In today's Finshots we see why banning single use plastic can be such a herculean task

The Story

Plastic is a global menace. But it’s single-use plastic that does the most damage. Stuff like plates, cups and straws that you discard once you use them. And here’s the kicker — the world produces 300 million tonnes of plastic each year. Half of this is just single-use plastic.

Granted,  some of this stuff is recyclable. But the sheer volume of waste can be overwhelming. A whopping 91% of all plastic items aren’t recycled. These eventually end up in landfills, rivers and oceans. One study claims that global oceans will have to deal with over 29 million tonnes of plastic waste by the year 2040. At some point, our oceans will have more plastic than fish.

And India isn’t an outlier in this department. We produced over 660,000 tonnes of plastic waste in 2019. 43% of this waste could be attributed to packaging alone and yes, it’s mostly single-use items. However, considering we’ve made global commitments to reduce our plastic footprint, the central government will be banning a select list of 20 single-use plastic items forever. This will include plates, cups, cutlery and packing film. The ban will go into effect come July 1st 2022 and we need to talk about it.

Now bear in mind, this isn’t the first time the country is trying to rid itself of single-use plastic. Many state governments have tried to ban these items with varying degrees of success. However, there is a common consensus that most efforts have failed to bear fruit.

So we must ask — why? Why have repeated attempts to ban single-use plastic failed?

Well, the first problem is simple — Enforcement. Once you ban single-use plastic, you’ll need people to enforce the ban. Right now this responsibility is divided between the central pollution control board and the many state pollution control boards spread across India. However, despite their moniker, these agencies are often plagued by staff shortages, high workload, and poor coordination. They lack control and it’s no wonder that multiple bans over the past 3 decades have failed to bear fruit.

The second problem must also be obvious — alternatives. Now the thing is, it’s easier to enforce bans on large entities that either manufacture or consume these items in bulk. For instance, if Amazon were found to be in breach of these regulations, then you can easily get them to mend their ways. However, small manufacturers and consumers don’t fall in line easily, at least not when affordable alternatives are hard to come by.

Let us restate all the single-use plastic items that are going away come July 1st.

Ear buds with plastic sticks, plastic sticks for balloons, plastic flags, candy sticks, ice-cream sticks, polystyrene [Thermocol] for decoration, plates, cups, glasses, cutlery such as forks, spoons, knives, straw, trays, wrapping or packing films around sweet boxes, invitation cards, and cigarette packets, plastic or PVC banners less than 100 micron, stirrers.

Now think about the alternatives we will need at scale to replace them. It’s going to be a logistical nightmare. Which is why you see illegal manufacturing units crop up to keep pace with demand. And this imposes an even higher load on the regulators. In fact, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) has been so incensed with matters that they announced a reward for information on units illegally manufacturing banned plastic items just last year. And this brings us to the final point.

Time — Bans and enforcements take time. The government has often tried to do the right thing i.e. eliminate the scourge of plastic waste once and forever. However, you can’t do it overnight. When Maharashtra banned the use of single-use plastic in 2018, there was pandemonium on the streets. Although the guidelines were communicated much earlier, there was poor awareness surrounding the move anyway. So when D-day kicked in, both manufacturers and consumers were caught off guard. Soon enough the state had to concede ground. They immediately exempted several items from the list — including PET bottles, plastic items used to package food and garbage bin liners.

And that brings us to today. It’s likely that these problems will surface once again. The plastic lobby is already seeking a deferment. Consumers still aren’t aware that the regulations will be enforced this year. And the pollution control boards will have a tall task ahead of them.

The government for its part has tried to alleviate some of these concerns. For starters, state pollution boards will now have more power to lead the fight against single-use plastic. It’s also likely that they will work closely with manufacturers to make the switch. They are also keeping an eye out on intermediaries — people that supply raw materials to these institutions. And finally, they’ll be issuing fresh commercial licenses to stockists, retailers, and sellers with the condition that they shall not be selling banned plastic items.

So yeah, we will have to wait and see if the new plastic ban is going to be any different from all the plastic bans we’ve seen these past 3 decades.

Until then…

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