UPSC PRELIMS 2020: Single-use plastic ban

Topic: Single-use plastic ban

Topic in Syllabus: Ecology and Environment


India is set to impose a nationwide ban on single-use plastic bags, cups and straws on October 2 following such an announcement in PM’s Independence Day speech. 


What is single-use plastic?

Single-use plastics are commonly used for packaging and include items intended to be used only once before they are thrown away or recycled. These include, for example, grocery bags, food packaging, bottles, straws, containers, cups, etc.


India and single-use plastic

  • Generation and waste:Indian cities generate 20,000 tonnes of plastic waste daily and about 70% of the plastic produced in the country ends up as waste.
  • Comparison with other countries: Compared to other countries such as the U.S. and China, India has very low per capita generation of plastic waste. However, in real terms, this is quite substantial.
  • Per capita consumption:Per capita consumption of plastic is projected to go up to 20 kg by 2022.
  • Collection and recycling: Inadequacy of collection and recycling systems is the root cause of burgeoning plastic waste problem in India.
  • Harms done by single-use plastic
  • Slow decomposition:If not recycled, plastic can take a thousand years to decompose.
  • Release of carcinogenic metals:At landfills, it disintegrates into small fragments and leaches carcinogenic metals into groundwater.
  • Release of toxic gases: Plastic is highly inflammable releasing toxic gases into the environment such as dioxins, furans, mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls.
  • Marine pollution:It floats on the sea surface and ends up clogging airways of marine animals.
  • Clogging:The unchecked piling up of plastic bags resulted in the clogging of the public drainage system in Bangladesh in the 1980s and intensified a flood situation that killed several people.
  • Blocking of breathing passages:High concentrations of plastic materials, particularly plastic bags, have been found blocking the breathing passages and stomachs of hundreds of different species.
  • Cancer in humans:When broken down into microscopic particles, it produces toxic chemicals which can cause hormonal problems and cancer in humans.
  • Impact on food chain:Plastic bits in the ocean can absorb and concentrate organic pollutants such as PCBs and DDT from the surrounding seawater. These pollutants are passed up the food chain when predators, such as humans, eat prey that has been contaminated.
  • Impact on corals:Corals smothered in plastic face increased threat of disease compared with corals free from plastic. The plastic debris starves corals of vital oxygen and light, and releases toxins enabling bacteria and viruses to invade.
  • Impact on human health:Different human health problems like irritation in the eye, vision failure, breathing difficulties, respiratory problems, liver dysfunction, cancers, skin diseases, lungs problems, headache, dizziness, birth effect, reproductive, cardiovascular, genotoxic, and gastrointestinal problems are caused due to plastic pollution.
  • Impact on animal health:Plastic bags, once ingested, cannot be digested or passed by an animal so it stays in the gut. Plastic in an animal’s gut can prevent food digestion and can lead to a very slow and painful death.
  • Land pollution:Most of the plastic waste is dumped into landfills. When it comes in contact with water they produce many toxic and hazardous chemicals which affects soil fertility. The emission of toxic and foul gases from landfills pollutes the environment and causes major health issues on humans as well as animals.
  • Microplastic pollution: Microplastics, small pieces of plastic, less than 5 mm (in length, occur in the environment as a consequence of plastic pollution. Microplastics are present in a variety of products, from cosmetics to synthetic clothing to plastic bags and bottles.
  • Ganga, the largest carrier of plastics:20 rivers carry two-thirds of plastic waste to the ocean; the Ganga’s contribution to this is one of the highest.
  • Sea animals feed on plastics:Recently, a plastic spoon was found in the remains of a whale shark off Rameswaram.
  • Toxic cow milk:When plastic is stuck in a cow’s stomach for long, the toxicity can contaminate the milk it produces.
  • Open waste burning:Open waste burning practice in India includes plastics as constituent which release toxic gases and pollutes the air.


India’s efforts towards reducing use of plastic

  • Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR):EPR, introduced in 1998, makes it mandatory for the producing company to get their used products collected.
  • Swachh Bharat Abhiyan:The national mission on cleanliness and sanitation — Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launches in 2014 — has a special focus on plastic waste management.
  • The Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016:It called for a ban on non-recyclable and multi-layered packaging and carry bags of thickness less than 50 microns.
  • The Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2018: The 2016 Rules were amended in 2018.
  • It lays down that the phasing out of Multilayered Plastic (MLP).
  • National marine litter action campaign: The government plans to establish a national marine litter action campaign to cover 7,500-km coastline and a programme to measure how much plastic enters coastal waters.

International efforts towards reducing use of plastic: At least 60 countries around the world have fully or partially restricted the use of non-biodegradable polymers.

For example.

  • Ireland: In 2002, Ireland imposed a levy tax on plastic bags.
  • Rwanda:In 2008, Rwanda imposed a blanket ban on the sale, use, and production of plastic bags.
  • Bangladesh:Bangladesh imposed a ban in 2002.
  • Canada:Canada aims to ban single-use plastics by 2021.
  • Peru:Visitors will no longer be allowed to carry in single-use plastics into Peru’s natural and cultural protected area.
  • US: Several cities in United Sates have banned containers made of polystyrene, better known as Styrofoam.
  • EU:The European Union, in 2018. approved a measure to slash single-use plastic across the continent.
  • UN:In 2019, UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, a non-binding resolution was made over throwaway items like plastic bags.


Some of the national best practices to deal with single use-plastic

  • Sikkim: In 2016, Sikkim banned plastic bottles in all government departments and programmes. Not just this, Sikkim also banned the use and sale of disposable items such as cups, plates, spoons, containers and many such items made from polystyrene foam.
  • Indian Parliament: The Indian Parliament has also banned the use of non-reusable plastic water bottles and other plastic items with the complex.
  • Indore: Indore replaced plastic bottles and single-use utensils in its offices with traditional alternatives like copper, glass among others.
  • Indian Railways: Indian Railways has decided to impose ban on single-use plastic material on its premises as well as in trains.


Concerns related to single-use plastic ban

  • Unclear definition:There is no clear definition of what is single-use plastic.
  • Unviable alternatives: Compostable and biodegradable plastics made from various materials such as bagasse, corn, etc. envisaged as alternatives currently have limitations of scale and cost.
  • Low-quality recycling: Most of the recycling of plastic in India is done in informal, home-based industries which produce very low-quality recycled plastic.
  • Inadequate resources with PRIs: Unlike urban local bodies, gram panchayats may not have the resources to do routine checks on plastic use.
  • Employment:Ban could have impact on the large number of people employed at units making these plastic products.
  • Regulation and infrastructure: Poor regulation and enforcement infrastructure in India spells worries for the ban.
  • Lack of resources:There is a lack sufficient resources, both material and human.
  • Financial distress:In India where a large majority of the population still buys its fruits, vegetables, dairy, and meat from street vendors, the lack of cheaper alternatives to plastic is bound to cause severe financial distress on masses.


Way forward

  • Certification of alternatives: A ban on single-use plastic items would have to lay down a comprehensive mechanism to certify the materials marketed as alternatives, and the specific process required to biodegrade or compost them.
  • Efficient waste management system:It is required to put in an efficient waste management system that would involve segregation of waste at source, collection and recycling.
  • Behavioural changes:People need to be nudge towards making behavioural changes to reduce plastic usage. There should be a sustained campaign to educate citizens on how to responsibly handle plastic products
  • Innovative ways to recycle: Startups and experts need to find ways to recycle plastic, like using it in building highways.
  • Duty of shopkeepers:Shopkeepers should requests customers not to ask for plastic bags and use sell jute and cloth bags.
  • Use of technology:We must also put technologies in use to abolish plastic usage.
  • Marking with numbers: Plastic should be marked with numerical symbols (such as 1 for PET, 4 for Low Density Polyethylene, and so on) to facilitate recycling using the correct industrial process.
  • Mixing with virgin material: It is possible for recycled plastic to be mixed with virgin material to then produce high-grade plastic products
  • Shift to sustainable material: The industry manufacturing plastic products have to shift to more sustainable packaging material.
  • Comprehensive solution:Government should unveil a comprehensive solution to eliminate SUP.
  • Allocation of resources:India should allocate resources to replenishing ramshackle institutions such as the Central Pollution Control Board and other task forces dedicated to enforcing the ban.
  • Subsidizing of alternatives:Alternatives such as fibre or reinforced paper must be subsidized in order to be commercially viable for small-scale vendors.
  • Plastic to fuel conversion:If pure hydrocarbons, such as polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP), are burnt in oxygen free chambers, they produce a fuel that burns fairly clean.
  • Plastic in road construction:Waste plastic can be mixed with heated bitumen and the mixture can be coated over stone for use in road construction.
  • Use of plastic in textile industry:Plastic makes many types of fabric possible, from nylon and organza to faux leather and fur. Transforming recycled plastic into clothing provides an appealing solution to the amount of plastic waste floating in the oceans or covering the land.
  • 4Rs:The 4Rs of – refuse, reduce, reuse and recycle- is the best way to deal with plastic pollution. REFUSE disposable plastic whenever and wherever possible; REDUCE plastic footprint. REUSE durable, non-toxic straws; RECYCLE what we can’t refuse, reduce or reuse.


Sample Question:

Which of the following answers contains the top 5 contributing countries to the world’s plastic pollution problem?

a)      Russia, France, USA, Vietnam, India

b)      Indonesia, Thailand, USA, China, France

c)       Thailand, China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Philippines

d)      USA, China, India, UK, Australia

Answer: c)