India Is Generating Much More Plastic Waste Than It Reports. Here’s Why
Workers sort through plastic waste for recycling in the Dharavi slum area of Mumbai, India. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)

India Is Generating Much More Plastic Waste Than It Reports. Here’s Why

Only 14 of India’s 35 regional pollution boards filed information on plastic waste generation in 2017-18, according to the latest report of the Central Pollution Control Board. Thus, the CPCB estimate of plastic waste generated in India in 2017-18--660,787.85 tonnes, enough to fill 66,079 trucks at 10 tonnes a truck--does not reflect the situation in more than 60 percent of India’s states and union territories.

In 2016-17 too, CPCB received these figures from only 25 regional pollution boards. The total plastic waste generation figure for that year was estimated at 1.6 million tonnes, or 160,000 truckfulls.

The CPCB has approached the National Green Tribunal to enforce the implementation of plastic waste management rules by non-compliant states. On March 12, 2019, the NGT ordered all of them to ensure that reports are furnished to the CPCB by April 30, 2019. Failure is to be punished with a penalty of Rs 1 crore per month, to be paid to the CPCB, the NGT said.

India consumes an estimated 16.5 million tonnes, about 1.6 million truckfulls, of plastic annually, as per this June 2018 report in Down to Earth that cites data provided by PlastIndia Foundation, a conglomeration of associations and institutions that deal in plastic. Of this, 43 percent is plastic manufactured for single-use packaging material that will mostly find its way into garbage bins, the report said. In all, 80 percent of total plastic produced in India is discarded.

It mostly ends up choking landfills, drains and rivers and flows into the sea where it is ingested by marine animals. It leaches into soil and water, contaminating the natural environment with poisonous dioxins.

At least 40 percent of the plastic waste generated every day--25,940 tonnes or about 2,594 truckloads, as per this 2015 CPCB study for the year 2011-12--goes uncollected. Thin plastic bags and films do not have enough value in the recycling market--they fetch no more than Rs 4 a kg--to be collected by ragpickers.

Accurate data on plastic waste generation, collection and disposal are integral to how a country formulates its policy on waste management. India needs these figures even more since it has stated its resolve to phase out single-use plastic at the 2019 United Nations Environment Assembly and also banned the import of plastic waste into the country.

No Information From 10 States In Two Years

Plastic Management Waste Rules, 2016, amended in 2018, require state pollution control boards and pollution control committees to send to CPCB, the nodal body under the ministry of environment, detailed information about type and quantity of plastic waste, its collection, segregation and disposal across cities, towns and villages. This has to be sent every year by July 31.

Over 2016-17 and 2017-18, these states have not filed any annual data with the CPCB:

  1. Daman & Diu
  2. Goa
  3. Jharkhand
  4. Kerala
  5. Lakshadweep
  6. Mizoram
  7. Rajasthan
  8. Telangana
  9. Uttarakhand
  10. West Bengal

CPCB data on plastic waste generation from a 2015 study showed that, in 2010-12, India generated 25,940 tonnes plastic per day. This would amount to 9.5 million tonnes per year.

The same study estimated that 60 major Indian cities generate 4,059 tonnes of plastic waste, about 405 truckloads, per day in 2010-12. The top five cities in this list, all state capitals, are Delhi (689 tonnes), Chennai (429 tonnes), Kolkata (425 tonnes), Mumbai (408 tonnes) and Bengaluru (313 tonnes). India presented these data when it hosted the World Environment Day in June 2018.

However, none of the states where the offending cities are located--Delhi, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Maharashtra and Karnataka--provided information on plastic waste generation to the CPCB in 2018. This implies that the complete figure for plastic waste in India is much higher than reported by the CPCB.

The CPCB is the nodal agency to issue guidelines but state pollution control boards are under the purview of state governments.

Importing Plastic Waste Despite Oversupply In India

There are two main reasons why India generates so much plastic waste--the vast network of unlicensed units manufacturing low-grade plastic bags and other material such as styrofoam, and the indifference of municipal authorities to waste management.

Currently, the country is able to recycle only about 4 million tonnes.

Before the re-imposition of the plastic waste import ban in March 2019, Indian recycling firms were importing plastic waste from China, Italy, Japan and Malawi. This is because imported plastic waste is cheaper and available in segregated forms.

“The recycling industry should be able to use this surplus plastic waste but there is shortage of segregated plastic waste,” said OP Ratra, a consultant to the plastic industry.

Plastic waste imports had increased four-fold from 12,000 tonnes in 2016-17 to 48,000 tonnes in 2017-18, despite a 2015 ban on plastic waste import. This was made possible by a loophole which allowed import of plastic waste through Special Economic Zones. On March 6, 2019, the government put a ban on this as well. By the time the last ban was imposed, within the first quarter of the current financial year, 25,000 tonnes of plastic waste had already been imported.

Why India Is Unlikely To Phase Out Single-Use Plastic By 2022

As we mentioned earlier, at the UNEA held in Nairobi, Kenya, between March 11 and 15, 2019, India piloted a resolution on phasing out single-use plastic by 2022, a deadline later updated to 2025. A majority of member countries opted to go in for a less ambitious “reduction by 2030”. The UNEA is the world’s highest-level environmental forum with 170 member states.

In 2018, as the global host to UN World Environment Day, India had promised to phase out single-use plastic by 2022 with the theme ‘Beat Plastic Pollution’. “Only a small proportion of the plastics produced globally are recycled, with most of it damaging the environment and aquatic biodiversity,” a government press release had stated. “Both these are global challenges and the resolutions piloted by India at the UNEA are vital first steps towards addressing these issues and attracting the focus of the global community.”

India’s Plastic Consumption Set To Cross 20 Million Metric Tonnes By 2020

However, a 2022 phase-out seems unlikely--India’s annual plastic consumption is expected to cross 20 million tonnes in 2020.

Between 2010 and 2015, the plastics processing industry grew at a compound annual growth rate of 10 percent in volume--from 8.3 million metric tonne per annum to 13.4 MMTPA, as per a 2017 study by Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry, an industry lobby. By 2020, it is expected to grow at a CAGR of around 10.5 percent to reach 22 MMTPA.

In plastic, the packaging sector is growing the fastest, registering a CAGR of 15 percent between 2010 and 2015, the study said. An increase in the consumption of plastics will almost certainly result in a rise in plastic waste.

“A blanket ban doesn’t work unless steps are taken to stop the manufacturing of these products,” said SK Nigam, additional director and head of urban pollution control, CPCB.

(Banerjee is an environmental journalist, author and artist.)

This copy was published in a special arrangement with IndiaSpend.

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