In 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, announced an ambitious pledge to eliminate all single-use plastic in the country by 2022.

“The choices that we make today will define our collective future. These choices may not be easy. But through awareness, technology, and a genuine global partnership, we can make the right choices. Let us all join together to beat plastic pollution and make this planet a better place to live”, he said.

India’s per capita plastic consumption is much lower than many western nations (India’s plastic consumption at 11kg is only one-tenth of what it is in the US and less than one-third of China), but with a population of 130 crores, the overall numbers are much higher.

India’s plastic consumption in comparison to the US, Europe, China and Brazil. (Image credit: World Economic Forum)

Plastic, plastic everywhere

One of the main reasons for this enormous generation of plastic waste in India is rapid urbanization and the ensuing expansion of retail chains. Whether it is groceries, fruits and vegetables, cosmetics or other consumer products, today, single-use plastic is an integral part of packaging these items.

And, since single-use plastics are non-biodegradable and non-recyclable, they are used only once and then thrown into the bin. This includes plastic bags, straws, coffee stirrers as well as soda and water bottles.

Illustration by Jyothi Syam

According to a report published by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs titled ‘Plastic Waste Management’, the amount of waste that plastic generates is colossal.

The report mentions, “Only 60 percent of the plastic produced in India is recycled, the remaining 9,400 tonnes is left unattended in the environment causing land, air and water pollution. 70 percent of plastic packaging products are converted into plastic waste in a short span.”

It further explains that 50 percent of the plastic that is purchased is discarded as waste after single use, thereby increasing the carbon footprint exponentially.

Statistical representation of the massive global threat created by plastic waste on marine ecology (Image credit: MoHUA/SBM)

According to Down To Earth, there was a steady rise in plastic consumption between 2013 to 2018 and this is only expected to surge in the coming years. The plastic processing industry anticipates the demand for polymer to grow at the rate of 10.4 percent by 2022.

This means that marine life might continue to choke on a constant barrage of plastic and natural elements such as water, air and soil are likely to undergo more degradation. With a view to restrain the negative impact of this dangerous yet ubiquitous material, several state governments are taking steps in the right direction.

Efforts being put in by Indian states

While a few of them have imposed bans on single-use plastics, some are working at multiple levels to eliminate the use of plastic. These include Sikkim, Maharashtra, Himachal Pradesh and Kerala.

Sikkim

Sikkim is very often applauded for being one of the cleanest states in the country. Even when it comes to wiping out plastic pollution it is a front-runner. The north-eastern state was the first in India to ban the use of disposable plastic bags back in 1998.

Sikkim was India’s first state to ban the usage of disposable plastic bags (Image credit: WWF India)

Recently, it also placed a taboo on the sale and use of disposable foam products like cups, plates, spoons, containers and other items.

Furthermore, in order to cut down on the amount of plastic that reaches landfills, the government banned the usage of plastic water bottles in all its events. It also proposed alternatives which encompassed switching to filtered water or water from large reusable dispensers or reusable bottles.

Maharashtra

Starting 2018, Maharashtra banned all disposable plastic and thermocol products. The government imposed hefty fines between Rs 5,000 and Rs 10,000 (for first and second time offenders respectively) to Rs 25,000 and three months of imprisonment (for third-time offenders). This was however later reduced to Rs 200 to 500 by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC).

The penalties resulted in a more environmentally conscious community. Today, a lot of everyday commodities are being sold in cloth bags by vendors to cut down plastic. Roadside tea stalls, canteens and restaurants are shifting from plastic containers to other alternatives such as glass utensils and paper cups. After that, a slew of women self-help groups sprang up across the state began working to produce jute and cotton bags.

Himachal Pradesh

Himachal Pradesh was one of the first few states which launched a well-crafted Sustainable Plastic Waste Management Plan in 2009. It focussed on both limiting the use of plastic and developing a systematic disposal mechanism for it.

The plan came with a mission to ensure long-term environmental sustainability and community participation through awareness. The strategy for its implementation was a three step process. While the first phase aimed at creating an enabling framework, the second zeroed in on creating awareness through campaigns like ‘Polythene Hatao, Paryavaran Bachao’ (Eliminate polythene, save the environment). The third one included a series of steps directed towards consolidation.

The ‘Polythene Hatao, Paryavaran Bachao’ campaign launched by the Governor of Himachal Pradesh, Acharya Devrath, in 2019 at Shimla (Image credit: ENVIS Centre HP)

The kind of difference the plan brought about on ground was remarkable. The ban on plastics and the systematic waste recycling model contributed to cleaner surroundings. The institutional mechanism for the collection, transportation and recycling of plastic waste led to an efficient and sustainable waste management practice.

Kerala

The Kerala government’s Suchitwa Mission is an initiative that ropes in fisherman groups across the state to achieve a plastic-free marine ecosystem. Under this project, the fishing community were not only directed to make an effort to stop dumping plastic along coastlines and in the sea, but also collect and bring back plastic materials that get entangled in the nets.

Awareness programs as part of the Kerala Government’s Suchitwa Mission (Image credit: Kerala Government Website)

Single use plastics are known to be one of the biggest threats to the marine ecosystem and its ensuing food chain. The Suchitwa Mission has been striving to tackle just that.

The road ahead

While some of the states are putting their best foot forward to eliminate the use of plastic, the bigger question is whether banning the material is enough to solve the problem?

Several alternatives to plastic have been floating around in the market. The most notable ones being paper and cloth bags instead of polythene, clay bottles instead of plastic ones and bamboo toothbrushes instead of the standard ones.

Hence, working towards promoting these alternatives and making them accessible to all will go a long way in getting rid of plastic.


Edited by Roshni Shroff


Some resources and links to help you learn more about plastic pollution -

India’s plastic waste situation wasn’t created today
Let’s chart the issue and see what it’s made of
India Vows to Abolish All Single-Use Plastic By 2022
The initiative aims to cut plastic pollution from India’s 1.3 billion people