A retrograde step: New rules for plastic waste dilute earlier norms

Just days ahead of this year’s Earth Day (April 22), on the theme of ending plastic pollution, the government came out with the new Plastic Waste Management (Amendment) Rules, 2018. However, these may actually cause the menace to spike rather than curbing it. The new norms seem to have been crafted with an eye on ease of doing business for manufacturers, recyclers and users of plastic at the cost of the environment and public health. Several stringent and sound provisions of the earlier plastic waste management policy of 2016 have either been discarded or substantially diluted. Hardly has anything been mooted in the new strategy to discourage the production and use of petroleum-based non-degradable and pollution-causing plastics. Nor has anything been proposed to promote the manufacture and utilisation of bio-derived, biodegradable or compostable avatars of plastics that have become available in the recent past.

India is reckoned to generate over 25,940 tonnes of plastic waste every day whose residue can sully the environment and natural resources for hundreds of years. Plastic toxicity is known for its enduring adverse effects on territorial and aquatic life. In food, it can alter human hormones to cause major life-threatening diseases. Plastic materials, especially bags and bottles strewn on roads, have been noticed to cause flooding by blocking drains. They also kill stray cattle by choking. The new plastic waste management policy seems to disregard all this. Admittedly, plastics are not totally dispensable. Their use seems desirable in certain situations in fields like agriculture and the automobiles, packaging, information technology and biomedical industries. But considering the growing concern over their non-degradability and emission of noxious gases on combustion and incineration, it is imperative to manage plastic debris appropriately. This, unfortunately, is not happening. Over 70 per cent of the country’s plastic trash is handled by the informal sector in the most rudimentary manner.

The notable provisions of the 2016 rules that have been tinkered with include phasing out of multi-layered plastics; curbing the production of non-destructible plastics; and “explicit pricing of plastic carry bags”, which required users to pay a fee. Though the enforcement of this measure was rather lackadaisical, it had spurred the emergence of carry bags made of natural fibres or other permissible materials. This clause has now been abandoned. Significantly, non-recyclable multi-layered plastics, which were supposed to be phased out, have been given a fresh lease of life by easing the norms concerned. In the new policy, the ban applies only to those multi-layered materials that are “non-recyclable or non-energy recoverable or have no alternate use”. This leaves hardly any category of multi-layered plastics to be phased out. Any product can be claimed to have some alternate use to escape the bar. This aside, the new policy is also soft on “extended producer responsibility” that bound plastic producers, importers and brand owners to ensure environmentally sound management of their products till the end of their useful life.