Along with fighting the outbreak and resuscitating the economy, the focus on protecting the environment — mainly the indiscriminate use and disposal of single-use plastic — must be kept
Karan Mangotra and Sourabh Manuja
There is an alarming rise in the number of COVID-19 cases across India. As more people get quarantined, the subsequent demand for personal protective equipment (PPEs) increases as well. Insidiously, the amount of potentially infectious waste from households also starts increasing.
As a majority of the COVID-19 cases remain asymptomatic or recover, people discard used PPEs — after 72 hours of isolation — as per the guidelines of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). These PPEs, mainly made out of plastics, get treated as any other waste item thereon — and there lies the dilemma of managing single-use plastics (SUPs) in this ongoing pandemic.
Plastics are enduring, lightweight and available at low prices, and also have versatile properties that bring medical and technological advances in modern society. To protect us and our frontline COVID-19 warriors, the role of the PPEs cannot be overlooked.
Even in other sectors such as agriculture, electronics, packaging, textile and transportation, are highly dependent on plastics. Its lightweight makes long-distance transportation economical and as a result, plastics are gradually displacing other packaging materials. While plastics by themselves are useful in multiple ways, what is problematic and what poses a serious threat to the environment is its indiscriminate disposal.
Studies by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) have established that on a global scale 80 percent of litter in oceans originates from land-based activities and about 90 percent of this is mostly SUPs.
In India, the Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016 mandates urban local bodies (ULBs) to provide a separate collection, storage, transportation, processing, and disposal of plastic waste — yet several ULBs across the country have failed to implement it.
In a study conducted by TERI in 2019, only 8 percent, 5 percent, and 4 percent households in East Delhi, South Delhi, and North Delhi Municipal Corporations respectively agreed of having separate management of plastic waste in their area. This clearly indicates that there is a dire need to manage plastic waste through policy interventions such as the Extended Producer Responsibilities (EPRs) as well as Monitoring Review and Verification (MRV) systems for ULBs.
In September, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at the UNCCD COP14 in New Delhi, reiterated his commitment to ban SUPs in the coming years. Following this, several ministries, government departments and states started implementing blanket bans on SUPs. In India, the large informal sector is involved in manufacturing and recycling such SUPs and a large part of that economy relies on such plastics. It is estimated that around 1.7 million people are employed with the plastic manufacturing sector, directly and indirectly. Given this, the question is: Is a blanket ban a prudent option?
The CPCB estimates that 94 percent of the plastics that we consume are recyclable, but only 60 percent gets recycled. The non-recycled plastics are either dumped in a terrestrial or aquatic environment or are openly burnt across the country, posing grave environmental challenges.
In the post-COVID-19 world when the focus would be on saving lives and livelihoods, experts believe that diverting waste from landfills towards recycling can create six times more jobs and help in the management of mismanaged plastics.
Interventions on plastic waste management can only be effective when urban areas have consistent waste collection, safe and environmentally sound disposal, and consistent enforcement of related policy. There is also a strong need for promoting the 3Rs — reduce, reuse and recycle — among all citizens encouraging them to switch over to sustainable alternatives such as cloth masks which can be washed, thus creating less waste.
Given India’s socio-economic standing, the problem of plastic waste management can be turned into an opportunity with a strong administrative and political will. As India turns its focus to recovering its economy, an increase in the responsible use of plastics can bring in new opportunities for modernisation, competitiveness, and job creation — consistent with its economic, social and environmental objectives. India must be more conscious to make this current recovery sustainable, or else we may lurch from one pandemic to another — a plastic pandemic.Karan Mangotra is Associate Director, Earth Sciences & Climate Change Division, and Sourabh Manuja is Fellow, Environment & Waste Management Division, TERI. Views are personal.