Singular hype
Down To Earth|September 01, 2021
While the Centre trumpets its latest ban to eliminate single-use plastics, the fine print of the new rules tells otherwise
SIDDHARTH GHANSHYAM SINGH

IT IS difficult to be constantly conscious of the steep environmental cost of a petite plastic straw nestled in the box of a packaged drink, an inconspicuous plastic carry bag, or a candy wrapper. These are things that we encounter every day, consume without a thought and then throw away. But in their case, “out of sight” does not mean “out of the ecosystem”.

The Plastic Waste Management Amendment Rules, 2021, released on August 12 by the Union government, is aimed at tackling these silent rubble-makers. Through the amendment to the Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016, the Centre by 2022 hopes to phase out 20 single-use plastic items that have low utility but entail a high environmental cost (see 'What will be banned', p25). A closer look however suggests several glaring shortcomings in the amended rules.

Single-use plastics are items that are primarily made from petrochemicals and are meant to be disposed of right after use—often, within minutes. There is enough evidence to suggest that they have a devastating impact on our oceans, our wildlife, and even on our health. Still, the new rules conveniently leave out several plastic items with high environmental impact, such as plastic bottles for food and nonfood applications, cigarette filters, multi-layered packaging as well as plastic films (see 'What the ban missed', p26). For instance, multilayer plastics that are majorly used for packaging, like plastic-based chips' packets with aluminium coatings, are often hard to recycle due to their multi-material composition. Plastic films, which are also being increasingly used for packaging, are so thin that they get easily mixed with household waste. Separating them is a complex process. These items thus never reach the recyclers, as the cost needed to treat them does not generate enough value.

One odd exemption from the latest ban is multi-layer plastics. India has been toying with the idea of phasing it out since 2009, the year the draft Plastic (Manufacture, Usage and Waste Management) Rules were introduced. These rule recommended restricting the use of multi-layer plastics as they are non-recyclable. The clause was, however, dropped when the Plastic Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2011, was notified. A gradual phase-out of multi-layer plastic was reattempted through the Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016, wherein clause 9(3) advocated phasing out all multilayered plastics used for packaging in two years. This was again diluted by the Plastic Waste Amendment Rules, 2018, which suggested burning them for “energy recovery”.

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