The Indian Government has taken an “unprecedented” step against plastic pollution in pledging to cut out all single-use plastics by 2022.
Nations across the world have been announcing their commitments to cut plastic waste following this year’s World Environment Day, which was hosted by India with the theme ‘Beat Plastic Pollution’. India’s commitment is the most ambitious by far and represents only the second time a country in its entirety has made such a pledge – following Costa Rica, which vowed in 2017 to ban all single-use plastics by 2021.Some of the most plastic-polluted rivers in the world – including the Indus and the Ganges – run through India, and the country itself produces around 25,000 tonnes of plastic waste every year, of which Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan claims 60 per cent is recycled.
Vardhan revealed the news at a World Environment Day summit in New Delhi on Tuesday (5 June), saying: “On this historic occasion we make a solemn pledge that by 2022 we shall eliminate all single-use plastics from our beautiful country.”
The announcement is an abrupt change from previous policy on plastics which coupled plastics consumption with the country’s economic growth; Petroleum and Natural Gas Minister Dharmendra Pradhan stated in 2016 that the Indian Government planned to double per capita consumption of plastics, to 20 kilogrammes per person by 2022 – a figure still lower than the world average consumption of 32kg.
The government has not stated how the policy will be implemented or what exactly it will consist of, whether that is a ban on the manufacture of single-use plastic products or a ban on the consumption of the products. The specifics of the policy also depend on what products will come under the umbrella of ‘single-use plastics’.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated at the summit: “The choices that we make today will define our collective future. The choices may not be easy. But through awareness, technology, and a genuine global partnership, I am sure we can make the right choices. Let us all join together to beat plastic pollution and make this planet a better place to live.”
A report released by the UN on Tuesday (5 June) details the wide range of actions being taken by governments to restrict the consumption and disposal of plastic products. Titled ‘Single-use plastics: A roadmap for sustainability’, the report covers some of the bans on specific plastic products being introduced around the world – with carrier bags a particularly common target.
China, for instance, banned vendors from providing free plastic bags in 2008, resulting in an apparent 66 per cent drop in usage; the Australian Capital Territory banned the items in 2011, resulting in a reduction in bags to landfill of around a third; and since August 2017 in Kenya anyone found using, selling or producing a plastic bag could face up to four years in jail or fines of $40,000 (£31,000).
In the UK, charges are applied to plastic bags to discourage consumption, and the central and devolved governments have been discussing complete bans on some other frequently littered plastic products, including straws and cotton-buds – products that have recently been targeted by the European Commission, which in May proposed an EU-wide ban on some single-use items.
India has already seen a number of bans enacted at a state level, to varying degrees of success. The UN report states that Himachal Pradesh has seen a ‘significant decrease in plastic pollution’ since a 2004 ban on non-biodegradable plastic bags, but similar bans in Karnataka and Punjab have had limited impact. ‘Poor enforcement’ is blamed for this result in a number of states, including New Delhi and Haryana. To successfully implement a wider ban across the entirety of India, the second most populated country in the world with 1.3 billion residents, would be a vastly ambitious project.As well as the announcement on single-use plastics, the Indian Government has revealed plans to make 100 national monuments litter-free and to establish a marine litter action programme as part of the UN Environment Clean Seas campaign, which was set up in February 2017 with the aim of ‘engaging governments, the general public, civil society and the private sector in the fight against marine plastic litter.’
“Environmental degradation hurts the poor and vulnerable the most,” Modi said. “It is the duty of each one of us to ensure that material prosperity does not compromise our environment.”
Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment, commented: “India has made a phenomenal commitment and displayed clear, decisive and global environmental leadership. This will inspire the world and ignite real change.”
The UN’s report contains a 10-step ‘roadmap’ for governments looking to curb single-use plastics, which includes advice to target the most problematic items, identify and engage key stakeholders, promote alternatives and provide incentives to industry to support the transition away from single-use plastic.