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175 Countries Resolve to ‘End Plastic Pollution’. What Does It Mean for India?

175 Countries Resolve to ‘End Plastic Pollution’. What Does It Mean for India?

A delegate poses near a monument by Canadian artist Benjamin von Wong, made with plastic waste, at the fifth UN Environment Assembly, Nairobi. Photo: Reuters/Monicah Mwangi

  • Last week, parties to the UN Environment Assembly signed a resolution calling for a legally binding treaty to address plastic pollution.
  • The two key elements of the resolution we can expect to see in the prospective treaty are its legally binding nature and its ability to deal with the full lifecycle of plastics.
  • The inefficacy of India’s plastic waste laws from 1999 to 2018 vis-à-vis resolving the plastic crisis illustrates the fact that while our efforts have been in earnest, our vision has been clouded.

Last week, parties to the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) signed a resolution calling for a legally binding treaty addressing the full life cycle of plastic, from production to disposal. The approval of the resolution text at the UNEA gathering at Nairobi was followed by triumphant celebrations by country delegations and observers. And rightly so – the plastics treaty, if ratified, will be a significant landmark in multinational environmental governance on the lines of the Montreal Protocol and the Paris Agreement.

So what are the next steps? The draft resolution will be the guiding document for a ‘International Negotiations Committee’ that will deliberate the content, language and structure of the treaty over the next two years.

The two key elements in the current resolution that we can expect to see in the prospective treaty are:

Its legally binding nature – What this means is that the participating countries to the future treaty will agree to reducing their plastics footprint by deploying in mutually agreed interventions and policies. The ultimate aim would be to reduce the production of unsustainable and single use plastics and increasing the recovery of used plastics by improving recycling/recovery infrastructure.

While there was a consensus among parties on the binding nature of the future treaty, India was opposed to the idea and wanted only voluntary measures in line with its independent (hence withdrawn) resolution submitted to the UNEA. The European Union and several African countries opposed the idea and prevailed in retaining the “legally binding” language in the text.

The treaty will tackle the whole lifecycle of plastics and not just at the end of their lives – This will require a critical shift in policymakers’ approach to the crisis, which previously focused on plastic as a “littering” issue that can be fixed by improving waste management systems. Through the UNEA resolution, there is now an acknowledgement of the fact that the world economies are making too much plastic that has overwhelmed waste management systems.

For decades, the plastics industry and western policy makers have argued that the marine plastic pollution was a product of badly designed waste management systems in the developing world. The developed world had figured its way out of the crisis – and it was as simple as putting discards in the right bin. It was soon clear that developed countries that had invested in advanced waste collection systems had only managed to export their discards and not actually solved the waste crisis.

In 2018, the US exported 0.83 million metric tons or 157,000 shipping containers of plastic waste to countries in Asia and Africa that already suffer poor waste management systems. The import of PET bottle scrap and flakes to India also increased by 290% during this time from 12,000 tonnes in 2016-2017 to 48,000 tonnes in 2017-2018.

India’s policy landscape

The idea of a global resolution on plastic pollution was first proposed by India at the UNEA 4 in 2019. Unfortunately, it failed to garner enough support from the world community and had to be withdrawn. Arguably, the Indian resolution got the ball rolling on the global treaty.

So how conducive is the Indian policy landscape to meet the aspirations of a global treaty to end plastic pollution? To answer that we need to take a stock of India’s plastic policy landscape.

India announced its first law on plastic waste management in September 1999 with the aim to restrict the use of plastic carry bags (20 microns and less) and prevent the packing of food in recycled plastic. These rules were amended in 2003 to dilute the restriction on carry bags. As the plastic crisis progressed, the government notified the Plastic Waste (Management and Handling Rules) 2011 that introduced a ban on use of plastic materials in sachets for storing, packing or selling gutkha, tobacco and pan masala.

The 2011 rules were ineffective at tackling India’s plastic crisis. Eventually, the launch of the Swach Bharat Abhiyan laid the foundation for the next iteration of the rules. The Plastic Waste Management Rules were notified in March 2016 to supersede the Plastic Waste (Management & Handling) Rules, 2011. The 2016 rules were hailed as the most progressive because of its emphasis on the responsibility on manufacturers and brand owners and a comprehensive framework on extended producer responsibility.

Initially, the rules were dubbed as the boldest for proposing a controversial 2-year phase out deadline for all multi-layered plastics used in packaging. However, this clause of the rules was diluted in 2018 through an amendment. The most recent amendment, with the aim to operationalise extended producer responsibility, was announced in February 2022.

The inefficacy of India’s plastic waste laws from 1999 to 2018 vis-à-vis resolving the plastic crisis is testament to the fact that while our efforts have been in earnest, our vision has been clouded. In each of these amendments the attempt has been to shift the goal posts or to prescribe new targets without taking stock of the old ones.

An effective policy will have to address the issues surrounding unsustainable production of plastics – waste management can only be an interim albeit a very expensive arrangement. Second, with India’s growing commitment to the idea of circular economy, plastics will also have to become less toxic. More than 10,000 additives, processing aids, and monomers are used to make plastics, with about 2,400 identified as potentially hazardous. These chemicals are detrimental to the idea of circularity and producers will have to develop ways to eliminate their use for the cause of public health, workers and the environment.

Common problem, different responsibilities 

The global production of plastic has increased from 2 million metric tonnes in 1950 to 380 metric tonnes in 2015. By 2050, an estimated, 12,000 metric tonnes of plastic waste will be in the natural environment – enough to cover the Earth’s surface in a thin sheet of plastic. India consumes an estimated 16.5 million tonnes, equivalent to about 1.6 million truckloads a year. Of this, 43% is used for single-use packaging, which is ultimately destined for garbage bins.

India has a serious plastics problem and we have been trying to solve it, albeit with little success. In more ways than one, the plastics treaty will be in line with India’s aspirations of a plastic waste free future. Notice the use of the term “plastic waste free” instead of “plastic free”. This is because India retained its bargaining power under the future treaty by inserting language on “common but differentiated responsibility” borrowing its position from the climate negotiations.

This means India will reserve the right to decide the timeline for reducing its petrochemical and plastic footprint, and until then efforts will be focused on the collection, management and diversion of plastic waste.

Dharmesh Shah is the senior technical advisor at the Lawyers Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE), New Delhi. He participated in the UNEA 5.2 proceedings as part of the ‘Break Free from Plastics’ network.

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