- Following the Indian government's announcement banning various low-utility plastics, experts outline a list of structural issues that need to be addressed for the ban to be effective.
- Research and development into alternatives along with guidelines for their efficient use are needed.
- A lack of quality recycling and waste segregation also need to be addressed to improve the percentage of plastic that is recycled.
India will ban most single-use plastics by next year as part of its efforts to reduce pollution — but experts say the move is only a first step to mitigate the environmental impact.
India's central government announced the ban in August this year, following its 2019 resolution to address plastic pollution in the country. The ban on most single-use plastics will take effect from July 1, 2022.
Enforcement is key for the ban to be effective, environmental activists told CNBC. New Delhi also needs to address important structural issues such as policies to regulate the use of plastic alternatives, improve recycling and have better waste segregation management, they said.
Single-use plastics refer to disposable items like grocery bags, food packaging, bottles and straws that are used only once before they are thrown away, or sometimes recycled.
"They have to strengthen their systems in the ground to ensure compliance, ensure that there is an enforcement of this notification across the industry and across various stakeholders," Swati Singh Sambyal, a New Delhi-based independent waste management expert told CNBC.
As plastic is cheap, lightweight and easy to produce, it has led to a production boom over the last century, and the trend is expected to continue in the coming decades, according to the United Nations.
But countries are now struggling with managing the amount of plastic waste they have generated.
About 60% of plastic waste in India is collected — that means the remaining 40% or 10,376 tons remain uncollected, according to Anoop Srivastava, director of Foundation for Campaign Against Plastic Pollution, a non-profit organization advocating for policy changes to tackle plastic waste in India.
Independent waste-pickers typically collect plastic waste from households or landfills to sell them at recycling centers or plastic manufacturers for a small fee.
However, a lot of the plastics used in India have low economic value and are not collected for recycling, according to Suneel Pandey, director of environment and waste management at The Energy and Resources Institute (Teri) in New Delhi.
In turn, they become a common source of air and water pollution, he told CNBC.
Banning plastics is not enough
Countries, including India, are taking steps to reduce plastic use by promoting the use of biodegradable alternatives that are relatively less harmful to the environment.
For example, food vendors, restaurant chains and some local businesses have started adopting biodegradable cutlery and cloth or paper bags.
However, there is currently "no guideline in place for alternatives to plastics," Sambyal said.
That could be a problem when the plastic ban takes effect.
Sambyal said clear rules are needed to promote alternative options, which are expected to become commonplace in future.
The new rules also lack guidelines on recycling.
Though around 60% of India's plastic waste is recycled, experts worry that too much of it is due to "downcycling." That refers to a process where high-quality plastics are recycled into new plastics of lower quality — such as plastic bottles being turned to polyester for clothing.
"Downcycling decreases the life of the plastic. In its normal course, plastic can be recycled seven to eight times before it goes to an incineration plant ... but if you downcycle, after one or two lives itself, it will have to be disposed," said Pandey from Teri.
Tackling waste segregation is also essential.
If general waste and biodegradable cutlery are disposed together, it defeats the purpose of using plastic alternatives, according to Sambyal.
"It is high time that source segregation of domestic waste is implemented vigorously," said Foundation for Campaign Against Plastic Pollution's Srivastava, referring to waste management laws that are in place, but not followed closely.
Environmentalists generally agree that the ban is not sufficient on its own and needs to be supported by other initiatives and government regulations.
The amount of plastic that is collected and recycled needs to be improved. That comes from regulating manufacturers and asking them to clearly mark the type of plastic used in a product, so it can be recycled appropriately, said Pandey.
In addition to improving recyclability, investment in research and development for alternatives should also be a priority.
Pandey explained that India is a big, price-sensitive market where plastic alternatives could be produced in bulk and sold at affordable prices.
Several Indian states introduced various restrictions on plastic bags and cutleries in the past, but most of them were not enforced strictly.
Still, the latest ban is a big step toward India's fight against landfill, marine and air pollution — and is in line with its broader environmental agenda, according to the experts.
In March, India said it was on track to meet its Paris agreement climate change targets, and added that it has voluntarily committed to reducing greenhouse gas emission intensity of its GDP by 33% to 35% by 2030.