Current Affairs

Single Use Plastic Pollution in India

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  • Published
    21st May, 2021
  • Context

    A latest report, Plastic Waste Makers Index, by the Australia-based Minderoo Foundation said India's per capita waste generated from single-use plastic is 4 kg.

  • Background

    • Single-use plastics, such as bottles, bags and food packages, are the most commonly discarded type of plastic.
    • Made almost exclusively from fossil fuels, these “throwaway” plastics often end their short lifecycle polluting the oceans, being burned or dumped into landfills.
    • The latest Plastic Waste Makers Index names the companies that are at the forefront of the plastic supply chain and manufacture polymers, known as the building block of plastics.
      • The study says 20 petrochemical companies are responsible for 55% of the world’s single-use plastic waste.
      • The findings were published by the Minderoo Foundation, one of Asia’s largest philanthropies.
      • The research was conducted by academics from the London School of Economics, the Stockholm Environment Institute, Wood Mackenzie, among others.
  • Analysis

    What are Single-use plastics?

    • Single-use plastics are disposable plastics meant for use-and-throw.
    • These comprise polythene bags, plastic drinking bottles, plastic bottle caps, food wrappers, plastic sachets, plastic wrappers, straws, stirrers and Styrofoam cups or plates.

    Items for box

    • According to Un-Plastic Collective Report, an estimated 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced since the early 1950s, about 60% of which has ended up either in a landfill or the natural environment.
    • India alone generates 9.46 million tonnes of plastic waste every year, around 43% of which comprises single-use plastic.
    • It poses a mammoth problem for India since 40% of plastic waste remains uncollected.
  • Basics of plastic

    • Plastics are a group of materials, either synthetic or naturally occurring, that may be shaped when soft and then hardened to retain the given shape.
    • Polymers: Plastics are polymers. A polymer is a substance made of many repeating units.
      • A polymer can be thought of as a chain in which each link is the “mer,” or monomer (single unit).
      • The chain is made by joining, or polymerizing, at least 1,000 links together.
      • Polymerization can be demonstrated by making a chain using paper clips or by linking many strips of paper together to form a paper garland.
    • Characteristics of Polymers
      • Resistant to chemicals
      • Insulators of heat and electricity
      • Light in mass and have varying degrees of strength
      • They can be processed in various ways to produce fibers, sheets, foams, or intricate molded parts.
  • How plastic is a threat to the environment?

    • Non-biodegradable: According to World Wildlife Fund (WWF), plastic is harmful to the environment as it is non-biodegradable, takes years to disintegrate.
    • Microplastics: Single-use plastics slowly and gradually break down into smaller pieces of plastic known as microplastics.
    • Contamination of soil and water: It can take thousands of years for plastic bags to decompose, thus contaminating our soil and water in the process.
    • Transmission to living beings: The noxious chemicals used to produce plastic gets transmitted to animal tissue, and finally, enter the human food chain.
    • A person could be consuming 5 grams of plastic a week.
    • Plastic kills an estimated 1 million sea birds every year and affects around 700 species which get infected by ingesting plastics.
  • Which countries generate most plastic?

    • Singapore & Australia: Singapore and Australia top the list of the countries in per capita plastic waste generation. Singapore’s per capita plastic waste generation stands at 76 kg followed by Australia at 56 kg.
    • China: China is the largest producer of single-use plastic, followed by the US and India, the report said. However, while India generates 5.58 million tonnes (MT) of single-use plastic annually, China produces six times more, at 25.36 MT and the US 17.19 MT.
    • India: India is closely followed by Japan with 4.7 MT of annual plastic waste.
      • The report ranks India as the third-largest producer of plastic waste, its low per capita plastic waste puts it in favourably contrasting position compared to China — the only country with more people — and others which contribute relatively more plastic pollutants despite a very low population base.
    • United Kingdom: The UK produces 2.8 MT of plastic waste a year.

    Most polluting companies

    • The report, Plastic Waste Makers Index, also listed global companies that produce a maximum volume of plastics.
    • Half of the world’s single-use plastic is made by 20 big companies. 
    • The top two single-use plastic producers — the US’s ExxonMobil (5.89 MT) and China’s Sinopec (5.66 MT) — individually generate more than India's entire contribution.
    • The report has ranked India’s Reliance Industries among the top-10 single-use plastic waste producers globally.


  • Recent Government measures to phase out single-use plastic

    National Policy

    • India is working on a national policy aimed at completely phasing out single-use plastics by the second half of 2022, taking into account varied paces of compliance across states over the past five years.
    • In a draft notification issued on 13 March 2021, the country’s Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change is looking at a three-phased ban on the manufacture, use, sale, import and handing of single-use plastic items.

    State-wise ban

    • From 2018 onward, around 19 states have imposed bans on single-use plastic which are being implemented with varying degrees of success.
    • Maharashtra was one of the first states to impose the ban in March 2018.

    Case Study: Plastic Man of India

    • Rajagopalan Vasudevan is known as the “Plastic Man of India” for devising an innovative way of disposing of plastic waste – by using it to build roads.
    • In 2002, Vasudevan came up with the idea of spraying dry, shredded plastic waste, made up of pieces as small as 2 mm in size, over gravel or bitumen heated to 170 degrees Celsius.
    • The plastic melted and coated the stones with a thin film. The plastic-coated stones were then added to molten tar.
    • Since both plastic and tar are petroleum products, they bind well.
    • Vasudevan first tried out this technique to pave a road on the college campus. It yielded twin benefits:
      • it reused plastic waste
      • it built durable roads
  • Measures taken at international level

    Governments in at least 32 countries have banned plastic bags altogether and at least 127 countries have implemented policies regulating plastic bags according to the United Nations. 

    • Luxemburg: Since 2004, the government of Luxemburg, along with Valorlux, a waste management non-profit, have replaced the country’s single-use plastic bag with the Öko-Tut, an eco-sac reusable bag. 
    • Guatemala: A Mayan village in Guatemala is on the front lines of the movement against single-use plastics in the country. 
    • Costa Rica: Costa Rica has become the first country in the world to eliminate plastic bags, bottles, cutlery, straws, and coffee stirrers as of 2021.
    • Caribbean island: The Nature Island of the Caribbean has banned non-biodegradable plastics. CREAD (Climate Resilient Execution Agency for Dominica) is helping islanders phase out their plastic consumption by introducing plant-based reusables that can be completely or partially converted into water, energy, and biomass.
    • Jamaica: Jamaica banned the importation of single-use plastic bags and straws in 2019.
    • European Commission: In 2019, the European Union approved a ban on certain single-use plastics that will go into effect on July 3, 2021.
      • In a report recently released by the Commision, they claim“The legislation is not just about banning plastic products.
      • It also wants to make plastic producers bear the cost of waste management and cleanup efforts, and it proposes that EU states must collect 90% of single-use plasticbottles by 2025 through new recycling programs. 
  • What adds to the challenge?

    • Ineffective waste segregation and management: Only certain types of single-use plastic can be recycled. Cling films used to preserve food as well as certain types of polythene and plastic cannot be recycled. These end up in landfills or water bodies.
    • Unmanaged garbage bin: An estimated 15 million tonnes of plastic end up in oceans every year. Most of this waste is dumped in the Indian Ocean, but where the trash ultimately ends up is still a mystery. There may also be a ‘garbage bin’ forming in the Bay of Bengal where all the waste has been accumulating.
  • What measures are required?

    • Recycling: The report emphasised the need for the recycling of plastics. It said of the 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic produced since its invention in the 1930s, only nine per cent has been recycled.
    • Composting: Replacing long-lasting plastics with biodegradable materials can help to reduce environmental damage.
    • Focus on alternatives: There are alternatives such as glass, paper and cardboard. Other elements that need to be looked into are recycling rate, safety, weight, transportability and affordability. 
    • In 2020, the CSIR-National Institute for Interdisciplinary Science and Technology (NIIST) came up with an alternative to single-use plastics.
    • NIIST scientists have developed a technology for manufacturing biodegradable tableware - including plates, cutleries and cups - from agricultural residues and byproducts.
  • Conclusion

    Humanity's dependence on plastic grows stronger with the passing of every year. It is lightweight, flexible, relatively inexpensive, and durable - and it is used in everything. Though the issue of plastic arises from the very fact it is too durable - it simply never goes away.

    Besides its widespread versatility, the waste plastic creates is wreaking havoc on the environment at an alarming rate. The situation is already dire, and needs a sustainable solution.