Context: Single-use plastic (SUP) is thriving and proliferating on an unprecedented scale due to the global pandemic.

An increasing number of COVID-specific, SUP-based products:

  • Our hyper-hygienic way of life has resulted in increased dependence on non-recyclable items such as plastic-lined masks, gloves, hand sanitiser bottles etc. 
  • In 2018, a report by McKinsey estimated that, globally, we generate 350 million tonnes of plastic waste a year of which only 16 per cent is recycled. 
  • In 2017, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) estimated that around 25,940 tonnes of plastic waste is generated in India per day. 
  • The WHO estimates that the planet is using about 89 million masks and 16 million gloves each month which is much higher.
  • Necessary evil: Although cloth masks have increasingly been encouraged for common use, the plastic-made items are essential short-term needs for health, sanitation and other frontline workers as preventive measures against the coronavirus. 
  • Long-term environmental impact on the planet: Rather than waiting for the pandemic to be over to assess the damage we should try to deal with the problem now.

Pre-coronavirus times global plastic waste regulations:

  • In countries such as Canada and the US, recycling of plastic is classified as essential, although this is not practised universally. 
  • In India:
    • The Plastic Waste Management Rules of 2016:  The rules gave emphasis on banning plastics below 50 microns, phasing out use of multilayered packaging and introducing extended producer responsibility (EPR) for producers, importers and brand owners to ensure environmentally sound management of plastic products until the end of their lives.
      • Under Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) producers have been made responsible for collection of E-waste and for its exchange.
    • Ban on Single Use Plastic (SUP): The Prime Minister made clarion calls for a jan andolan (people’s movement) to curb the use of SUP and to ensure proper disposal of all plastic waste. 
    • Swachh Bharat Mission: Today, in rural India, having declared themselves open defecation free (ODF), village communities across the country are now starting to plan for setting up waste collection and segregation systems, with material recovery facilities at the block- level under phase 2 of the Swachh Bharat Mission (Grameen). 

Concerns: The global momentum for plastic waste management has been seriously disrupted. 

  • Seventy per cent of the Indian  plastic waste industry is informal in nature and no action plan for formalising the industry has been pushed in the last two years.
  • Good and Service Tax (GST) on plastic waste was put under a 5 percent bracket, hurting the informal sector, which already lacks a concrete action plan.
  • The idea of extended producer responsibility (EPR), which was introduced in the rules of 2016, still remains nowhere close to being implemented even after two years.
  • Thailand, which had banned disposable plastic bags at major stores and had planned to slash plastic waste completely in 2020, now expects to see such waste rise by as much as 30 per cent. 
  • In Indonesia, 63,000 workers were recently laid off in the recycling industry. 
  • The Bring Your Own (BYO) movement in Singapore, where consumers were urged to bring their own utensils to restaurants in the effort to reuse and recycle, has received a blow.

Way forward: Plastic is not the problem, our handling of it is. 

  • Need plastic, but not SUP, which is difficult to dispose of effectively. It is important to understand this distinction so we may change our behaviour and our lifestyles, to balance our need for plastic with effectively managing its waste.
  • Economic opportunity:  We require new business models which are designed for sustainability. In Uganda, they are melting plastic waste to make face shields which are being sold for just a dollar each. 
  • Enforcing EPR rules: EPR targets have to be accounted for at the national level, irrespective of which state the products are sold or consumed in. 
  • Behavioural change of consumers:  We need consumers to care about their role in the plastic waste value chain, using their power to change the existing unsustainable approach. 
    • People should take necessary steps to Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and, when all else fails, Remove, or dispose of plastic waste safely and effectively.


Plastic Waste Management (Amendment) Rules 2018: The Plastic Waste Management Rules, which were notified by the Ministry of Environment and Forest & Climate Change (MoEF&CC) in March 2016, have now been amended and shall be called Plastic Waste Management (Amendment) Rules 2018.

  • Rule 15 (Explicit pricing of carrying bags) omitted: It earlier required every vendor, who sold commodities in a carry bag, to register with their respective urban local body and pay a minimum fee of Rs 48,000 annum (4000/month) after the announcement of the bye-laws. 
  • Under section 9 (3), the term 'non-recyclable multilayered plastic if any' has been substituted by 'multi-layered plastic which is non-recyclable or non-energy recoverable or with no alternate use'. 
    • This gives plastic producers a scope to argue that their products can be put to some other use, if not recycled. This move  tantamounts to revoking a complete ban, which it had implied earlier. 
  • The section 13(2) now requires all brand owners and producers to register or renew registration with the concerned State Pollution Control Board (SPCB) or Pollution Control Committee if operational only in one or two states or union territories. 
    • They have to do the same with the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), if the producers/brand owners are operating in more than two states or union territories. 
    • Earlier, only the producers had to register to CPCB or SPCB regardless of their extent of the area of operation. CPCB claims that a centralised registration system will evolve from this.
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