A former career diplomat, Atul Bagai as the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) India head is a key person in leading the World Environment Day (WED) 2023 campaign #BeatPlasticPollution calling for solutions to combat plastic pollution in the country. In an interview with Rajiv Tikoo, he shares his perspective about India’s role in checking plastic pollution domestically and globally. Edited excerpts:
The WED 2023 campaign #BeatPlasticPollution calls for solutions to combat plastic pollution. The theme for WED 2018, too, was beating plastic pollution. How far have we travelled in the interim?
The World Environment Day 2023 focuses on solutions to plastic pollution. This is a timely topic, as plastic pollution is part of the triple planetary crises we face. The crisis of climate change, the crisis of nature and biodiversity loss, and the crisis of pollution and waste. Plastic pollution is a risk to human health and to the health of ecosystems. It contributes to climate change, with about 98 per cent of single-use plastic products produced from fossil fuels or virgin feedstock. These problems are compounded by unsustainable consumption, production and poor waste management capacities world over. This World Environment Day is an opportunity to showcase the varied solutions to beat plastic pollution.
In 2018, India hosted World Environment Day and took part in the Beat Plastic Pollution campaign. Since then we have seen positive steps to tackle the issue. Guidelines notified in February 2022 address plastic packaging waste, with packaging accounting for nearly 59 per cent of total plastic consumption in India. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has also notified plastic waste management rules, which provide a statutory framework on this issue. Action to end plastic pollution extends across ministries, with the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs putting special emphasis on plastic waste management, the Ministry of Defence cleaning marine environment and the Ministry of Tourism engaging industry actors on reducing plastic pollution.
How would you sum up India’s progress on beating plastic pollution?
According to the Central Pollution Control Board of India, the generation of plastic waste in India was estimated to be 3.4 million tonnes in 2019-20. India has taken a number of measures towards reducing plastic pollution under this framework. The first one is banning certain single-use plastic items through the Plastic Waste Management Amendment Rules, 2021. The second is setting forth Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) regulations for plastic packaging. The third is policy implementation. All states and Union Territories have constituted state level task forces with mandates of effectively monitoring bans related to plastic and managing plastic waste.
What can be done to ensure implementation of EPR guidelines?
Awareness raising and capacity building programmes can help producers, importers and brand owners to ensure they are registered and contribute to developing mechanisms for the implementation of EPR. Waste management infrastructure can be upscaled with research and development on the latest technologies in the sector. And formalising informal workers can be a key part of supporting the implementation of EPR on plastic packaging.
How has India engaged globally on the issue of plastic pollution and with UNEP in India?
India has shown leadership in the international arena. India hosted World Environment Day in 2018, which also focused on plastic pollution, and has continued to engage on this issue in fora such as the United Nations Environment Assembly. Outreach to stakeholders has also been important. The Ministry of Tourism in collaboration with UNEP and others has organised regional workshops on the development of sustainable tourist destinations with special emphasis on reducing plastic pollution in the tourism industry.
What is the progress on the legally binding global agreement to end plastic pollution?
At the fifth UN Environment Assembly last year, countries agreed to embark on work towards an international legally binding instrument to end plastic pollution. An Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) has been convened and UNEP hosts the secretariat. The first session of the INC was held in Uruguay towards the end of last year, and a second session is in Paris from 29 May – 2 June. We have seen massive interest in this process from governments, civil society and business. UNEP continues to push for an inclusive agreement that fundamentally alters our relationship with plastic and improves human and environmental health.
How reliable are claims of recycling and sustainable or biodegradable plastic?
UNEP’s recent report on plastic pollution is urging three market shifts needed as part of efforts to end plastic pollution: reuse, recycle, and reorient and diversify. However, as we work across these shifts, redesigning of products and packaging at every stage is critical to reduce our dependence on plastic.
Reuse reduces waste at the source. Reuse solutions for short-lived plastics are already technologically available, but investment is required to support the transition to an economy that maintains products at their highest possible value. Promoting reuse options can reduce 30 per cent of plastic pollution by 2040.
Increasing the share of economically recyclable plastics from 21 per cent to 50 per cent by 2040 can reduce the amount of plastic pollution by an additional 20 per cent. Improved waste collection systems are necessary to facilitate the shift to increased recycling.
Reorienting and diversifying means shaping the market for plastic alternatives to enable sustainable substitutions. This is an opportunity for innovation and economic development that can deliver a 17 per cent decrease in plastic pollution by 2040.
Why is there confusion about the understanding of the biodegradability term?
When referring to biodegradable alternatives, it is important to understand that biodegradable plastic items often do not degrade in the environment, and especially not in the ocean. Some may require exposure to prolonged high temperatures. The term biodegradable is widely used but is inconsistently understood and defined, creating confusion. UNEP recommends clearer labelling for biodegradable plastics, as well as a certification scheme to ensure the integrity of biodegradable claims.
The just released UN report, Progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals: Towards a Rescue Plan for People and Planet, says only 12 per cent UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) targets are on track. Going forward, how hopeful are you realistically about the achievement of environment related targets?
There are many reasons to be hopeful about achieving the environmental components of the SDGs. We have seen encouraging and meaningful action and commitments at the global and national levels towards tackling the shared challenges of the triple planetary crises over the last year.
Following a resolution at the United Nations Environment Assembly in 2022, member states are now negotiating a global deal to end plastic pollution. Work is also underway on the establishment of a science-policy panel to contribute to the sound management of chemicals and waste. And the most recent UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP 27) took the historic decision to establish a loss and damage fund for developing countries particularly vulnerable to the impacts of the climate crisis. The Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework agreed late last year to address the key drivers of biodiversity loss, and lift the nature agenda.
How is G20 helping accelerate progress to achieve the SDGs?
The ongoing discussions under India’s G20 Presidency reflect an emphasis on environmental actions. The Action Plan on Accelerating Progress on the SDGs will be one of the key outcomes of the Development Working Group during India’s G20 Presidency. These steps would certainly help in accelerating progress towards the environmental components of the SDGs. And this surge of action across environmental issues is positive momentum towards realising our global goals. We are hopeful that the upcoming 2023 SDG Summit will advance the environmental agenda as it aims to “mark the beginning of a new phase of accelerated progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.”