World Environment Day: Intensify efforts for more sustainable outcomes

Money Control, June 05, 2023

By Pradeep S Mehta and Simi TB

Trade and environment debate in the World Trade Organisation is slowly coming up, an example of which is a contentious step by the European Union to apply border carbon measures on its imports. On the other hand, there is rapidly growing interest in the issue of plastic pollution, which presents a unique opportunity for action. Recent advancements made by the WTO Dialogue on Plastics Pollution and Environmentally Sustainable Plastics Trade align with this global momentum. Its draft vision includes priorities for collaborating with organisations like the World Customs Organisation to regulate plastic trade effectively and supporting UN negotiations for a binding agreement on plastics pollution. Such a global treaty would establish a unified framework for nations to collectively address the crisis by sharing best practices, implementing strict regulations, and fostering international cooperation. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of World Environment Day today, we must think of how we can help our people and the planet by tackling pollution squarely.

Multi-pronged Approach Required

With its vast population and rapid economic growth, India must confront challenges in coping with environmental issues in trade as well as combating the plastic menace. The magnitude of plastic waste, combined with the financial and institutional limitations of cities and municipalities, demands a multi-pronged approach to tackle the issue effectively. According to data from the Central Pollution Control Board, the country generates approximately 3.5 million tonnes of plastic waste annually. This makes us the fifth-highest plastic waste generator globally, as also reported by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP).

While commendable measures have been taken recently within the country, intensifying efforts for more sustainable outcomes is crucial. The nationwide ban on single-use plastics, implementation of extended producer responsibility (EPR), Plastic Waste Management Rules, Swachh Bharat Mission, and emphasis on innovation and research have played pivotal roles in shaping a cleaner and more sustainable future. However, building upon these initiatives and actively seeking out and replicating existing best practices is imperative.

Promote Innovation With Caution

To tackle plastic waste, India must prioritise a robust recycling infrastructure and embrace innovation. Governments and municipalities must explore diverse approaches and invest in state-of-the-art recycling facilities capable of handling various plastic materials. Close collaboration among governments, businesses, and communities is vital to finding sustainable solutions. However, any innovative approaches developed to tackle plastic pollution should prioritise sustainability.

Current practices such as using plastic waste as fuel for cement industries or paving roads and building bricks though are considered potential solutions, yet they do come with serious sustainability concerns. Such practices are proven to release harmful pollutants into the air, soil and water, posing long-term environmental and social impacts. Therefore, assessing any new practices before taking them on a large scale is crucial. Besides, such practices are only short-term solutions for plastic waste management and do not address the root cause of the issue. They fail to encourage the reduction, reuse, or sustainable recycling of plastic waste.

Identifying successful innovative recycling practices and replicating them on a large scale, therefore, needs to be taken up. The decentralised recycling infrastructure and the involvement of local communities in plastic waste management at Dharavi in Mumbai are worth replicating elsewhere. Residents there actively engage in small-scale recycling enterprises where plastic waste, among other materials, is collected, sorted, and processed. By replicating such sustainable practices, investing in recycling facilities, implementing advanced technologies, and promoting community participation, cities and towns can effectively manage their plastic waste and pave the way towards a more sustainable future.

Making Producers Responsible

India’s guidelines on Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) and prohibition of single-use plastic items from July 1, 2022 are significant steps in reducing plastic pollution. EPR holds producers accountable for the lifecycle of their products, including the post-consumer phase. A global best practice that demonstrates the effectiveness of EPR is the case of Germany, which implemented its Packaging Act in 2019. According to the German Federal Environment Agency, the recycling rate for packaging waste in Germany reached an impressive 68.10 percent in 2020, while it was between 30-35 percent before 2019. Furthermore, the recovery rate, which includes recycling and energy recovery, stood at 96 percent for packaging waste in the same year. This success of EPR in Germany demonstrates that shifting the responsibility to producers and providing them with the necessary incentives can drive significant improvements in recycling rates, waste reduction, and the transition to a circular economy.

To achieve successful implementation of EPR for plastic packaging, India must undertake various additional measures. These efforts encompass investing in a robust waste management infrastructure, which includes recycling facilities, sorting centres, and effective collection systems. Equally important is the promotion of collaboration among different stakeholders and the establishment of a robust monitoring and reporting system. This serves to track progress, assess performance, and ensure transparency and accountability in meeting recycling targets and fulfilling EPR obligations.

Revive Ecomark scheme

Revitalising the inactive Ecomark Scheme introduced by India in 1991 could also yield valuable results in this context. Items such as ball pens and toys, which are notorious contributors to plastic waste due to their extensive usage and limited lifespan, necessitate a market transformation towards sustainable alternatives. Therefore, including them within the scope of an ecolabelling scheme would encourage the adoption of environmentally friendly materials like recycled plastics or biodegradable substitutes. Furthermore, integrating eco-friendly practices into these everyday products would help normalise sustainable behaviour and cultivate a sense of environmental stewardship from a young age.

As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of World Environment Day, it is crucial to reflect on the solutions available to combat the pervasive issue of plastic waste. With the world’s rapidly growing interest in the matter, it is time to seize this momentum and implement effective strategies. By embracing innovative approaches, identifying and replicating successful practices, implementing strict regulations and policies, and reinforcing our unwavering commitment to sustainable waste management, we can forge a path towards a cleaner, greener future for generations to come. Failure to do so may pose a significant obstacle to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

(Pradeep S Mehta and Simi TB work for CUTS International, a global public policy research and advocacy group. Views are personal, and do not represent the stand of this publication. )

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