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Covid undoing the fight against single-use plastic: Sunita Narain, Centre for Science and Environment


Sunita Narain, director general of the think tank Centre for Science and Environment, says India needs more and better data on plastic waste management if it wants to phase out single-use plastic and disposables. Covid-19, she tells ET in an interview, has dealt a big blow to these efforts. Edited excerpts:


What has been the impact of Covid-19 on India’s efforts to reduce single-use plastic and disposables?
Data is poor but, anecdotally, Covid-19 is undoing all the work that we had done on the elimination of single-use plastic. Initially, there was a lot more of its use but subsequently there was a lot of calibration from the government, like when it said use washable masks. But fear is also leading people to use wear-and-throw articles. A big, unfortunate downside has been the increased use of single-use plastics and the legitimacy it has got as a sign of safety.

You have said India’s plastic waste management is hobbled by the lack of accurate data. Shouldn’t correcting that be the first step?
My larger point has been that there is huge politics on the word ‘recycling’. We need to better understand what this means because industry uses it very frequently to say we don’t have a plastic waste problem as it is all recycled. We need to understand this better because otherwise we are just getting caught in this la-la land where all our waste is picked up by waste-pickers and everything is ‘recycled’.

A number of states had introduced bans on the use of single-use plastic. But aren’t bans only as effective as their enforcement?
A lot of the bans that states have introduced are really simple to enforce. You could start by banning plastic cutlery — simple things like that. These can be enforced. And if there is a nationwide ban, it will be easier to enforce. The government can do it.

The 2016 rules on phasing out multilayered plastic were changed in 2018 to qualify it as non-recyclable or with no alternate use. What is the impact of that amendment?
That amendment was deadly. It was very damaging. Technically, MLP is recyclable because you can burn it. You could upcycle it. But in real life, is that feasible? Who is going to collect those wrappers you and I are throwing in the garbage? If chips packets can be used in other packaging all over the world, why can’t the same companies do it in India? We are saying it has to be banned.





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