The manufacture, import, stocking and sale of these single-use plastic (SUP) items are also now prohibited  (Photo: Bloomberg)

On Monday, India marked one month of an ambitious ban on the use of a select group of low-utility plastic items with high litter potential, ranging from earbuds to plastic cutlery and ice-cream sticks. The manufacture, import, stocking and sale of these single-use plastic (SUP) items are also now prohibited. However, prompt data on implementation is lacking, potentially hindering the success of the initiative, experts said.

The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) has set up a portal on which its state wings have to file fortnightly compliance reports, and it has said it will make the compiled data on inspections and action taken public. However, no such data is available yet (an app set up for the purpose only provides status of complaints made by citizens). Most state boards whose websites Mint scanned did not have any such reports either. Emails and calls to CPCB officials since last week have gone unanswered.

Plastic elimination goal: India's Journey so for 

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Plastic elimination goal: India’s Journey so for 

Experts say the lack of consistent timely data could hinder effective monitoring, as it has done in past attempts at bans. Monthly or quarterly data would go a long way in helping India tackle this scourge and build accountability, environmentalists said. Only some cities, such as Gurugram, Bengaluru and Pune, have released data on violations and penalties.

“Making data available on compliance/violation will improve public confidence and they will also be convinced that this is not yet again one of the past bans with no monitoring of compliance,” said Suneel Pandey, director, environment and waste management division at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI).

Corporate roadblocks

Plastic bans, as in the latest one, typically see a pushback from India Inc, especially the consumer goods sector, which fears that a shift to eco-friendly substitutes could make its products costlier and hurt sales, especially for packs with low price points that rely on single-use plastic packaging. A previous plan to introduce a nationwide ban in 2019 had to be delayed reportedly due to an economic slowdown and rising unemployment. A report by Kotak Securities suggests that replacing plastic with eco-friendly substitutes could increase packaging costs and also impact profitability.

Experts suggest that policymakers take a cue from Kerala’s ‘Green Protocol’, which has laid down standard operating procedures (SOP) to help corporations comply with these bans with a focus on waste minimization through using reusable alternatives. “There will be a need for even much more localized strategies and SOP to make companies comply,” said Sourabh Manuja, an independent waste management expert.

Half-hearted bans

India generated 3.47 million tonnes of plastic waste in 2019-20, according to CPCB. The problem ultimately boils down to states taking concerted efforts to mitigate this form of pollution. CPCB data shows Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat generated the most of the plastic waste, and on a per capita basis, Delhi, Telangana and Gujarat fared the worst. This is despite the fact that most states have tried to institute some form of plastic bans since the turn of the millennium. As per the CPCB report, 25 states and union territories had declared complete bans on plastic carry bags by 2019-20 and five had banned those with less than 50 micron thickness. However, a half-spirited nationwide ban has come into play only because state-level bans have met with limited success till date. Lobbying by the industry, lack of manufacturing capabilities to switch to alternatives, and poor public awareness have crimped the attempts to consign plastic to history.

The way out

Many studies have tried to find out what hinders the elimination of single-use plastic. The reasons range from inadequate manufacturing facilities and poor financial support for biodegradable alternatives, and poor awareness leading to low uptake of environment-friendly single-use products, and high cost for technologies for alternatives, according to a 2020 study led by K.E.K. Vimal of National Institute of Technology, Patna. High dependence of consumers on plastic items is also a reason. Any policy solution should be targeted at both consumers as well as manufacturers, say analysts.

There is a need to aggressively push for waste reduction and reuse strategies among consumers. “Cities have to promote 3Rs (reduce, reuse and recycle) more rigorously, engage citizens more effectively through deposit return schemes, collection and recycling centres,” said Manuja. For manufacturers, the government needs to extend financial support for research and development and engage more with entrepreneurs who can bring alternative and sustainable products into the market.

Mint reached out to companies listed in the second chart for a response. Most did not respond or refused to comment. The responses we received are below:

Diageo India (which runs United Spirits) said the combined usage of PET & tetra packs accounts for 4% of its operations, and it is a “net-zero plastic waste company” as of June. “We have ambitious targets to increase recycled content of plastic packaging to 60% and achieve 100% recycled content in plastics by 2030,” it said. Hindustan Unilever, Indian subsidiary of Unilever, said it was committed to moving plastic packaging to 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025, and that it collects and processes more plastic packaging than it sells. The company claimed it had achieved plastic neutrality by 2021. ITC said it had exceeded its commitment on plastic neutrality this year, and aimed to go beyond the requirements of the latest rules.

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