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India set to ban single-use and disposable plastics

With some of the world's dirtiest cities, Modi vows environment 'revolution'

A man sits on a mountain of plastic garbage in Mumbai: India has pledged to eliminate disposable plastics within three years. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

NEW DELHI -- India, which has some of the world's most polluted cities, is moving toward enforcing a nationwide ban on single-use and disposable plastic products, including lightweight plastic bags and coffee cups.

The ban may take effect by Oct. 2, the 150th anniversary of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi. The same day, India is also expected to be declared free of open defecation -- five years after Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched his ambitious Clean India drive, under which more than 95 million toilets have been built across the country.

Several government departments have already moved to eliminate single-use plastic products, including thin plastic bags, coffee cups and soda and water bottles, and food packaging. The Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution Ministry last week announced a blanket ban on all single-use plastic products, starting Sept. 15, while the Ministry of Railways has directed its vendors to avoid use of plastic carry bags from Oct. 2, among other measures.

The effort is being spearheaded Modi himself, who on Aug. 15, the country's independence day, called on Indians to shun single-use plastics and to pledge on Oct. 2 to eliminate these items in India. His government aims to phase out disposable plastic by 2022.

Modi has on numerous occasions highlighted the problem of plastic pollution, which he said is causing deadly harm to the marine ecosystem, along with declining fish catches, warming ocean temperatures and vanishing habitats, and could threaten humanity.

India and its 1.3 billion people are already battling severe pollution. The northern city of Gurugram, near New Delhi, was rated as having the world's most toxic air, according to the "2018 World Air Quality Report" published by IQAir AirVisual and Greenpeace. The report also said the country is home to 22 of the world's 30 most polluted cities.

About 9.4 million tons of plastic waste are generated in India annually, translating to 26,000 tons a day. Of this, about 60% is recycled, mostly by the informal sector. "While the recycling rate in India is considerably higher than the global average of 20%, there [are] still over 9,400 tons of plastic waste [per day] which is either landfilled or ends up polluting streams or groundwater resources," according to a report published in March by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs.

The report pointed out that while some kinds of plastic do not decompose at all, others could take up to 450 years to break down.

According to Archana Jyoti, a New Delhi-based environment and health columnist, India's effort to ban single-use plastic is making progress, though carrying it out nationwide will not be easy. "More importantly, alternatives should be made available to people and greater awareness generated for effective implementation of the move," Jyoti said.

According to some estimates, India's per capita annual plastic consumption may nearly double to 20 kg by 2022, up from 11 kg in 2015.

In 2002, India's neighbor Bangladesh became the first country to ban lightweight plastic bags. That move was followed by several other countries, including South Africa and Rwanda. Two more of India's neighbors, Pakistan and China, have announced steps to gradually scrap single-use plastic products.

Plastic is used massively because of its useful qualities. It is lightweight, flexible and relatively inexpensive. But as a waste product it harms the environment. "Our tremendous attraction to plastic, coupled with an undeniable behavioral propensity of increasingly over-consuming, discarding, littering and thus polluting, has become a combination of lethal nature," the urban affairs ministry report warned.

"This year, on the second of October, when we celebrate [Gandhi's] 150th birth anniversary, we shall not only dedicate to him an India that is open-defecation free, but also shall lay the foundation of a new revolution against plastic, by people themselves, throughout the country," Modi said in a recent radio address.

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