Involving citizens to combat plastic pollution

  • Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) Guidelines detailed in Plastic Waste Management Rules 2022 provide a comprehensive mechanism to hold plastic producers and manufacturers responsible for managing post-consumer plastic waste
  • Consumer responsibility should be given more attention if plastic pollution has to be contained
  • Innovative strategies must be deployed to promote behaviour change in consumers

Six years after the first set of Waste Management Rules were introduced, India has come a long way in its efforts to fight the plastic menace that is threatening to derail its journey towards a Swacch Bharat. On February 19, a comprehensive set of amended Plastic Waste Management Rules (PWM) 2022were notified. The PWM Rules include important guidelines on Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), setting clear targets for Producers, Importers, and Brand Owners (PIBOs) to manage post-consumer plastic waste.

At a recent workshop for journalists organised by the International Forum for Environment, Sustainability and Technology (iFOREST) and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), there was ample discussion on how the new EPR Guidelines, along with India’s other waste-related rules and policies, can help effectively tackle plastic pollution. There was general consensus among the experts and journalists that the rules are fairly comprehensive, and with enhanced monitoring, plastic leakage can be contained.

A workshop for journalists was recently organised by the International Forum for Environment, Sustainability and Technology (iFOREST) and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP)

However, the issue of consumer responsibility cropped up frequently during discussions. After all, it is our actions as plastic consumers and litterers that contribute to the plastic problem.

Integral to the success of any policy, particular waste-related policies, is the participation of citizens which, in India’s waste management hierarchy, remains fairly limited. Admittedly, it’s one thing to inform people about the importance of reducing plastic usage; it’s another task to convince them to act on it. Consistent efforts by different levels of the government, ULBs and other relevant parties to inform, educate, and involve citizens are essential.

The Swacch Bharat Mission (SBM), launched in 2014, has led to improved waste-related behaviours among citizens. Also, with many states imposing a ban on plastic bags, an increasing number of people are getting into the habit of using cloth and other reusable bags. A recent survey by IPSOS found that urban, educated and affluent Indians were more conscious about buying products that used less plastic packaging than similar groups of populations sampled in other countries.

This is an opportune moment to transform people’s mindset towards plastic reduction and overall waste minimization. One powerful strategy to create lasting behaviour change is through the ‘nudge’ approach. “Behavioural interventions can have a powerful effect on our predictable thought patterns and behavioural mechanisms. This includes green ‘nudges’ that appeal to people’s image and tendency to socially conform,” explains Ms Gayatri Raghwa, Environmental Education Consultant, UNEP. Ms Raghwa was one of the speakers at the iFOREST-UNEP workshop

The ‘Nudge’ Approach

One such ‘nudge’ that appeals to people’s tendency to conform, was recently provided by none other than the Prime Minister of India. In a recent Mann Ki Baat address, Mr Narendra Modi lauded citizens’ effort in Visakhapatnam and Ranthambore to curb plastic use. “I came across an inspirational effort in Sawai Madhopur, Rajasthan. The youth here are running a campaign ‘Mission Beat Plastic’ in Ranthambore. Plastic and polythenes have been removed from the forests of Ranthambore. Meanwhile, in Visakhapatnam, under SBM, cloth bags are being promoted over polythene bags,” the PM noted. Undoubtedly, such motivating words from the PM himself can go a long way in inspiring people to act.

The Citizen Science Approach

Another people-centric approach to plastic waste management worth mentioning, is currently underway as part of the UNEP-led Promotion of Countermeasures Against Marine Plastic Litter in Southeast Asia and India, simply known as “CounterMEASURE”. The project is funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), Government of Japan and is being implemented by the UNEP’s Regional Office in India in collaboration with local partners in the government, academia and NGOs. In India, four cities along river Ganga and its major tributary Yamuna were examined for plastic pollution, namely, Haridwar, Agra, Prayagraj and Patna between 2019 and 2021. 

Phase 1 of CounterMEASURE was launched in May 2019 to develop scientific information and data about major polymers, plastic products and categories of mismanaged plastic waste leaking into the environment. Through qualitative and quantitative research, a team of experts from the National Productivity Council (NPC) sought to understand the abundance of microplastics, brand-audits for plastic pollution in water bodies and leakage sources for tackling land-based sources of marine pollution.

Representative Image of a plastic waste collection drive. Photo by OCG Saving The Ocean on Unsplash

One unique feature of this study was the Citizen Science approach used for plastic waste collection and characterization. Citizen science is the practice of public participation and collaboration in scientific research to increase scientific knowledge. Citizens are empowered to share and contribute to data monitoring and collection programs. Explains Ms Shukla Pal Maitra, NPC, “In CM-I, school children, parents and residents were involved. The NPC tied up with NGOs, volunteers, sanitary workers and ULBs for the clean-up studies. Citizen volunteers were trained to collect and identify various types of plastics.”

The use of volunteers in scientific data gathering processes is not a very common practise in this sector. Needless to say, it worked well in the context of measuring the impacts of plastic pollution and is easily replicable and brings multiple benefits. Says Ms Pal, “Citizens are end-users of products and services and their activities cause litter or leakage of plastic. Such engagement of citizens creates awareness among them and at the same time a large data or sample of litter is collected too. Literature shows that the citizen science approach serves a dual purpose of engaging and creating awareness among the citizens and on the other hand, mean coverage of a larger area.”

As part of the CounterMEASURE project, several outreach activities are currently being organized to share findings from local surveys and raise awareness about plastic pollution among citizens. A couple of months ago, CounterMEASURE launched its ambitious social media campaign with the hashtags #BetterThanPlastic/ #PlasticSeBehtar. The hashtag launch was also much-hyped in a series of offline events involving local population, youth, children and local functionaries. The social media campaign is bi-lingual, both in English and Hindi languages, to reach out to a wider audience in the four cities of Haridwar, Patna, Prayagraj and Agra, the cities where the CounterMEASURE project is focused. 

In a span of three months, the campaign has reached out to over six million people(across Indian and global social media platforms) and engaged over a dozen micro-influencers, getting more than 900,000 video views, and at least 40 media mentions. The youthful appeal and localized content shared on relevant social media platforms has, no doubt, contributed to the success of the ongoing campaign.

Fortunately, increased awareness on plastic pollution has resulted in several new initiatives being undertaken by individuals and organizations committed to managing plastic waste sustainably. Through consistent efforts by the concerned authorities, the momentum will hopefully continue to build and India’s fight for a plastic-free environment will yield desired results.

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