On May 21 this year, Bada Mangal, the Hindu festival to commemorate the birth of Hanuman, the monkey god, was celebrated across Uttar Pradesh. To mark the occasion, feasts for devotees were organised by prominent people and groups in cities at public places. In Lucknow alone, there were 1,400 such gatherings. By the evening, streets all over the city were strewn with plastic and thermocol cups and plates. Workers from the local municipal body, Lucknow Municipal Corporation, could clear waste from just 13 places.

Ironically, there has been a state-wide plastic ban on the use, manufacture, sale and disposal of all plastic and thermocol items in Uttar Pradesh since July 2018. Flouting it invites a fine and imprisonment of varying severity, depending on the offence.

What measures has the Lucknow Municipal Corporation taken to enforce the ban and penalise defaulters? Ahead of Bada Mangal, the Lucknow Municipal Corporation simply urged organisers to avoid the use of plastics. There was no directive about any possible action against defaulters. The municipal corporation is headed by the Bhartiya Janta Party, which also heads the state government. Mongabay did not receive any response from municipal commissioner Indramani Tripathi or mayor and BJP leader Sanyukta Bhatia when it reached out for comments.

Since July 2018, Uttar Pradesh has a statewide ban on the use, manufacture, sale and disposal of all plastic and thermocol items. Credit: Kanchan Srivastava/Mongabay

“The Bada Mangal is held for four consecutive Tuesdays with same mass-scale violation of environment norms across Uttar Pradesh,” said Ekta Shekhar, environment activist and founder of The Climate Agenda, a non-governmental organisation based in Varanasi. “Plastic disposables are openly used across the state, no one has any regard towards the environment, whether it’s the government, civic bodies, street vendors or citizens. While neighbouring Himachal Pradesh has effectively implemented the plastic ban, in UP it exists only on paper.”

Arun Sahu, a fruit seller in Varanasi, said in defence, “Most street vendors offer plastic carry bags and customers find it convenient. If I refuse, I will lose my customers to someone else.”

No surprise then that UP generated around 2,06,000 tonnes of plastic waste in 2017-’18 , more than double compared to the 93,000 tonnes in 2014-’15.

Pappu Yadav, a vegetable vendor in Lucknow’s Gomtinagar area said, “The government announces a ban on plastic carry bags every now and then and urges people to carry cloth bags. People follow the directives for a few days and then demand and supply of plastics returns to the same place as before the ban.”

Series of bans

India’s first attempt to curb plastic pollution came in 2011 with the Plastic Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, to improve solid waste management systems. These were subsequently replaced in 2016 with stronger rules banning plastics below 50 microns, plastic waste recycling and stakeholder responsibility.

Uttar Pradesh also sought to implement similar bans way back in the year 2000, again 2016, followed by another reinforcement in 2017. Then came the state’s stringent Plastic and Other Non-Biodegradable (regulation of use and disposal) (Amendment) Act 2018, which exhibited more commitment towards the climate.

The ban was rolled out in phases, with the state government directing all municipal corporations, district officials and departments concerned to enforce the ban.

On July 15, 2018, single-use carry bags less than 50 microns, glasses, cups and cutlery were prohibited. From August 15, 2018, a blanket ban on the manufacture, stocking, sale and transport of all disposable plastic and thermocol items, was rolled out. In the last phase, from October 2, 2018, disposal of all types of non-biodegradable polythene was banned with the objective of making UP a plastic-free state.

According to the rules, first-time defaulters will be fined Rs 1,000 or face imprisonment for up to one month. For second-time offenders, the term of imprisonment will increase to six months and penalties will range from Rs 5,000 to Rs 20,000. Those found manufacturing, storing or transporting banned plastic bags for the first time will invite imprisonment of up to six months or penalty between Rs 10,000 and Rs 50,000. Violation of the ordinance for the second time will invite imprisonment of one year or penalty up to a maximum of Rs 1,00,000.

Enforcement is a challenge

The easy availability of plastic bags and cutlery, despite an official ban from January 2016 indicates that these products are either being produced in the state or being transported from outside despite a ban on both.

According to the State Pollution Control Board’s data of 2017-’18, there are 99 factories approved for plastic and multiplayer plastic production in Uttar Pradesh. Besides, 16 units were running without permission.

The registered units are permitted to manufacture only recyclable and biodegradable products. Manufacturers are also expected to put recyclable and non-recyclable labels on their plastic products. But the implementation of the rules remains weak and the Central Pollution Control Board’s report shows that no state-level monitoring committee has been formed yet to monitor the compliance.

Additionally, there is no data available on the amount of prohibited plastics being manufactured, exported, imported, segregated and recycled. Accurate data is crucial for effective implementation of the policy, said Shekhar of The Climate Agenda, adding that India needs these figures even more since it has stated its intention to phase out single-use plastic at the 2019 United Nations Environment Assembly and also banned the import of plastic waste into the country.

A 2013 photo of plastic waste in front of the Idgah Maidan in Agra, despite three bans in the past four years, plastic waste still continues to plague UP’s cities. Credit: Dr Rasheed Hussain/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

Chief environmental officer Amit Chandra, Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board, admitted that there is a brazen violation of plastic waste management rules. “Data for 2018-’19 is being compiled and that give us a clear picture about the plastic waste management scenario in the state,” he added. “Directives have been issued to the urban development department to effectively implement the ban with the help of civic bodies.” According to Chandra, 16 plastic production units running without registration in the state have been shut down between 2018 and 2019. Besides, the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board has seized 106 tonnes of plastic and made a collection of Rs 2.5 crore in penalties from defaulters ‒ manufacturers and transporters violating rules ‒ in the last one year.

Households are the largest source of plastic waste, which mainly comprises of water and soft drink bottles and packaging materials. Their segregation from solid municipal waste is a daunting task.

“The biggest concern is segregation, re-aggregation and disposal of packaging waste,” said a senior Cabinet minister. “In UP, only a small fragment of waste is recycled due to these challenges.”

Consumption high, recycling low

Plastics waste constitutes a significant portion of the total municipal solid waste generated in Uttar Pradesh and other parts of India. Its consumption has gone up with the rapid rate of urbanisation and development. According to a Central Pollution Control Board study, the quantum of plastics and rubber in municipal solid waste has gone up from 0.6% to 9.22% between 1995 and 2005.

According to a report published by The Energy and Resources Institute, the average per capita consumption of plastic in India was about 11 kgs in 2014-’15. The figure is expected to touch 20 kg by 2022.

As per a report of the Central Pollution Control Board, about 94% of plastic waste comprises thermoplastics, such as PET or polyethylene terephthalate and PVC or polyvinyl chloride, which are recyclable. “The remaining non-recyclable ones, belonging to thermoset and other categories of plastics and multi-layer thermocol, pose a huge threat to the environment,” an environment ministry official said. “Most of it ends up being solid municipal waste due to poor segregation efforts. Even rag-pickers don’t pick them up.”

Unchecked production and indiscriminate recycling of plastics lead to toxic emissions such as carbon monoxide, chlorine, hydrochloric acid, dioxin, furans, amines, nitrides, styrene, benzene and acetaldehyde. Meanwhile, littering of plastic carry bags, packaging films and non-recyclable plastics choke drains and aggravate floods during monsoon in many cities.

Despite a ban on plastic, poor segregation and recycling, as well as weak enforcement of the laws, has lead to the return of plastic in Uttar Pradesh. Credit: Kanchan Srivastava/Mongabay

Plastics that are non-biodegradable, remain on earth forever and damage the fertility of the soil. In fact, only 9% of the plastic waste is recycled all over the world, over 12% incinerated and the rest ends up in landfills, ponds, rivers and oceans, estimates the United Nations Environment Programme.

“The continuous growth in the amount of solid waste that humans produce and the very slow rate at which that waste degrades are together leading to a gradual increase in the amount litter found at rivers and sea,” said environment activist Afroz Shah who is credited with the cleaning of Versova beach in Mumbai, Maharashtra. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, 8 million tonnes of plastic waste enter the world’s oceans each year and damage caused to the ecosystem is worth $8 billion. Over 90% of plastics in the oceans come from just 10 rivers including the Ganga in India, scientists have speculated.

Rakesh Jaiswal, the founder of Eco-Friends, an NGO in Kanpur, said, “The world is concerned about microplastics, a degenerated form of plastics which can be ingested by simple life forms and enter the food chain. And here we are – with no plans in place to deal even with basic plastics.”

Government claims

On being asked about the situation, urban development secretary, Uttar Pradesh, Anurag Yadav, said: “The state-level monitoring committee was formed in October 2017. It was reconstituted in April 2019. District magistrates, municipal commissioners and executive officers have been consistently asked to conduct enforcement drives on a sustained basis. We are also creating a task force of retired senior army officials to enforce the ban effectively in all municipal corporations.”

According to Yadav, show-cause notices have been issued against 208 brand-owners who failed to re-collect and dispose of the plastics sold by their brand as per Extended Producer Responsibility plan, in accordance to the Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016. Section 9 of the Rules mandates plastic manufacturers and brand owners to work out waste collection systems as per Extended Producer Responsibility.

He added that a plastic waste management plant, with a capacity of 3 metric tonnes, at Lucknow is in the pipeline. Quizzed about the segregation of plastics from municipal wastes, Yadav insisted that a plan is in place and all civic bodies will implement it in next 3 months to 6 months.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.