Plastics Pact India- A Step towards Green Economy

The Secretary-General of the United Nations called the latest IPCC report on climate change “Code Red for humanity”. With pollution and global warming rising to alarming levels, the message for the world is clear - the time to act is now. Keeping this in mind, the 16th Sustainability Summit of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) was held on September 3, 2021, where India launched the Plastics Pact, becoming the first country to do so in Asia. At the heart of this pact is tackling the issues of climate change and waste management.


What is Plastics Pact India?


Plastics Pact India is a business-led initiative launched by CII and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) India under the assistance of WRAP, a global NGO based in the UK, that aims to bring together businesses, NGOs, governments, and citizens to change the way plastics are designed, used and reused in their value chain. A total of 27 businesses and organisations have joined the Pact as founding members, including major brands such as Tata Consumer Products, Hindustan Unilever, Amazon, Coca Cola India, and ITC.


The Pact is a part of a larger global network of Plastics Pact signed by 11 countries and regional groupings in alignment with the principles of a circular economy for plastics. This means eliminating single-use plastic (SUP) which harms the environment and developing a “closed-loop” system in which the value of plastic is kept in the economy through innovation and green financing. This will significantly reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.



What is the importance of the Pact?


India has long been troubled by the problems of efficient waste management. The existing waste management practices are unable to support the urban waste generated, which is becoming a major issue in India.


According to the Central Pollution Control Board’s projection, India generates approximately 9.46 million tonnes of plastic waste per year. Of this, 40% of the plastic waste remains uncollected, most of which is SUP. How do we stop this capital from turning into waste? For India, the solution must be multi-pronged, structural, and large scale, to create a visible change. The Plastics Pact model offers such a solution. The Pact provides a long-due platform for the producers of plastic to come together and get behind these four targets to produce an environment-friendly sound plastics economy - to identify a list of unnecessary and problematic plastics and eliminate them through redesign and innovation; to ensure that 100% of plastic packaging is reusable or recyclable; to increase recycled content in plastic packaging; and to increase the reuse, collection, and recycling of plastic packaging to 50%.

To ensure that this Pact brings about a change, its smooth functioning and members’ accountability are important. While the goals set up by the Pact are quite ambitious, drawing up a roadmap for guidance, initiating ‘Action Groups’ to help achieve the targets, annual progress reports by members will be needed for the Pact to fruition into something.


Global Network of Plastics Pact and their significance


The Global Plastics Pact network connects organisations and initiatives from around the world to unite behind a common cause. This network will ensure India access to expertise and knowledge from different Pacts worldwide. It builds a distinctive platform to exchange lessons, technical know-how, and best practices across regions to accelerate the transition from a linear to a circular economy for plastics.


The UK Plastics Pact, the first one of these Pacts, released its annual progress report of 2019-20 recently, which is a testament to the efficacy of the Plastics Pact and public-private partnership in waste management. According to the report, the members reduced almost 40% of the sale of items classified as unnecessary or problematic as compared to 2018. 64% of plastic packaging sent to the market by Pact members continues to be recyclable. The amount of plastic packaging recycled by the members also went up to 50%, with an increase of 4% in the recycled content in plastic packaging delivered by the members, as compared to 2018 levels. Thus, the Pact puts an affirmative obligation on the members to contribute to the welfare of the society, thereby decreasing the negative externalities of plastic generation and usage.


Seeing the Pact in Light of Existing Government Policy


As mentioned above, the efficacy of the execution of this Pact hinges on the synergy among the producers, the government, and the civil society. In recent years, the Government of India has considered and enacted various forms of environmental legislation at the national, state, and local levels concerning plastics, but these have mostly focused on the plastic waste management and mitigation of plastic waste pollution, i.e., after the plastic has already turned into waste. The policy push towards supply-side regulation of plastics and circular economy in plastics is also comparatively new and lacks a systematic approach. Specifically, there is not much attention given to exploring the market potential of secondary plastics (recycled plastics).


In this regard, two regulations by the government deserve a mention- Plastics and Recycled Plastics Manufacture, Sale, and Usage Rules (1999) and the Uniform Framework for Extended Producers Responsibility (Under Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016). The former has laid down provisions for the manufacturing, usage, End-of-Life (EoL) management, criteria for manufacturing plastic carry bags and containers while the latter mandate manufacturers to take responsibility for the materials used in their products post-sale.


While the legislation sounds quite promising on paper, they have failed to bring about a change in the way plastics are handled in the economy due to weak monitoring and enforcement. For this Pact to work, a simultaneous skeletal framework for plastic production, reuse, and recycling must be provided by the government. The amendment brought to the Waste Management Rules in 2020 is a step in the right direction.


Problems in Implementation of the Pact in India


While the initiative is commendable on paper with its ambitious targets, the road to effective waste management in India is riddled with hurdles. The biggest issue is the dominance of the informal sector in post-consumption waste collection, segregation, and processing of plastic waste. Incorporating them in the process of recycling and reusing plastic would be a challenge. There is an urgent need to frame and implement a uniform policy for the waste pickers to recognize and integrate them into the waste management chain while securing their livelihoods and welfare. The government and NGOs need to step in to promote the formation of waste picker member-based organisations which can then work in collaboration with the members of the Pact. This challenge should be viewed as an opportunity to generate employment.


India does not have cost-effective technology for the scientific treatment of plastic waste. Lack of technology entails mostly physical or mechanical recycling, which is prone to waste leakages during the process and inferior quality of recycled plastics. It is imperative for the government to step in here and channel research funding and the requisite technology from countries practicing effective plastic management. The Global Plastics Pact can provide this requisite technical know-how.


Poor infrastructure and road connectivity in regions like North-East India and rural areas make transporting plastic waste over long distances to recycling units a major hurdle. It is in areas like these that the members of the Pact need to invest in setting up recycling plants, to avoid the major transportation costs of bringing the waste from these remote areas to states like Gujarat and Maharashtra, where formal recycling processes are already set up.

The Pact also needs to chart out rules for efficient plastic segregation at the source to prevent it from becoming waste. This will also make the recycling and reusing process cost-efficient.


These challenges, when addressed, can create boundless social, economic, and environmental opportunities within plastics and other related industries and allow for the synergistic functioning of the public-private partnership.


The Pact should work on addressing these challenges by using sustainable raw materials like bioplastics; redesigning their plastic packaging; ensuring segregation post-consumption of plastics, and making sure that sound recycling techniques are put into place so that the plastics valuably remain in the economy and do not turn into waste.


Conclusion


The unprecedented global crisis caused by the pandemic is a wake-up call that demonstrates the urgent need to look for sustainable and innovative solutions to tackle the problem of plastic waste. The Plastics Pact India is a step in the right direction. Encouraging producer responsibility through such innovative platforms of public-private partnership is the need of the hour. Building a circular economy for plastic is a complicated process but is not an insurmountable one if all partners move forward with equal zeal for the resolve of not letting plastic turn to waste.

About the Author

Stuti Biyani is a final year student majoring in Political Science. She aspires to be an Indian Foreign Service officer. She is passionate about feminist studies and geopolitics. In her free time she likes to follow all sorts of sports.