Reducing the flow of plastic to oceans in India

  • Blog Post Date 18 December, 2020
  • Notes from the Field
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Shiv Kumar

Catalyst Group of Institutions


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Ravinder Kumar

University of Greenwich


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Siddhi Mankad

Catalyst Management Services

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Poornima Sheelanere

Independent Researcher


Growing consumer demands are causing the generation of colossal amounts of plastic waste, and the poor state of waste management implies that large proportions of this litter is making its way into the oceans. Based on an exploratory study across India in 2019 – with focus on ‘hotspots’ in Chennai, Mangalore, and Kochi – Kumar et al. outline nine actions that can be taken to mitigate this issue.

The global plastic industry continues to produce more and more plastic to meet the ever-growing consumer demands. With only 15% of plastic being recycled, the consequence is generation of colossal amounts of plastic waste (Pew Trusts, 2020). The large volumes of plastic waste reaching the landfills, rivers, and eventually oceans have been causing significant environmental and economic damage. Further, Covid-19 has led to a pandemic of plastic pollution due to increased use of items such as disposable masks. A team of social and natural resource scientists from Natural Resources Institute and Catalyst Management Services (CMS) Group, India, are undertaking site-specific research and actions for reducing ocean plastic, in a multidisciplinary collaboration. In an exploratory study conducted in 2019 across India – with focus on three ‘hotspots’ in Chennai, Mangalore, and Kochi – we identified a range of actions that may help mitigate the problem.

Ocean plastic waste problem is severe in India

A report by Pew Trusts (2020) suggests that plastic waste is entering the oceans at an annual rate of about 11 million metric tonnes (MMT), harming marine life and damaging habitats. Of 62 metric ton (MT) of municipal waste that is generated in the country, about 75% gets collected and only about 25% is processed and treated (Press Information Bureau, 2016). Given this state of waste management, it is expected that plastic waste litter will continue to pose a huge risk, particularly in waterways, estuaries, and eventually, oceans. In our work, we find that there is consensus among experts as well as communities that plastic marine litter has increased unprecedentedly, particularly in the last few years. It is also evident from location-based studies that plastic waste is having a significant, detrimental impact on the livelihoods of fishermen through loss of fishing nets and decrease in fish yields. We identify land-based plastic waste as the major source of marine plastic debris. Overall, the plastic problem in oceans is severe and alarming, and calls for immediate and comprehensive actions.

Need to strengthen existing legislative instruments to improve land-based plastic waste management

The Government of India notified the Plastic Waste Management Rules in 2016 (amended in 2018). This regulatory framework guides the disposal and management of plastic waste by Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) as well as other waste generators such as individual households, institutions, and residential, commercial and defence establishments. However, the real challenge lies in implementation and ensuring compliance effectively. Evidence from literature (The Energy Resource Institute (TERI), 2018) and our primary research indicates the weak implementation of Plastic Waste Management Rules with respect to ‘extended producer responsibility’ (EPR)1 and inefficient financial and technical support by state and central governments to ULBs to successfully explore models for managing plastic waste in urban centres. Further, India does not have any distinct or specific legislation that addresses marine-based plastic pollution, despite the need for such a strategy being widely argued (Kripa et al. 2016, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), 2018, Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES), 2018).

Nine actions that can potentially stem the flow of plastic to oceans in India

Our research demonstrates that any interventions on ocean plastic must be systemic, engage multidisciplinary sectors (social science, ocean science, engineering, business, and management), and include awareness and advocacy. The aforementioned Pew report concurs that there is no single solution. Based on our work, we highlight below nine systemic and coordinated interventions that are likely to be most effective:

Understanding of key, underlying factors (and their interconnections) in specific locations where interventions are being planned: Evidence from our research emphasises that the mitigation and management of the problem of plastic flow to the ocean would require proper understanding of the main underlying causes, such as (i) a range of geological and demographic factors, for example, large habitation, rainfall, weather patterns, and water currents, which determine the flow of plastic litter from water bodies to the ocean, (ii) limited awareness and sensitivity around ocean plastic, (iii) faulty incentive schemes that do not inspire action by producers and consumers of plastic, (iv) vested interests that are proving to be barriers to solutions, (vii) improper solid waste management at the municipality level that increases the likelihood of more plastics moving towards the ocean, and (viii) the informal system of plastic waste collection that makes implementation of reforms tough – although this may also be viewed as an opportunity. These and many other underlying causes would need to be studied in detail to aid in planning and undertaking effective actions.

Conducting ‘deep-dive’ research and assessment studies in ‘hotspots’: Our research indicates that very few ‘deep-dive’ assessment studies have been carried out in India. Given India’s long coastline and the severity of the problem, more in-depth studies are critically needed to generate baseline data for understanding the spatial and temporal distribution of plastics (macro, micro, and nano plastic) in open and coastal oceans (International Union for Conservation of Nature, 2014). The assessments would help design and monitor programmes that guide cleaning efforts, and therefore baseline estimates of the volume and composition of plastic litter would be vital to develop and implement ocean plastic reduction policies.

Learning from existing national and international best practice: It is important to learn from ongoing national and international initiatives and adapt accordingly. Some initiatives, documented by our research, have tried out a range of practices for plastic collection from the ocean (scuba diving volunteers, trawler boats, incentivising fisher folk, and so on) and land-based collection centres, where local communities are provided monetary and non-monetary (such as social recognition) incentives by local authorities and local businesses.

Implementing tried and tested technologies and approaches for improved land-based collection, reuse, and recycling of plastic: Several initiatives have experimented with a range of technologies for better collection, reuse, shredding, and recycling of plastic, and integration of informal and formal waste streams. Improving waste collection systems and technologies must be a priority in India to ensure that plastic has little opportunity to ‘leak’ into the environment (Godfrey 2019). Examples include Kabadiwala Connect in Chennai, and recycling efforts by Noble Plastic. Similarly, context-specific ‘reduce and reuse’ solutions should be tried out, for instance, tried and tested recycling technologies for energy recovery and conversion of plastic to chemical feedstock2 and construction material.

Implementing business and market-based models and innovations that have the best chance to succeed: The research found ample opportunities and commercial scope for businesses in the areas of plastic waste management, reuse, and recycling. Several of these innovations are already being implemented (such as Plastics for Change). The regulatory and fiscal policies in India should promote and incentivise these business models so that a favourable ecosystem is developed for promising business models that offers sustainable solutions at a scale.

Figure 1. From micro to macro: Nine actions for stemming the flow of plastic to oceans in India

Developing multi-stakeholder, location-based partnerships: Any sustainable change would require a change of society’s attitude towards plastic. Local authorities, businesses, and communities need to come together to plan actions for reducing ocean plastic. A collaborative agenda would need to be developed. Such an approach can lead to the formation of location-based, multi-stakeholder partnerships, steering the design and effective implementation of actions needed for stopping the flow of plastic to the ocean.

Advocating with big businesses and brands to take actions as per EPR regulations, and ensuring circularity: Our research finds that involving big businesses and brands is crucial for minimising waste and promoting a circular economy. Marks and Spencer, for example, is working with Catalyst Group’s ‘Noble Plastic’ for reuse and recycling of plastic hangers. Businesses need to explore ways of partnering with local municipalities in developing countries to improve waste collection systems, thereby ensuring that their products are collected and responsibly managed at the end-of-life stage (Godfrey 2019), in order to fulfil their EPR. Some big businesses and brands are making voluntary commitments towards circularity of their products and minimising waste. A self-regulating mechanism for monitoring these commitments can come into place in the form a multi-stakeholder alliance as specified in the points above.

Developing a coherent and coordinated marine litter/ocean plastic policy at state and central levels: Several research works affirmed the need for an integrated marine litter or ocean plastic strategy (Kripa et al. 2016, MoES, 2018). We recommend this as an important step to address the growing threat of the ocean plastic problem in India. We believe that this type of strategy will be essential for three reasons: (i) to develop regulatory and fiscal policy that promote and incentivise actions that reduce ocean plastic, (ii) to promote accountability in the system for actors to take actions, and (iii) to find ways for ULBs to raise the necessary financial capital for improved waste management.

Strengthening the implementation of ocean plastic policy, learning from the UK Plastic Pact and other such government initiatives: Achieving this would require better accountability and improved implementation of the legislative framework and fiscal policies. If done well, this can lead to a systemic change in India. The UK Plastic Pact is a good example of this form of ‘systemic change’. The central and state governments in India can develop their vision and mobilise the required resources, and work with private sector companies for delivering collaborative commitments to stem the flow of plastic to oceans in India.

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  1. Extended producer responsibility transferences the economic liability of the cost of disposal of waste from the government to the manufacturer of the product. (Source: Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) - Vantage Point Inc.).
  2. Feedstock refers to the raw material that is used to supply or fuel a machine or an industrial process.

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