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Single plastic ban: an incomplete story

Sometimes it makes sense to look at a law from the perspective of what it does not cover to assess its impact. A good example of this is the Plastic Waste Management Amendment Rules 2021, which will be implemented from July 1 this year. At first glance, the amendment prohibits the use of single-use plastic items. But not all — only 20 identified. These 20 items are supposed to be of little use and have a high environmental impact. Thus, carrier bags less than 50 microns thick, non-woven carrier bags less than 80 gsm, straws, stirrers, small packaging, packaging films, cutlery such as cups and foam bowls and plates, plastic cutlery, small plastic cups, headphones and plastic sticks for balloons, flags, disposable cups and trays, cigarette wrappers are among the 20 prohibited items.

But if you look at single-use plastic items, things like small water bottles, cigarette filters, plastic food and drink bottles, multi-layered packaging, plastic bottles for non- food are some of the items that are not covered by the amendment.

The discrimination is clear. Products that are typically made by small or medium-sized local manufacturers have been targeted, but those used by large companies and brands have not been affected. For example, plastic packaging, according to a report by the Center for Science and Environment, contributes nearly 60% of the total waste generated. So why aren’t small plastic water bottles or food and non-food plastic bottles, multi-layer packaging covered by the ban?

Interestingly, plastic packaging waste was covered by an amendment to the Plastic Waste Management Rules in 2016.

This amendment stipulated that manufacturers, importers and brand owners had to assume extended responsibility for packaging waste and had to define within six months the methods for collecting packaging waste and disposing of it through their distribution network or with the assistance from local organizations (EPR ).

However, this amendment remained a paper tiger. Some companies and brands have sporadically paid lip service, but nothing concrete has materialized. So on paper the two combined amendments of 2016 and 2021 are good but in reality they will make little difference.

Another point to note is that those at the top of the food chain, polymer producers like GAIL, ONGC, Reliance, etc. get away with it. Thus, a poor peddler can be punished for giving away his goods in a single-use thin plastic bag of less than 50 microns, but the big companies that are responsible for their production are not targeted. Indeed, a report by the Australian Mindroo Foundation, which published an index of plastic waste manufacturers, ranked Reliance 8th in the world, accounting for around 56% of single-use plastic production in India. GAIL & ONGC were also in the top 50. The report valued this Reliance business at US$6.3 billion and also said banks and financial institutions like ICICI, SBI. HDFC, Axis, etc. provided the company with loans of up to US$3 billion for this operation.

Time is running out to protect the environment. Small paper tiger steps waste precious time and resources. Shouldn’t the law aim to also cover large corporations, banks, brands and corporations?



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Disclaimer

The opinions expressed above are those of the author.



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