India has been ranked twentieth in plastics management, according to a recent study. Asia is the largest producer of the stuff—half of all plastics, and China its biggest producer in the continent. But much of what is produced here makes its way to the developed world before being thrown away.

The U.S. and the EU generated the most plastic waste globally, just ahead of India, China and Brazil, a study by The Economist and The Nippon Foundation, engaged in supporting marine and shipping-related activities in Japan, said.

The findings tabulated countries by their performance against three pillars of plastics management: governance which assessed a country’s laws and green incentives; systemic capacity—the scope to oversee, collect, sort and recycle plastic waste, as well as its investment in building industrial capacity for processing such waste; and stakeholder engagement by the private sector and consumers—measured across 12 indicators and 44 sub-indicators.

Governance was mainly what correlated most closely with better plastics waste management, and countries that enforced laws on plastics waste management did markedly better on the report's Plastics Management Index.

‘Better governance’ meant bold legislation, and monitoring and enforcing responsible plastic use. In other words, India, the report said, did poorly for not putting in place mechanisms to monitor and enforce waste management regulations in its urban and rural areas.

Regional Disparities

Though they were the largest generators of waste, European countries and the U.S. were also the best managers of plastic waste, given their greater wealth which allowed them to put robust systems, monitoring, and consumer and industry awareness efforts in place. The EU’s regulatory action in recent years was another reason for their better performance.

China was in eighth place for creating systemic capacity for managing plastics, i.e. efficient collection and sorting channels; and infrastructure to enable recycling and investment.

Though India scored poorly in building systemic capacity (13th place) and stakeholder engagement, it scored even lower in governance, which was the biggest drag on its overall performance.

“India’s particular weakness is in plastics waste management (where it scores zero in two of the three indicators) coupled with a failure to score any points in another five of the remaining 11 governance indicators—like promoting safe product use, safe product design, promoting green public procurement, and regulating microplastics. That undermines areas where it does perform well, like incentivising the use of sustainable plastic,’’ according to the report.

India was also one of the five key polluters alongside China, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia, and ranked 19th on the index for poor oversight of management processes in tackling pollution.

On the bright side, the Swachh Bharat Mission (Clean India Mission), the report says, has led to a sense of responsibility among city-dwellers and municipalities to compete at improving sanitation and waste management issues. It was due to this nationwide competition that Indore was ranked the cleanest city in the country, followed by Surat and Navi Mumbai.

However, India is proving to be ineffective as far as regulations are concerned, especially with regard to ‘extended producer responsibility’, since it has so far failed to reach an agreement with plastics manufacturers and brand owners who use plastics for their products to take responsibility for waste generation.

In fact, there is some sort of a stalemate between the industry and the government, with states saying it is the responsibility of producers and brand owners to ensure that plastic waste gets picked up and not end up as litter. The industry, on the other hand, has asked city administrations to provide proper waste management services.

Meanwhile, “the industry is realigning itself,” says Hiten Bheda, chairman, All India Plastics Manufacturers Association. “India is a big country and the government has to play a role. The industry cannot take up the responsibility of collecting, segregation, etc. It’s a dual responsibility; the government has to play its role and the industry its own.”

“The government has been receptive to our suggestions and we hope that in time things will go in the right direction,” he adds.

But India’s troops of waste-pickers, often children, many of whom work in unhygienic conditions improved India’s performance at ‘efficient collection and sorting channels.’ India is among the top 10 countries in this respect, including Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand — all countries have large communities of waste-pickers.

The government has asked manufacturers to increase the thickness of plastic in carry bags so they may have post-usage value and may be extracted from the environment (by waste-pickers) for recycling, says Bheda. People may also be able to use such bags multiple times.

The industry, however, differs. “This will be detrimental to the overall environmental impact because ideally we must reduce consumption, but here we are increasing it in terms of the unit weight of the product. This is not a solution being used anywhere in the world; it is totally unique to India. But it really doesn't make sense in the long-term,” says Bheda.

Come July 2022 and the ban of single-use plastics will be in force. The government chose 12 products that have low utility but a disproportionate environmental impact such as carry bags, earbuds, food packaging waste, bottles, straws, containers, cups and cutlery.

“The phasing out has been given an adequate amount of time and manufacturers who are affected by it have either shut down or gone for a different production line or diversified,” says Bheda, adding, 5,000-7,000 units have been affected by the ban.

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