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Ban on single-use plastic to have little impact on jobs in the industry

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Strange as it may seem, there is unlikely to be a massive negative impact on employment in the plastic industry following the phase out of the single-use variant of the material in India. The plastic industry itself estimates total direct employment in recycling units at close to 600,000 nationwide. Add to them about one million waste pickers in an industry that recycles close to 5.5 metric million tonnes of the substance annually, and the number you get is just one month’s addition to the Indian workforce.

The Indian plastic industry has been, to some extent, prepared for the phase-out, though the change in the goalpost has, of course, taken it by surprise. In his Independence day speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had basically brought forward the plan to eliminate the use of single-use plastics, scheduled for 2022, to this year, setting the evocative date as October 2, the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi for it. The recycling industry is expected to take the brunt of the manpower redundancy caused by the phase-out plan. 

These units try to salvage single-use plastic in addition to other categories of the material that are fit for multiple use. An estimate by energy think-tank Teri puts the percentage of plastics that are single-use at 43 per cent of the total manufacture. That is a massive number. India produces close to 15,800 of metric kilo-tonnes of polymers annually according to PlastIndia Foundation, an association representing the industry. The per capita consumption level of 11 kg compared to the global mean of 28 kg means little in this context. 

The government can therefore afford to nudge users to move away from single-use to environmentally sound alternatives, such as cloth and metallic products, without being handicapped by the impact on employment. Of the 40,000 odd polymer- (plastic is made from polymer) processing units in India, 18 companies, including RIL, IOC, Haldia Petrochemicals, Gail  and HPCL Mittal Energy account for 80 per cent of the total production. The combined investment in the sector is roughly Rs 30,000 crore. 

The problem is from the user's point of view, says Swati Singh Sambyal, Programme Manager (Environmental Governance-Waste) at the Centre for Science and Environment. “A large percentage of people who use single-use plastic are from the low income group. Offering an alternative has to satisfy the price points,” she said. 

What on earth is single-use plastic?

The United Nations' definition of single-use plastics is an intuitive one. It encompasses plastic packaging items intended to be used only once before they are thrown away or recycled. These include grocery bags, food packaging products, bottles, straws, containers, cups and cutlery. But if you thought that was easy, it isn’t. Sambyal points out that a committee set up by the Union Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers to define single-use plastics, and then prepare a road map for its elimination, has not been able to come up with a anything concrete, despite holdings four meetings this year. One of the chief points of contention is how to treat multi-layered packing waste -- the kind that comes from the packaging of many edible branded food items, from chips to gutka. She says about 47 per cent of the plastic waste generated globally, came from these multi-layered packaging waste and unlike the cheaper end of the value chain, these involved the stakes from the larger industries. The Teri report notes these multi-layered plastics are defined as recyclable or have other alternate uses, but their conversion is an expensive process.

An estimate from EcoWatch defines them as high- and low-density polyethylenes used to manufacture everything from milk and juice bottles, detergent bottles, shampoo bottles, grocery bags, bread bags, produce bags to garbage bags. None of them contain the dangerous compound bisphenol A (BPA) that is most risky to most humans. Nevertheless they create the plastic chain that is clogging up our global arteries, since they do not degrade.

Why the industry is worried

For industry the scare is obvious. Once a product is moved to the category of single-use, its production will come under a cloud. This is the reason why states have also mostly played safe. Their plastic bans have been limited to carry bags and that too often implemented desultorily. India is not alone in this respect; aversion to plastics is not popular in Asia. A report from Ocean Conservancy and the McKinsey Center for Business and Environment in 2015 reported that five Asian countries -- China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand -- threw 60 per cent of the plastic waste found in the world’s oceans. With China  banning imports of plastic waste in 2018 that picture began to change. But Malaysia has begun to replace China of late. 

As the data from the Indian plastics industry shows these recyclables are not the main revenue earners for the industry. So the government does have the policy space to weed them out.  The task of weeding out multi-use plastics could follow later.

How problematic is plastic?

  • CPCB reports show plastic contributes to eight per cent of the total solid waste, with Delhi producing the maximum quantity, followed by Kolkata and Ahmedabad.
  • Only 60 per cent of the total plastic waste is being recycled.
  • Households generate the most plastic waste, of which water and soft drink bottles form a large number.
  • Around 43 per cent of manufactured plastics are used for packaging and most are of single use.
  • Multi-layered plastics are categorised under either recyclable, energy recoverable or with some other alternate use, but their recycling is an expensive process.

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