatives never works.
Take a recent example. A ban imposed by the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) in March 2016 on manufacturing, supply, sale and use of plastic items like bags, banners, buntings, flex, flags, plates and other forms that use plastic micro beads is yet to see any real results or change in people’s mindset in a city which generates between 4,000 to 5,000 tonnes of waste each day, with plastic accounting for a fifth. “It’s a gradual process as plastic has become all pervasive in our lifestyle. It takes time for people to discontinue that habit," said B.H. Anil Kumar, BBMP commissioner.
The ban had a crippling effect on the advertising industry, forcing hundreds of small enterprises to shut shop. “Banning is not the solution, raising awareness and providing a good alternative is," P.M. Mohammed Ashfaq, managing director at Plastobag industries, a Bengaluru-based plastic and bioplastic maker.
Plastic manufacturers say that Kulhad (earthen cups) and paper bags are portrayed as solutions but these too come at a cost to the environment as they are made from top soil and wood pulp. Bioplastic is at least 2.5 times more expensive, said Ashfaq, adding, it will ultimately hurt the consumer.
An alternative to using disposable cutlery could be setting up community crockery banks, said Shubhra Rai, a working professional from Noida, who took the initiative to start one in her housing society. “Residents in our society contributed generously when we decided to purchase steel crockery sets which can be borrowed and returned after an event," Rai said.
Truth be told, finding an alternative to plastic which can be both environment-friendly and cost-effective is not easy. And some companies are desperate. Nature’s Basket, a subsidiary of Spencer’s Retail, is in the process of phasing out use of plastic by introducing paper bags and banana leaves. E-commerce giants like Amazon and Flipkart said they are cutting down use of SUP in packaging by replacing these with recycled and renewable materials. But food delivery platforms like Swiggy and Zomato are yet to make any noticeable changes. Some are taking an innovative route. This year, Raw Pressery, a juice brand, launched an initiative to convert used plastic bottles into clothing.
Others are trying to use local alternatives such as sal or siali leaf plates, which are widely used in eastern India. Or bamboo to make straws, and biodegradable plates made from areca or palm leaves. But in a bid to cut corners, consumers are buying cheap wooden crockery imported from China, complained Nagpal, the factory owner from Narela quoted earlier. When asked why he is not making these, Nagpal replies, “Where is the wood in India? I went to China to find out. They are importing wood from Russia and have set up plants close to the Russian border."
Sharan Poovana and Mihir S. Dalal in Bengaluru contributed to this story.