Towards a Circular Plastics Economy: India’s Actions to #BeatPlasticPollution

12 Jul 2023
Avanti Roy-Basu

World Environment Day 2023 serves as an important reminder that the actions we take to mitigate plastic pollution have a significant impact. Now, more than ever, we must intensify these efforts and swiftly transition to a circular economy. Avanti Roy-Basu and Girija K Bharat say that as the world celebrates World Environment Day in 2023, focusing on “solutions to plastic pollution under the campaign #BeatPlasticPollution”, it is crucial to understand that each one of us has multiple roles to play in addressing this global crisis.

Plastics are ubiquitous in our natural environment. They leave a substantial carbon footprint throughout their life cycle, accounting for 3.4 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Plastic waste is not just a solid waste management issue, but a chemical waste issue as well. Throughout the life cycle of plastics, especially when plastic waste is not scientifically managed, harmful chemicals are released into the air, water, and soil, posing severe risks related to the environment and human health. Plastics, especially single-use plastic (SUP) products are ubiquitous and therefore have severe environmental, social, economic, and health consequences. As the world celebrates World Environment Day in 2023, focusing on “solutions to plastic pollution under the campaign #BeatPlasticPollution”, it is crucial to understand that each one of us has multiple roles to play to address this global crisis. The need of the hour is for governments, industries, packaged goods companies, waste management workers, consumers, innovators, and the public—across the plastic value chain—to work together to design and implement solutions.

Current Scenario of Plastic Waste Management in India

India is the fifth-highest generator of plastic waste in the world. In 2022, India banned single-use plastic items that have low utility but are often littered, harming land and marine ecosystems. In 2019–2020, India generated 34.7 lakh tonnes per annum (TPA) of plastic waste (approximately), with the highest generators being Maharashtra (13%), followed by Tamil Nadu and Gujarat (12% each). The plastic waste generation by Indian states and Union Territories (UTs) during 2019–2020 is given in Figure 1. Goa, Delhi and Kerala have the highest, whereas Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura have the lowest per capita plastic waste generation in the country. Plastic waste generated in India is currently utilized for recycling, road construction, waste-to-energy plants, waste-to-oil plants, and in cement plants for co-processing.

All the plastic manufacturing and recycling units are mandated to be registered with the concerned State Pollution Control Boards (SPCBs)/Pollution Control Committees (PCCs). There are 4953 registered units in India. However, 823 unregistered plastic manufacturing units have been reported. Also, a system of marking or labelling on each plastic carry bag and multi-layered packaging is mandated in the country that has been complied with by 14 States/UTs. In terms of non-compliance, 25 States/UTs have reportedly imposed fines, issued notices, closure directions to the defaulters and seized banned plastic material.

Plastic Waste Management Informal Sector: Enabling Transition to Formalization

India faces a significant challenge in managing plastic waste due to its large population and growing economy. With 1.4 billion people, India produced an estimated 34.7 lakh TPA of plastic waste annually, of which 15.8 lakh TPA was recycled, and 1.67 lakh TPA of plastic waste was co-processed. Efforts to manage plastic waste have been implemented at the national, state, and local levels. In 2014, the Indian government launched the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan (Clean India Mission) to make India cleaner and free from open defecation and litter. The mission includes provisions for plastic waste management, such as promoting waste segregation at the source and setting up plastic waste management systems. Several states have implemented their own regulations and initiatives for plastic waste management. Despite these efforts, plastic waste management in India remains a significant challenge due to a lack of infrastructure, low waste collection rates, inadequate funding, and lack of recognition to the informal recycling sector (IRS).

The IRS significantly contributes to collect and recycle municipal waste across India. The IRS involves at least 15 million people globally, responsible for an estimated 58 per cent of the collected and recycled plastic waste. It is an important link in the plastics value chain, has great potential to improve end-of-life management, and contributes to the recovery of plastics in problematic municipal waste management systems. The IRS sector workers have key skills, hands-on knowledge, and extensive waste management networks, however, their significant role in mitigating plastic pollution often goes unnoticed and underappreciated. The IRS is a very important component of the global plastic waste management system; hence owing to their critical role, the informal sector management is being included in the plastic treaty.

Policy Solutions to Address Plastic Pollution

There are several global and national environmental governance initiatives that address and implement solutions for plastic waste management, especially on the issues of marine plastic litter and microplastics, and provide expert insight and guidance to countries. Some of the international and national initiatives are discussed in this section. 

International Governance Initiatives

In May 2022, the fifth United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA 5.2) adopted the decision to initiate negotiations for a new legally binding, global treaty to end plastic pollution. An Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) was set up for a new international legally binding treaty on plastic pollution by 2024.

The fourth session of UNEA (UNEA-4) in March 2019 adjourned with 23 adopted resolutions, out of which Resolution 6 was on ‘Marine Plastic Litter and Microplastics’, and Resolution 9 on ‘Addressing Single-use Plastic Products Pollution’. India piloted an important resolution on SUP management that was adopted with consensus.

In the third session (UNEA-3) in December 2017, a ‘Joint call for an international legally binding agreement on plastics and plastic pollution’ was presented. An Ad-Hoc Open-Ended Expert Group (AHOEEG) was created to present options to combat marine plastic litter and microplastics that later met thrice in May 2018, December 2018, and November 2019.

By 2019, a total of 187 countries committed to solving the plastic waste crisis by adding plastic to the international treaty: ‘Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal’. The ongoing research on plastic and its chemical additives also raises awareness about their relevance to the Stockholm Convention on persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and the Rotterdam Convention on hazardous chemicals.

National Policy Interventions of India

India has taken sound and effective measures for plastic waste management by putting a ban on single-use plastic items (having low utility and high littering potential) and imposing Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) on plastic packaging. The policy initiatives made by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) and the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA) are discussed below.

a) Regulations by the MoEFCC

The Government of India notified the Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016, in suppression of the earlier Plastic Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2011, wherein the minimum allowed thickness of plastic carry bags was increased from 40 microns to 50 microns.  Thereafter, the MoEFCC notified the Plastic Waste Management (Amendment) Rules, 2018, that phased out the multilayered plastic (MLP), which is “non-recyclable, or non-energy recoverable, or with no alternate use.” The Plastic Waste Management (Amendment) Rules, 2021, prohibited the manufacture, import, stocking, distribution, sale, and use of SUP, including polystyrene and expanded polystyrene, commodities from July 1, 2022. The SUP products include earbuds with plastic sticks, plastic sticks for balloons, plastic flags, candy sticks, and many others. To encourage reuse, the allowed thickness of plastic carry bags was increased from 50 to 75 microns from September 30, 2021, and to 120 microns from December 31, 2022. There is a blanket ban already in place on sachets using plastic material for packing, storing, or selling pan masala, gutkha, and tobacco. 

Moreover, the MoEFCC notified the Guidelines on EPR for plastic packaging through the Plastic Waste Management (Amendment) Rules, 2022 stipulating mandatory targets on EPR, recycling of plastic packaging waste, reuse of rigid plastic packaging and use of recycled plastic content. EPR is a regulatory approach according to which PIBOs (Producers, Importers and Brand Owners) are required to ensure responsible collection channelization, treatment and/or disposal of plastic waste. Plastics are categorized into four groups under the EPR Guidelines, namely rigid packaging, flexible packaging, multilayered packaging, and plastic sheet packaging.

b) Regulations by the MoHUA

Under Swachh Bharat Mission-Urban (SBM-U) 2.0, the MoHUA has made efforts towards source segregation, collection, transportation, and processing of plastic waste. Material Recovery Facility (MRF) has been set up in all urban local bodies (ULBs), and awareness generation initiatives have been taken up for reducing SUP products and encouraging the use of substitute products. A ‘Plastic Waste Management Advisory’ was developed on sustainable management of plastic waste through ‘reduce, reuse, recycle and recover’ techniques. Also, ‘Swachh Survekshan’ in 2019 (an annual survey of cleanliness, hygiene and sanitation in villages, cities and towns) and ‘Star Rating Protocol’ in 2018 (aimed to institutionalize a mechanism for cities to achieve garbage-free status and sustainable cleanliness) were aligned with Plastic Waste Management (Amendment) Rules, 2021 to encourage cities to phase out SUPs. Apart from the constitution of a National Level Taskforce constituted by the MoHUA, all States and UTs have instituted Special Task Force (STF) for the elimination of identified SUP items and the development of comprehensive plastic waste management action plans. For effective monitoring of compliance with plastic waste management regulations, several online platforms are made functional, including the National Dashboard on the elimination of SUPs, Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) Monitoring Module for Compliance on Elimination of SUPs, and CPCB Grievance Redressal App.

Circular Plastics Economy Thrust by Governments

Circular economy involves every stage of a plastic product’s lifetime from its production till it reaches the customer and ends up as plastic waste. It refers to a closed loop system in which the materials constantly flow without leaking into the environment, keeping the value of plastics in the economy. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation states that circular plastics economy approach offers several economic, social, and climate benefits: reduce annual volume of plastics entering our oceans by 80 per cent by 2040, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 per cent, generate savings of USD 200 billion per year, and create 700,000 additional jobs.

In India, 60 per cent of plastics (PET bottles, HDPE containers, PVC pipes) are recycled; these are mostly downcycled in an informal setting, and often ends up in landfills, open environment or ends up in oceans. Globally, it is estimated that only 9 per cent of plastic waste generated between 1950 and 2015 was recycled. India has the highest plastic recycling rate ranging from 47 to 60 per cent. India brought forward the EPR guidelines to strengthen circular economy of plastic packaging waste and allow for development of the waste management sector through involvement of formal and informal sector. The year-wise target for minimum level of recycling of plastic waste across different categories of plastic packaging is given in Figure 2.

As per Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016, Central Pollution Control Board, SPCBs and PCCs enforce the provisions of the rules, and ensure the registration of plastic brand owners and fulfilment of EPR. Various initiatives as per the EPR guidelines have been made to promote circular economy in the plastic waste management space. The enforceable prescription of minimum level of recycling of plastic packaging waste collected under EPR, along with the use of recycled plastic content will reduce plastic consumption and support recycling of plastic packaging waste. Other initiatives include centralized EPR portal (single point data repository for EPR guidelines), sale and purchase of EPR certificates (to set up a market mechanism), and environmental compensation towards non-fulfilment of EPR targets. In 2021, a Roadmap for Circular Economy for Plastics in India was developed by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) that entailed three key priority areas, namely adoption of sustainable material solutions, increase supply of good quality secondary plastics feedstock, and promote alternative uses of plastics waste.

Private Sector Engagements for Plastic Waste Management

Public-private programmes across the world use various innovative and scalable approaches through grants, technical assistance, and knowledge exchange platforms to manage plastic pollution. Few examples of effective private sector engagements include the World Economic Forum’s The Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP), the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Plastic Initiative, etc., that implement actionable programmes on plastic waste management. The GPAP is a knowledge exchange network that brings together plastic pacts and National Plastic Action Partnerships (NPAP). Currently, there are 13 Plastic Pacts and various NPAPs for many countries including India (Maharashtra) that engage businesses, government institutions, civil society organizations, NGOs, and citizen groups to build a shared vision of sustainable plastic waste management.

Youth-focused initiatives engage and empower younger people in solving the plastic waste challenges. Various tools are used to involve and engage the youth—relevant curriculum for action-based outreach on ocean plastic pollution; literature review to develop a rapid assessment tool for measuring the impact of plastic pollution interventions; storytelling methods on social media to sensitize on plastic pollution. In April 2023, a new phase of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) initiative, Tide Turners, a youth-led movement for improved plastic waste management in India, the UN, and the United Kingdom, was introduced for building capacities of youth and create a global movement against plastic pollution.

Another example of private sector engagement is the Plastic Action Platform by rePurpose that aimed towards plastic waste management through grassroots innovation. The project covers 26 countries including India and aims to eliminate plastic waste generation substantially, and improve the lives of 10,000+ marginalized waste workers. In India, rePurpose Global partnered with Waste Ventures India to develop Project Neela Sapana in Chennai to arrest the marine leakage of MLPs by enabling the set-up of a materials recovery facility. About 80,8003 pounds of MLP and low-value plastic (LVP) have been collected and recovered as part of this project.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Considering the actions taken up at the national and state levels in India, a range of key considerations are needed to shape sustainable solutions for plastic waste management including uncertainties related to alternatives to SUPs (with respect to environmental fate and socio-economic impacts), challenges faced by the industries, impacts on underprivileged communities, and the informal recycling sector. A set of recommendations for achieving a circular plastics economy for India is given below.

Although most states and UTs have imposed restrictions on the manufacture and usage of banned plastic carry bags and other SUP products, it lacks absolute compliance. Institutional mechanisms must be set up to monitor compliance in terms of manufacture and use of banned or restricted plastic items and prevent unscientific disposal of plastic waste.

Design changes are needed to restrict the plastics used in new products by either using alternative, sustainable materials or by reducing the size of the products. Also, the lifespan of plastic products can be extended by including durability, reusability, repairability and upgradability in the design process. These aspects will lead to the overall reduction in the generation of plastic waste.

Increased engagement of brand owners with ULBs is recommended for efficient plastic waste management through increased networking with plastic waste recyclers. All unregistered units must be brought under the purview of a legal framework and necessary legal actions must be taken to formalize them.

There is a need to develop recyclable, cost-effective plastics as a viable substitute to their non-recyclable counterpart, and therefore it is important to explore and unlock the market potential of recycled plastics.

Market-based tools such as tax exemptions, subsidies, or grants/loans may be applied to support businesses to incentivize the prevention, minimization, and recycling of plastic waste.

To promote circular plastics economy, systemic change is required from the product design stage as well as a paradigm shift is needed from single use to reuse by improving recycling infrastructure. SUPs can be controlled and eliminated by design alterations as well as by developing multi-use plastics to reduce the ‘use and throw’ consumption pattern.

It is crucial to scale up critical infrastructure for plastic waste recycling and adequate investment in end-of-life innovation.

Targeted capacity building programmes must be organized through public-private partnership initiatives for important stakeholders such as manufacturers, government officials, waste managers, consumers, representatives of the Producer Responsibility Organizations (PROs), and the informal sector leaders.

Institutional Capacity Building initiatives must also be taken up for professionals to help enhance the capacity of governments, business, non-governmental groups, and community institutions to plan and manage better.

Creating public awareness (through targeted public campaigns and education initiatives) on plastic waste prevention and minimization will lead to a positive change in the mindsets of people and businesses on production and consumption.

Concerted actions by the government, NGOs, private sector, as well as voluntary actions by local authorities, businesses, schools, and communities involved in circular economy approach is pertinent for a sustainable plastic waste management system. The Government of India must bring about a comprehensive and circular economy approach to reduce plastic waste, increase plastics value recovery, and tackle plastic pollution with a goal to achieve ‘zero plastic waste by 2030’.


Bhardwaj, Naina. June 30, 2022. India Briefing. India’s New Plastic Waste Management Rules Effective from July 1, 2022. Accessed from: 

Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). 2021. Annual Report 2019–20 on Implementation of Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016. Accessed from:

Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP). 2023. Accessed from:

International Knowledge Hub Against Plastic Pollution (IKHAPP). 2023. Important but ignored? The role of the informal recycling sector in a prospective international agreement on plastic pollution. Norwegian Institute for Water Research (NIVA). Oslo.

International NGOs join hands to tackle plastic pollution. Packing South Asia (PSA). January 16, 2023. Accessed from: 

Kapur-Bakshi, S., Kaur, M., and Gautam, S., 2021. Circular Economy for Plastics in India: A Roadmap. New Delhi: The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI). Accessed from: 

Karidis, Arlene. September 21, 2022. rePurpose Global’s Approach to Changing Plastic Waste Management. Accessed from:

Parliament Library and Reference, Research, Documentation and Information Service (LARRDIS). December 2022. Single-Use Plastic Ban in India. Accessed from: 

Press Information Bureau (PIB), Government of India. Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC). 17 February 2023. A total of 2.26 million tonnes of plastic packaging has been covered under Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for the year 2022-23. Accessed from: 

Press Information Bureau (PIB), Government of India. Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA). 16 March 2023. Plastic Waste Management. Accessed from: 

Press Information Bureau (PIB), Government of India. Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC). 3 March 2022. Historic resolution on Plastic Pollution adopted by 175 countries at the fifth United Nations Environment Assembly. Accessed from: 

Press Information Bureau (PIB), Government of India. Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC). 13 February 2023. Extended producer responsibility guidelines to strengthen circular economy of plastic packaging waste and allow for development of the waste management sector through involvement of formal and informal sector. Accessed from:

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). 20 April 2023 Press Release. UN, India and UK partner with young leaders globally to combat plastic pollution. Accessed from:

Welsch, Chris. 17 February 2022. Bagging plastic and poverty. Accessed from:

Avanti Roy-Basu, Associate Director of Mu Gamma Consultants, Gurgaon and Dr Girija K Bharat, Managing Director of Mu Gamma Consultants, Gurgaon. This work was supported by the India-Norway cooperation project on capacity building for reducing plastic and chemical pollution in India.

This article and more from TerraGreen can be viewed here:

Plastic waste
Single-use Plastic Waste