Plastic waste from bags and other packaging are increasingly taking centre stage in India, prompting governments to use both carrots and sticks: pushing ahead with bans but also creating incentives to use discarded plastic in more constructive ways.
The country, for example, adopted legislation in November to encourage road builders to mix plastic waste with bituminous materials in highway construction, as a way to bolster markets for waste.
But governments also are continuing to push punitive measures, with the country's largest state, Uttar Pradesh, adopting a plastic bag ban starting at the end of December.
Those were among the mixed messages delivered at “Plastic Packaging — the Sustainable Choice,” held 19 January in New Delhi. It was organised by industry groups and India's Department of Chemicals and Petrochemicals.
It was clear that public pressure remains strong, and there were comments from government officials in favor of extended producer responsibility legislation, requiring manufacturers to help finance plastic waste collection systems.
“We are receiving almost 50 requests to ban plastic carry bags daily but we know banning them is not the solution,” said Sanchita Jindal, director, forest and climate change in India's Ministry of Environment.
An executive with Dow Chemical said the industry should support government programs that can strengthen markets for waste materials, such as plastic waste in roads, and another program to use solid waste and plastic as fuel for waste-to-energy plants.
“We have to evolve mechanisms to channelize the plastic waste to power plants to make a profitable venture,” said Vipul Babu, sales director, India Subcontinent, packaging and specialty plastics for Dow Chemical International Pvt. Ltd.
Several industry speakers said more needs to be done to address litter, but they also wanted to draw attention to the benefits of plastics.
“Plastics packaging has made its position invincible,” said V.K. Taparia, executive director of Supreme Industries Ltd. “Even if we feel to go back to glass for all packaging for a while, it requires the amount of energy requirements that we could not meet today.”
A survey of 60 cities in India by the Central Pollution Control Board estimated that about 33.7 million pounds of plastic waste was generated each day, with about 13.2 million pounds of that remaining uncollected and littering roads.
Industry speakers said plastic processors are adopting better waste management techniques to reduce their industrial scrap.
“We used to generate 35% scrap from a certain product and by virtue of improved processing, scrap comes down to 15% now and we hope to reduce it further down to 5%,” Taparia said.
One non-governmental organization called for coalitions between government, industry and the public to tackle waste, such as having bottled water brands and PET bottle makers work together.
Annapurna Vancheswaran, senior director of sustainable development outreach at the Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi, said such efforts could help change public perceptions of plastic.
She also called for incentives to encourage the collection of plastic bags.
“The idea is to put a framework of collection and disposal of waste in place with some kind of monetary incentive,” Vancheswaran said.
But some industry representatives said that downgauging of plastic bags, from 20 microns thick four decades ago to less than 10 now, could make collection less attractive.
Supreme's Taparia said the industry should do more research on sustainable packaging materials. Other speakers suggested that attention should be directed at people who litter.
“When opinion goes wrong from all sides the recalcitrant industry should take right steps like to identify the problem, which is largely at the users' end,” said Vijay Habbu, a senior vice president of resin maker Reliance Industries Ltd. “The very user who cribs about plastic waste and littering are actually the one who is the source of problem.”