Green Watch: Have we erred in dismissing plastics outright?  - The Noel D'Cunha Sunday Column

By 11 Dec 2018

I switched on the National Geographic to see Planet or Plastic?. This compelling documentary is attempting to set a benchmark for CSR in Asia. The focus is on nine-million tonnes of plastic waste which ends up in the ocean every year. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but a reality that brands have to face up to. Developments like the #StopSucking movement to cut down on plastic straws and growth of the Plastic Pollution Coalition have very suddenly put the issue of plastic pollution back in the global limelight. Brands that want to keep up with consumer expectations and CSR benchmarks are getting on board.

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The Squirrel Association of India strongly advocates extended producers responsibility (EPR)

Planet or Plastic? has a pledge for consumers to “choose the planet” and drive change. This includes; magazine issues wrapped in paper rather than plastic; and a USD 10-million commitment to Sky Ocean Ventures, which invests in businesses that can help solve the ocean plastic crisis. A particularly stunning component of the campaign is a composite map detailing the source and travels of plastic waste around the planet.  If there’s any question whether or not the issue of plastic needs to be on the minds of those in Asia, this map tells the whole story. Furthering the study’s findings, according to Ocean Conservancy just five countries in Asia contribute 55- 60% of the plastic that ends up in oceans across the globe. 

TAPMA says nay to plastic ban
This got me thinking. As an industry that uses plastics on a daily basis, what do the Indian print and packaging businesses really feel when they hear the material being berated?

More so, when I read about Tamil Nadu Plastics Manufacturers’ Association (TAPMA) demanding the withdrawal of the State government’s proposed plastics ban from January. TAPMA says, the move is discriminatory and will have a negative impact on the lives of about two lakh people, besides causing financial stress to banks.

The association represents more than 8,000 small and medium plastic products manufacturing units. It criticised the government’s decision to ban single-use plastics without proper consultation and discussion with stakeholders or taking into consideration scientific facts.

B Swaminathan, the chairman of the environment committee, TAPMA says, the government order is discriminatory, since it allows the use of plastics in many government departments but bans usage by the general public and the private sector. Swaminathan says, "Plastic bags supplied to government departments of forestry and horticulture are exempt whereas the same plastic bags supplied to cooperatives and private sector or individual farmers are banned."

Also, it bans all forms of plastic packaging including by small retail outlets, grocery shops, whereas the same is permitted for MNCs and FMCG companies. This will hit the businesses of small vendors, hawkers, shops, hotels, restaurants, and sweet-shops, he adds. TAPMA alleged that small units were being penalised. The inability of the government to implement a proper mechanism for segregation and recycling of the used plastics is taking a toll on the small players, whose manufacturing and packaging are approved as safe by the government.

Plastic recycling not possible in Maharashtra
A similar tussle is playing out in Maharashtra.

The Maharashtra Plastic Manufacturers’ Association (MPMA) say milk dairies are not ready for recycling milk pouches. The crux of the matter is the Maharashtra government’s insistence on plastic manufacturers and dairies to set up a mechanism for recycling milk pouches. This has created uncertainty, as members of plastic manufacturers and dairies do not want to take up the responsibility of recycling pouches under the Extended Producers Responsibility (EPR) rules.

Plastic manufacturers in Maharashtra say recycling pouches is not their responsibility, because they only supply films to dairies which then make milk pouches. The MPMA in a letter to the dairies conveyed its decision to "suspend supply of plastic films in view of ongoing actions against the industry".

As per MPCB rules, the manufacturers or producers must submit the EPR plan, including modalities of a waste collection system, to the urban development department for approval.

MPMA says that more than 200 units have stopped functioning because of "the alleged harassment at the hands of pollution board officials" for not preparing the EPR. They have indicated that they will stop supplying plastic films to dairies for making product pouches from 15 December if EPR rules are laid on them. Two years ago, the Centre had notified the Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016, replacing the earlier Plastic Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2011.

Meanwhile, the Milk Producers and Processors’ Welfare Association has said that as plastic films are not available to make pouches; milk cannot be packed, there would no point in the collection of milk. They also cited their inability to implement the ERP.

According to the milk producers association, only 2% to 3% pouches of the 10,000-tonne used to pack milk annually end up in bins. The remaining 97% of the used milk pouches in the state are recycled for various uses. The government, however, feels that close to two-crore plastic milk pouches end ups up as waste in the bins.

While the Maharashtra Government has decided to relax the timeframe of setting up the recycling mechanism for empty pouched by two months, experts argue that the enforcement of ERP rules may not legally be tenable in the court of law.

The China conundrum

Meanwhile, 15,000 tonnes of plastic waste is generated every day across the country, out of which 9,000 tonnes is collected and processed, but 6,000 tonnes of plastic waste is not being collected. Needless to state this has an impact on our environment.

The battle which is brewing can be traced to China.

In 2016, China imported two-thirds of the world’s plastic waste. So when China stopped buying the world’s discarded plastics, it threw markets into turmoil. China’s new policy could displace as much as 111-million metric tonnes of plastic waste by 2030.

Half of the plastic waste intended for recycling was exported by 123 countries, with China taking in most of it from 43 countries. To gain a glimpse of how China’s change of policy impacts the world, consider this: Since 1992, China has imported 106-million metric tonnes of plastic waste. This is, 45% of all plastic waste.

Of exported plastics, 89% is made up of single-use food packaging, the study says. The United States is the leading exporter of PVC (polyvinyl chloride). Germany is the leading exporter of PE (polyethylene) and Japan is the leading exporter of PS (polystyrene).

Imports of plastic trash are on the rise in Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. But none of those nations has China’s purchasing capacity.

Where will the plastic waste go?
Some say, India can be a recycling centre and develop waste management systems. But the reality in India is grim. Just recently, the National Green Tribunal slapped a Rs 5-crore fine on BMC for improper solid waste management. Among other things, the report concluded that municipal solid waste dumping sites were not complying with rules and waste is being dumped in a haphazard manner at the Deonar site. This meant, no leachate collection and treatment plant is there and fire incidents have also taken place."

Currently, Mumbai generates 7,500 metric tonne waste daily, of which 3,000 metric tonnes is dumped in Kanjurmarg, 2,000 metric tonne at Deonar and the remaining 1,500 metric tonnes at Mulund dumping ground. The BMC is in the process of shutting down the Mulund dumping ground. A lot of this is plastic.

Instead of just simply dismissing plastic, it’s about re-educating and thinking cleverly how we reuse these items.

Today, plastic has become a dirty word. But it’s used in security items – passports and driving licenses – and there isn’t a paper product around that you could use that would be secure enough. Plastic has got to have its place.

In addition, there are bold and innovative solutions.

A young company in Quebec has developed a recycling process for polystyrene that reduces 83% of greenhouse gas emissions from virgin resin production. Tipa, an Israeli startup, has created a flexible packaging material with the technical properties of conventional plastic, but 100% compostable. In France, a small company has made a name for itself within the increasingly competitive electronic waste recycling market. In Europe for instance, bulk sales are booming in supermarkets, reducing polluting single-use packaging. Algopack, a French company, is turning seaweed into furniture, without using oil, pesticides or fertilizers. Then there are low-cost homes built with recycled plastics by Mexican social entrepreneur Carlos González.

Matthieu Witvoet and Raphaël Masvigner from Circul'R, the first international network of circular economy start-ups, says, "Worldwide, we recycle less than 9% of soft packaging, such as chips bags. But mechanical engineer Karam Hirji and his father Iqbal found a way to up-cycle the material, after conducting research for two years in their own kitchen, in South Africa. They mix multilayer packaging with sawdust to turn it into an affordable, fireproof and recyclable construction material to build schools, hospitals and housing. Manufactured at scale, its cost could be cheaper than current construction alternatives, and could benefit one-billion people who currently live in slums worldwide. Their start-up’s name, RWPA Solutions, stands for rural waste and poverty alleviation."

There is hope. But, We, the People need to be vigilant.

Citizens like us need to mobilise against waste. We cannot leave cleaning up to others. We should have a World Cleanup Day, daily.

(With inputs from Sujith Ail)


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