Updated: September 22, 2019 5:48:31 am
Dr Swaminathan Sivaram is a member of the expert committee constituted by the government to categorise single-use plastic. He tells The Indian Express that the definition of single-use plastic is being worked out and that the problem must be dealt with at multiple levels.
Is it possible to ban plastic products?
I don’t think a ban is contemplated. The government may decide to phase out certain problematic plastics. The pace of change should be decided by whether an alternative material is immediately available for replacement. A complete ban will be difficult to implement, as many plastic products have no viable alternatives. A ban is also difficult to enforce in the market. The experiences in different states, which banned certain type of single-use plastic, have not been very satisfactory. At the same time, there are several products that can be phased out without much pain to either the consumer or manufacturing industry. These include plastic carry bags, plastic cutlery, short term use food containers, drinking straws, foamed plastics and other small items used in packaging.
What’s the plan to deal with plastics?
The problem with single-use plastics must be dealt with at three levels. At the consumer’s level, there should be a sustained campaign to educate citizens on how to responsibly handle plastic products. Reduce, reuse and recycle is the message that should be delivered to diverse stakeholders, including individual citizens, small shopkeepers or large institutions such as offices, hospitals, educational institutions etc. The messaging will lead to consumers voluntarily reducing the use of plastics in areas where it is not necessary. he second is at the regulator’s level. There are millions of plastic products and it will not be possible to identify each product and take decisions individually. For this purpose, some of us have proposed a matrix, which balances the utility of a given product with its adverse environmental impact. These two primary attributes can be further subdivided into many sub-attributes. By assigning a composite score to each of these two factors, we can arrive at a decision whether in a particular case, the utility will outweigh the adverse environmental impact or vice versa. Based on this a more reasonable decision to phase out certain products can be taken… The third is at the level of the industry manufacturing plastic products for packaging and those using it for product sale. They have to shift to more sustainable packaging material, optimize packaging to reduce the use of single-use plastics and participate proactively in the Extended Producers Responsibility (EPR) system that has already been notified. They also have to voluntarily ensure that all packaging material have a share of recycle content to create a market and industry for high-quality recyclates.
What is the time period for the phasing-out process?
There are many single-use plastic that can be done away with quickly with little impact on either the consumer or industry. It is possible to phase these out within a year or so. In fact, in the last few months, we noticed that many of these products are already being phased out or their use reduced by voluntary action. The next set of products is those which have high utility but the potential to cause adverse environmental impact. We cannot take them out of the market abruptly. This will cause major disruption. The government and industry must jointly agree to set up a robust recycling system so that the environmental impact can be minimised, failing which it should be phased out. We must also seek alternative design or material to make such products easy to recycle.
The aim is to progress towards a circular economy. Therefore, it is desirable to ensure all single-use plastic, regardless of utility or impact on the environment, mandatorily include a certain quantity of recycled materials (recyclates). Many European countries have in place such regulations. Germany has prescribed that there should be at least 50 per cent recyclates in all materials that enter the market by 2025. In India, we need to begin thinking in this direction. Most of the recycling that currently happens in our country yields low-value products, which cannot be blended into virgin plastic to produce a material of the same quality. Our focus has to shift to high-value recycling, wherein, the recycled product is almost of the same quality as the virgin product… Ideally, we should strive for a minimum of 20 per cent mandatory blending of recycled material in all single-use plastic in about three to four years.
Is a three-four year period a reasonable amount of time?
I think it is. The industry has to accept the challenge and make it happen. Right now, the recycling industry is mostly in the unorganised sector. As a result, the quality of recyclate material is poor. The recycling industry lacks the right quality of feed material, the necessary processing equipment and has inadequate quality control. The resulting recyclate, therefore, does not qualify for blending with the virgin product. In developed countries, recycling is in the formal sector and has achieved scale, quality and economically viability.
But we lack a definition of single-use plastic.
Well, it is being worked out. Meaning while, there is a definition by the UNEP, which we can use. Any definition of single-use plastic must be linked to the life cycle. If it is less than a few hours, it must be considered single-use. So all kinds of consumer packaging material would be included in this. However, it must be recognised that packaging plastic can be recycled easily. Consider the packaging for sugar or salt. Since both the products absorb moisture, we need the packaging to prevent moisture ingress. Once we bring it home, we throw away the pouch. But the packaging material is as good as new and nothing deteriorated during its use. It can easily be recycled and reused for similar purposes.
What is the cost of giving up single-use plastic?
Any action taken to preserve our environment has hidden costs. Citizens demand a better quality of life as well as the environment. Therefore, society must also be ready to pay the cost of achieving the two objectives. In the end, this cost will be shared between the producers and consumers. Any transformative action to preserve the quality of our environment will be accompanied by some disruption, which is inevitable and has to be managed.
Investments will have to be made in setting up high-quality recycling plants. There is a cost attached to the process of segregation, collection and recycling. But recycled products can be about 20 per cent cheaper than the virgin material. So, if we can accomplish 20 per cent blending of recycled material into virgin products, there is a resultant cost-benefit that will accrue to both the consumers and producers.
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