The original meaning of the word “Plastic” is “pliable and easily shaped”. The word is originated from the Greek word “plastikos” which means to “grow” or “form”. However, recently it has emerged as a name for a category of materials called polymers. The first synthetic polymer was invented in the year 1869 by John Wesley Hyatt. In 1907, Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite, the first fully synthetic plastic. World War II necessitated a great expansion of the plastics industry. The surge in plastic production continued even after the war ended and slowly plastic has acquired an important place in our lives.
Plastics have transformed how we shop, celebrate, enjoy, and live our lives. However, this progress comes at a high cost. Plastic pollution has developed to be one of the biggest environmental threats. Our failure to dispose of used plastic is killing the planet. We are not just burying plastics in landfills; we are also swamping our oceans with it. Between 8 to 12 million tonnes of plastic are dumped into the sea each year. Plastic pollution poses as an existential threat to marine ecosystems. In a worrying development, even we are becoming a bit of plastic. Research in 2018 shows that microplastics have entered the human body and is present in human waste.
Single-use plastic commodity has been defined in the Plastic Waste Management Rules as a plastic item intended to be used once for the same purpose before being disposed of or recycled.
To keep a check on the use of single-use plastic, recently in India, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (“MOEFCC”) while exercising powers conferred to it by Sections 3, 6, and 25 of the Environment (Protection) Act 1986 (“EPA”), brought forward an amendment in July 2022 to the Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016. The amended rules prohibit the manufacture, import, stocking, distribution, sale, and use of single-use plastic products from July 1, 2022.
On 2nd March 2022, heads of state, environment ministers and other representatives from 175 countries, signed a historic resolution titled “End Plastic Pollution: Towards an internationally legally binding instrument”, at the UN Environment Assembly (“UNEA”) in Nairobi which makes it legally binding for those signatories to address the full life of plastics- from production to disposal, to end plastic menace.
This resolution is based on three initial draft resolutions from various nations and establishes an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC). The resolution aims to complete a legally binding agreement by the end of 2024. Under the resolution, the Member States were called to continue and step up activities and adopt voluntary measures to combat plastic pollution, including measures related to sustainable consumption and production, which may include circular economy approaches, and developing and implementing national action plans, while fostering international action and initiatives under respective national regulatory frameworks, and also on a voluntary basis to provide statistical information on environmentally sound management of plastic waste, as may be appropriate, taking into account their national circumstances.
The resolution further prescribes inter alia for the exchange of information and activities related to plastic pollution.
The Clean Seas Campaign was also launched by the UN Environment Programme in 2017. Its aim was to curb the flow of marine litter and plastic waste entering lakes, waterways, and oceans. Since its launch, 69 members have joined the campaign with their determined pledges and commitments. The campaign called citizens worldwide to reduce their plastic footprint and speak up for their right for obtaining a healthy environment. The campaign is a contributor to the goals of the Global Partnership on Marine Litter.
The Union Environment Minister while launching several green initiatives for plastic waste management made the following key observation, “Plastic has become one of the most pressing environmental issues that we are facing today. India is generating about 3.5 million tonnes of plastic waste annually and the per capita plastic waste generation has almost doubled over the last five years.”
Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016
These rules were brought in place with the following aims-
Facilitate the collection and recycling of plastic waste;
Expand the jurisdiction of applicability of plastic waste management from the municipal area to rural areas;
Introduce collect back system of plastic waste which ensures that the producers/brand owners collect back the plastic from customers in accordance with the producers’ responsibility;
Promote the use of plastic waste for road construction or energy recovery;
Phasing out of non-recyclable multilayered plastic in two years’ time;
Imposing fees or charge on waste generators;
Waste management systems to be set up by local bodies and Gram Panchayat for performing associated functions;
Retailers and street vendors to be held responsible for the carry bags, plastic sheet, and multilayered packaging in which they provide items to the consumers.
The rules mandate the generators of plastic waste to take responsibility and minimize the production of plastic waste, prevent littering of plastic waste and also ensure that the stored waste is properly segregated. The local bodies, gram panchayats, retailers, waste generators and street vendors are mandated through this Act to manage plastic waste.
Recently, the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change announced the Plastic Waste Management (Amendment) Rules, 2022. This amendment notified the directives on Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for plastic packaging. The amendment also focuses on single-use plastics. It prohibits the use of identified single-use plastic items which have low utility and high littering potential. The new rules also added some new definitions, such as, biodegradable plastics, end of life disposal, plastic packaging, post-consumer plastic packaging waste, recyclers, etc.
On 18th June 2022, the Central Pollution Control Board notified the list of single-use plastic items prohibited with effect from 1st July 2022. These items are single-use plastic items which have low utility and high littering potential. The items are:
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 packs, plastic or PVC banners less than 100 microns, stirrers.
Directions have been issued at the National, State and Local level to curb the supply of the above-mentioned items.
The Plastic Waste Management Bye-laws, 2021 published by the Hon’ble Lt. Governor of National Capital Territory of Delhi provides for action to be taken in all government/private offices, institutions/colleges, universities, schools, cinema halls, malls, banquet halls, farm houses, religious places, historical places, tourist place, etc. for discouraging use of single-use plastic products such as plastic carry bags, cups, plates, straw, cutleries, plastic covers/packaging, plastic sachets, etc.
Maharashtra Pollution Control Board issued a notice for prohibiting production, commerce, stocking, distribution, sale and use of single use plastic items as per Maharashtra Plastic and Thermocol Products (Manufacture, Usage, Sale, Transport, Handling and Storage) Notification, 2018. Under the said rules, the government has been empowered to take stringent actions against violators like seizure of goods, levying and recovery of environmental compensation, closure of operations of industries/commercial establishments. Till now, around 800 carry bag manufacturing units have been ordered to be shut down in Maharashtra.
The Department of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Government of Bihar vide its gazette notification no. 525 dated 18.06.2021 and 1012 dated 17.12.2021 has imposed a complete ban on the manufacture, import, stocking, distribution, sale, and use of the identified single-use plastic items, with effect from the July 1, 2022, as envisaged in the Plastic Waste Management (Amendment) Rules, 2016.
The Government of Odisha had organized a phase-wise ban on single-use plastic items way back in 2018 and established a goal that the complete plastic ban would be implemented within the next two years. Heavy fines were imposed on violators.
The UP government also banned plastic in phases. Fines were imposed on anyone found with polythene. Initiatives have been taken up in the state to revive pottery and earthenware as a replacement for plastic.
The Ministry of Railways has directed all Railway units to enforce a ban on single-use plastic material, with less than 50-micron thickness from 2nd October 2019. Emphasis is on making necessary arrangements to minimize the generation of plastic waste and its eco-friendly disposal.
The efforts to ban single-use plastic, though started with vigor yet remained largely on paper. Most of the items prohibited by the rules are still marketed and routinely used in most places. There is a lack of awareness among the people about the ban imposed and they continue to use the banned materials. A strategic approach to enforce the ban is missing and so is the punishment for using single-use plastic items. Even though Central Pollution Control Board is the implementing agency of this Act still there is no mechanism in place that can effectively implement the ban. There is also the absence of an alternative that is ready to take the place of plastic after its ban. The government was of the view that once the ban is enforced, alternatives would emerge to fill up the gap but this did not happen because there is no supportive infrastructure and incentive to produce alternatives.
US is the world’s biggest plastic polluter. Recently California has become the first state in the US to pass an ambitious law to combat the menace of plastic i.e., the Plastic Pollution Prevention and Packaging Producer Responsibility Act that aims to significantly reduce the use of single-use plastics. Under this new law, the goal is to ensure a 25% drop in single-use plastic by 2032 and establish a plastic pollution mitigation fund. The law will also establish a producer-responsibility organization, comprising of industry representatives. The organization will provide financial support the plastic pollution mitigation fund and will also look at the environmental and health impacts of plastic. On 1st March 2020, a new bag waste reduction law was introduced in New York under which all plastic carryout bags became banned from distribution by anyone. Washington has also through their Environmental Health and Safety Act prohibited the use of single-use plastic carryout bags. New Jersey has also imposed a ban on plastic bags and straws.
Recycling has been an important component of the USA’s efforts to reduce the environmental impact of plastic. Extended Producer Responsibility has been imposed to eliminate plastic waste by putting the burden of proper disposal of products on the producers.
UK is a global leader in taking efforts of combatting plastic waste. Scotland became the first part of the UK to implement a ban on single-use plastics by the Environmental Protection (Single-use plastic products) (Scotland) Regulations, 2021 which came into effect from 1 June 2022. The Environmental Protection (Plastic Straws, Cotton Buds and Stirrers) (England) Regulations 2020 prohibits the supply of some single-use plastic items to an end user, subject to certain exceptions. Through the Environment Act 2021, the Government of UK brought forward a wide range of measures to tackle plastic pollution and litter. Laws banning the use of single-use plastic items are anticipated in Wales and Northern Ireland.
The initiatives taken by UK to crack down on plastic are-
Ban on plastic microbeads, cotton buds, plastic straws,
Plastic-free aisles in supermarkets,
Cutting down on plastic bottles and getting rid of disposable coffee cups,
Imposing responsibility on the producers.
The Plastic Waste Reduction Project of China is their contribution towards reducing plastic waste. The main aim of this project is to improve plastic waste management and pollution management systems, policies, and standards. The project has four components and they are-
Strengthening of national policies and institutions;
Sub-national and local technical assistance for capacity building of waste management regime at national, sub-national, and local levels;
Improvements to municipal solid waste management and plastic recycling;
Project management, monitoring, and evaluation.
Further, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and the Ministry of Ecology and Environment on 16 January 2020 jointly set out a policy document titled “The Opinions on Further Strengthening the Control of Plastic Pollution”. Among restrictions on the production, sale, and use of single-use plastic products, the policy document also prohibited restaurants all over the country from providing single-use plastic straws and stores in the major cities from providing plastic shopping bags. The policy document lays down a five-year roadmap to restrict the use of plastic products such as shopping bags, straws, and utensils by 2020, 2022, and 2025 respectively.
Other measures adopted in China to control plastic pollution are-
Promote substitutes for plastic products,
Promote eco-friendly design of plastic products,
Increase the recycling rate of plastic waste,
Develop plastic waste collection and disposal systems in all the areas.
Canada has recently taken ambitious action to reduce plastic pollution. On June 22, 2002, the Government of Canada published the Single-use Plastics Prohibition Regulations in the Canada Gazette. These regulations are enacted using the powers granted to the authorities by the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999. The regulations prohibit the manufacture, import, sale and eventually export of six categories of single-use plastic items. The items are checkout bags, cutlery, foodservice ware, ring carriers, stir sticks and straws. The Government of Canada has also developed a guidance document which outlines important considerations that are to be taken into account while selecting alternatives to single-use plastics.
The timeline for Canada’s plastic ban is as follows-
ban on the manufacturing and importation of single-use plastic by December 2022;
The prompt end to sales on single-use plastic products by the year 2023;
Prohibited export of single-use plastic products by 2025.
The Western Australian government introduced a ban on lightweight plastic bags with a thickness of 35 microns or less, including degradable, biodegradable and compostable bags in July 2018. However, from July 2022, all plastic shopping bags with handles are banned in Western Australia. South Australia, on the other hand, imposed a state-wide ban on lightweight plastic bags less than 35 microns thick way back in 2009. The Northern Territory introduced a state-wide ban on lightweight plastic bags with a thickness of less than 35 microns including degradable bags. In 2013, the Tasmanian government introduced a state-wide ban on lightweight plastic bags less than 35 microns thick.
On June 13, 2021, the State Government announced Western Australia’s Plan for Plastics which provides a road-map towards a more sustainable, plastic-free Western Australia. The plan includes introducing regulations to ban single-use plastic items in a two-stage approach. The stages are-
Stage 1- Short-term actions i.e., ban of plates, unlidded bowls, cutlery, drink stirrers, drinking straws, thick plastic shopping bags, etc.
Stage 2- Medium-term actions will include enforcement transition periods based on each item.
The plastic industry guarantees employment to millions of people all over the world and a ban on plastic poses a risk to their jobs. There is a need to find an alternative to plastic so that the ban does not hamper business or disturb the lives of people. Finding an alternative thus becomes necessary to secure the livelihood of people who were dependent on plastic items. An alternative would at the same time also ensure that plastic items are replaced by environment-friendly items.
Biodegradable plastics are those that can decompose naturally in the environment. They are recyclable and can be easily used as an alternative to single-use plastic. However, this plastic is costly and can be disposed of in a particular method only which makes it difficult to use them on a regular basis.
Plastic bags are commonly used to carry stuff around. These can be easily replaced with jute or cotton bags that are recyclable and do not harm the environment in any way. Government should encourage the citizens to adopt cloth bags instead of plastic bags.
Consumption of single-use plastic items has a harmful effect on the health of the people as well as the environment. Thus, people should be made aware of the harmful effects of using single-use plastic items. To ensure that the bans are effective, an implementation mechanism should be in existence to keep a check on the efficacy of the ban. Stringent provisions should be brought in place that disciplines people who contravene the directions of the ban.
Naveen Kumar is an Advocate-on Record at the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India and has appeared in several mining related cases before courts/tribunals across India.