Combating Plastic Pollution: India's Commitment to SDGs

Earth Day, observed each year on the 22nd of April since the 1970s, aims to create and enhance awareness about environmental issues plaguing the planet. Earth Day 2022, endowed with the theme “Invest in our Planet”, encourages people, businesses, and governments to act, innovate, and implement measures in their day-to-day lives to protect and preserve the planet. Among the myriad environmental concerns afflicting the planet, plastic pollution has been a mammoth one over the past few decades. The presence of plastics in the marine environment was first reported over 50 years ago, and subsequently, plastic debris has been found in all habitats.

Plastic has become an integral part of our lives owing to its inherent properties such as lightweight, strength, durability, high thermal and electrical insulation, resistance to corrosion, and cost-effectiveness. The augmented usage of plastics has thus led to its skyrocketing production, amounting to over 380 million tonnes per annum, and is predicted to double within 20 years. A majority of these plastics are designed for single-use and thus end up as plastic waste. As a consequence of their non-biodegradable nature, they have accumulated in natural habitats from the poles to the equator; they are ubiquitous in terrestrial environments, inland water bodies, and their primary sink oceans.

A new aspect of plastic pollution has been the discovery of microplastics (plastic particles smaller than 5 mm). These particles are released through protracted fragmentation, which ensures their availability for ingestion by a wide range of riverine and marine organisms. Ingestion of these microplastics can result in injury or impaired mobility of the organism. In addition, these particles could act as vectors of bio-magnification by transferring toxic chemicals and heavy metals to these organisms. Human beings are exposed to both plastic particles and endocrine-disrupting chemical additives such as bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates, diphenyl ethers (PBDE) being released from plastic toys or food and drink packaging.

The insignificant degradation of plastics coupled with unsustainable production, unregulated usage, and disposal has led to plastics becoming a severe threat to the health of human beings and other organisms. To keep the global production of plastics and the generation of plastic waste in check, a number of national and international commitments have been made. The United Nations (UN) has committed to reducing plastic leakage into the environment through several initiatives targeting single-use plastic pollution, marine litter, and microplastics. They also launched the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the UN summit in 2015 to tackle the contemporary key global threats and to achieve a sustainable future. A number of SDGs such as no poverty (SDG 1), zero hunger (SDG 2), promotion of good health and well-being (SDG 3), clean water and sanitation (SDG 6), affordable and clean energy (SDG 7), industry, innovation, and infrastructure (SDG 9), reduced inequality (SDG 10), sustainable cities and communities (SDG 11), responsible consumption and production (SDG 12), climate action (SDG 13), and life on land (SDG 15), deal indirectly with the issue of plastic pollution. But, SDG 14, in particular, addresses the issue of plastics because it aims to conserve and sustainably use marine resources for sustainable development.

At the national level, many countries have implemented measures such as banning or placing levies on the usage of single-use plastic. In 2018, India committed to mitigating plastic pollution caused by single-use plastics and declared the phase-out of single-use plastics by 2022. Further, India led a resolution on ''Addressing Single-Use Plastic Product Pollution'' which recognized the need for all countries to act on single-use plastic pollution. This resolution was adopted by the Fourth United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) held in 2019. Making good on its promise India has implemented several regulatory measures mentioned below to address single-use plastics pollution and has made significant strides toward the fulfillment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

• The Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change, Government of India notified the Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016, in August 2021, with the aim of phasing-out single-use plastic by 2022. The existing regulation forbade the use of plastic material in sachets for storing, packing, or selling tobacco and related products. This amendment further prohibits the manufacture, import, stocking, distribution, sale, and use of identified single-use plastic items, which have low utility and high littering potential from the 1st of July 2022.

• The Ministry further notified the Guidelines on the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for plastic packaging in February 2022. The amendment aimed at reducing the usage of virgin plastic material in packaging and recycling and reusing plastic packaging. The EPR guidelines also aim at environmentally sound management of plastic waste, strengthening the circular economy of plastic packaging waste, and promoting the development and certification of completely biodegradable plastic packaging. For its effective implementation, the amended EPR Guidelines were notified under the Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2021.

• The EPR Guideline also mandates the Producer, Importer, and Brand Owner (PIBO) for an environmentally sustainable collection and management of other plastic packaging waste (non-single-use plastic items). The collection, processing, and disposal of solid waste including plastic waste should be according to the Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016 and Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016.

• In order to stop littering, the thickness of plastic carry bags has been increased from fifty microns to seventy-five microns with effect from September 30, 2021, and to one hundred and twenty microns with effect from December 31, 2022.

Demonstrating an iron will to tackle the issue at hand, India further tabled another resolution titled “End plastic pollution: Towards an international legally binding instrument” at the fifth UNEA meeting in 2022, which aimed at setting up an intergovernmental negotiating committee for a new international legally binding treaty. This resolution was historically adopted by over 175 countries.