“The issue lies in management of plastics and not in the plastics themselves”
In his interaction with TPCI, TERI’s Sourabh Manuja, argues that the single-use plastic (SUP) ban (as proposed by the government), if it materialises, will not have a negative impact on the Indian economy, as it will create the demand for alternatives.
TPCI: How is the single-use plastic ban likely to impact the industry, in your opinion?
Sourabh Manuja (SM): Plastics market size, as estimated by FICCI, was 13.4 million metric tonnes per annum in 2015; with about 35% consumption in packaging industry (food packaging using flexible packaging and contributing about 50% to the share). In my opinion, the single-use plastic (SUP) ban is going to impact the plastic manufacturing industry to a great extent. Initially the manufacturers will have a setback, particularly those who were manufacturing only the items that have come under the SUP ban. Looking into the plastics raw material supply chain, the demand for recycled plastic is also expected to lower down with the SUP ban and will affect raw material suppliers too. There is an urgent need that research and development activities are done in the direction, which can make alternate raw materials available to these manufacturers, which are even competitive for them to choose.
TPCI: Do you think that the country is equipped to make a transition to a complete phasing out of plastics? How can the transition be made smoother?
SM: How can the complete phasing out of plastics be even possible? Plastics are derived from distillation of crude oil, as by-products. The issue lies in management of plastics and not in the plastics themselves. FICCI estimated that per capita annual consumption of plastics in India is only 11 kg, which is far below the global average of 28 kg.
Still our country is equipped to make the transition, but certainly in a phased manner. There are many alternate choices available, which can not only reduce plastic consumptions but can even lower our waste outputs, like utensil banks for functions, own water bottles along with water kiosks, bamboo or jute bags instead of shopping plastic bags, banana fiber instead of plastic fibers etc. The transitions can be made smoother only by behavioural change among common public and targeting strategies towards a society which focuses on reduction and reuse.
TPCI: What would be the effect of banning plastic use on the Indian economy at a time when it is already struggling with a slowdown?
SM: The SUP ban many not be at the right time (economic slowdown), but is definitely in the right direction. Almost 10% of plastics produced till date has been estimated to end up in oceans. About 80-90% of the marine litter is plastics; mostly single use plastics. The SUP ban will certainly have a negative effect on the plastic market, but simultaneously the demand for other alternate products like paper and textile will rise. Overall, the SUP ban will not have a negative impact on the Indian economy.
TPCI: The global campaign against plastics has intensified over the past few years with several countries imposing partial/total bans on single use plastics and a general policy direction towards minimising their use. What implications can it have for Indian plastic exporters in the coming years?
SM: It has been communicated by FICCI that 43% of the plastic polymer is utilised by packaging industry in India. Export of value added plastic products from FY07-FY12 rose by 17.6% per annum reaching. Of these 29% were film, sheets and plastes and 10% were packaging items. The major materials exported were Polypropylene and Polyethylene. With the restrictions on use of single-use plastics in many countries, our Indian plastic exports market may have to develop strategies to offer products which are more eco-friendly and sustainable.
TPCI: How is the global plastic industry coping with the uncertainties pertaining to plastic regulation? Are there some successful case studies to emulate in this regard?
SM: Plastic has been a raw material, which is vital for a modern society – in terms of biomedical applications as well as food security. Banning single-use plastics may be a misguided solution; rather priority focus should have been on reducing the amount of waste we generate before it gets recycled or disposed, thereafter recycling whatever we cannot reuse or reduce. Only the rejects or non-recyclables should go for recovery of energy and ashes should again be used for making other items.
Further, extended producer responsibility through producer responsibility organisations (PROs) that help diverting the produced plastic waste back to recycling chain in European Union are good case studies in these regards. Examples are CITEO (earlier Eco-Enablers) EPR scheme in France and CONAI in Italy.
TPCI: Some reports suggest a shift to recyclable and biodegradable plastic. What does this entail, and how well prepared is the Indian industry in this regard?
SM: Recently a report of a LCA study published by CPCB (March 2018) on plastic packaging concluded that PLA (Poly Lactic acid, a bio-based polymer) cups have more GHG emission compared to PP (Poly Propylene), though less than PET. Yet the challenges are with regards to their production costs and ease of acceptance by consumers. Plastic packaging industry may face a strong competition with glass and aluminium, which are 100% recyclable any number of times.
The biodegradable plastics that we have at the moment have certain disadvantages in terms of poor melting properties, mechanical brittleness, low heat resistance and slow crystallisation, thus requiring co-polymerisation to be done. Now with these additives, it was also found that few bio-based plastics such as PLA showed no degradation over a year in ambient temperature of 25o degrees C in seawater (a study published by Global challenges in 2017). Indian plastic packaging industry as well the consumers will have to understand, that it is not the plastics that pose problem, it is the management of plastics that needs to be streamlined. Further, there is a need for research and development to be done and identify bio plastic materials, which are easily biodegradable and are sustainable.
Sourabh Manuja is a Fellow, Environment & Waste Management Division, The Energy and Resources Institute. He has more than twelve years of work experience in the field of environmental engineering. Furthermore, he has experience of working on development of greenhouse gas emission model for emission inventory and mitigation strategies in the waste sector; detailed project report preparation for solid waste management for cities of Aligarh and Mainpuri in Uttar Pradesh; designing of water and wastewater treatment plants using submerged aerobic fixed film (SAFF), moving bed biological reactor (MBBR), bio towers, and anaerobic digester technology.TERI specializes in the fields of energy, environment and sustainable development.