By ANIRUDDHA GHOSAL, AP Science Writer
NEW DELHI (AP) — India on Friday banned some single-use or disposable plastic products as part of a federal plan to phase out the ubiquitous material in the nation of nearly 1.4 billion people.
For the first stage, it has identified 19 plastic items that are not very useful but have a high potential for becoming litter and are illegal to produce, import, store, distribute or sell. These items range from plastic cups and straws to popsicle sticks. Some disposable plastic bags will also be removed and replaced with thicker ones.
Thousands of other plastic products, such as water or soda bottles or potato chip bags, are not covered by the ban. But the federal government has set goals for manufacturers to be responsible for recycling or disposing of them after use.
Plastic makers had called on the government to delay the ban, citing inflation and possible job losses. But India’s federal environment minister, Bhupender Yadav, told a news conference in New Delhi that the ban had been in the works for a year.
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“Now that time is up,” he said.
This is not the first time India has considered a plastic ban. But previous iterations have focused on specific regions, resulting in varying degrees of success. A nationwide ban that includes not only the use of plastic but also its production or importation was a “definite boost,” said Satyarupa Shekhar, Asia-Pacific coordinator for advocacy group Break Free from Plastic.
Most of the plastic is not recycled globally and millions of tons pollute the world’s oceans, affect wildlife and are found in drinking water. Scientists are still trying to assess the risks posed by tiny broken-down pieces of plastic, known as microplastics. In 2020, more than 4.1 million metric tons (4.5 million US tons) of plastic waste was generated in India, according to its federal pollution control agency.
The creaky waste management system in the country’s burgeoning cities and towns means that much of this waste is not recycled and ends up polluting the environment. Nearly 13 million metric tons (14 million US tons) of plastic waste was either discarded or not recycled by the South Asian nation in 2019, the highest figure in the world, according to Our World in Data.
Plastic manufacturing releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that warm the earth, and India is home to factories that produce more than 243,000 metric tons (268,000 US tons) of disposable plastic each year. This means that reducing manufacturing and subsequent plastic waste is crucial if India is to meet its goal of reducing the emissions intensity of economic activity by 45% in eight years.
A recent study identified more than 8,000 chemical additives used for plastic processing, some of which are a thousand times more potent as greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide. Products such as single-use containers, plastic resins, plastic foam insulation, bottles and containers, among many others, add to global greenhouse gas emissions.
Most plastic cannot be recycled, it only degrades, and is often incinerated or used as fuel in waste-to-energy plants, sometimes known as chemical recycling. While plastics are worth three to four times more as fuel than as scrap, these recycling processes release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, adding to the greenhouse effect.
“Given the magnitude of the plastic crisis, this is very little. And it is very little both in scope and coverage,” Shekhar said.
Ravi Agarwal, director of Toxics Link, a New Delhi-based advocacy group that focuses on waste management, added that the ban was “a good start” but its success will depend on how well it is implemented. The actual application of the law will be in the hands of the individual states and the municipal bodies of the cities.
India said prohibited items were identified with the availability of alternatives in mind: bamboo spoons, banana trays, wooden ice cream sticks. But in the days before the ban, many vendors said they were confused.
Moti Rahman, 40, is a vegetable vendor in New Delhi. Customers in his cart carefully chose fresh summer produce Tuesday before he dumped them into a plastic bag. Rahman said he agrees with the ban, but added that if plastic bags are stopped without a readily available and equally profitable replacement, his business will suffer.
“After all, plastic is used in everything,” he said.
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