Environmental damage: The devil is in packaging, biodegradable or otherwise

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It would be a rare week indeed that goes by without a horror story in the newspapers on environmental carnage, accompanied by distressing pictures of garbage piling up on the roads, footpaths and green areas, or choking water bodies in the metros. The growing number of incidents of fire and landslides reported from the landfills in Mumbai and Delhi has proved that the system of waste management through collection and treatment is no longer sustainable. India, being the third highest consumer in the world, the volume of waste it generates from packaging is significantly high, and needs special attention. Packaging of products, whether fruit, vegetables, pulses or other food items, and durable consumer goods such as electronics generates waste, which in turn puts pressure on our scarce land resource either in the form of landfill or composting activity (as composting also need a certain amount of land!). Even the process of waste incineration generates emissions detrimental to climate. 

In order to address the issue of waste generated from the use of plastic in packaging, the concept of ‘extended producer responsibility’ (EPR), introduced almost a decade ago in India, put the onus on all producers using plastic packaging to install a system to collect their own packaging waste. Later, the Central Plastic Waste Management Rules (2016) made ERP mandatory for all sellers, including online retailers. Today, many companies have put in place policies aimed at reducing the impact of packaging mainly through recycling and reuse. However, they are not being implemented effectively to bring forth a visible change.

Overemphasis on recycling and overdependence on biodegradable substances are two major bottlenecks in successfully tackling the problem of solid wastes. Biodegradable substances such as paper, food waste or biodegradable plastic, in particular, are considered benign in the current policy discourse. As a result, a series of biodegradable or green consumer goods have emerged in the market. A popular Indian retail store has this message on bags meant for packing vegetables and fruits: ‘I am not a plastic bag’. In the process it tries to offer some solace to customers using plastic-packed products. This attitude is problematic as it sweeps aside the principle objective of reducing waste, biodegradable or otherwise, in order to save the Earth.

While recycling of packaging is critical, it alone cannot be effective. Along with recycling, there is also a need to minimise packaging through drastic changes in the mindset of customers, manufacturers and retailers. In addition to going back to the old habit of shopping in jute or cotton bags, supermarkets must encourage customers to bring their own containers by introducing re-fill schemes. This is already being practiced by the Bodyshop in Bengaluru, and several superstores in Europe. Indian furniture outlet Urban ladder collects and recycles the packing material after delivery. There is a need to encourage other consumer goods companies to do something similar.

The EPR shouldn't be limited to recycling. Policy reform is required to introduce monitoring the weight of product packaging at the point of manufacturing and retailing, to reduce the overall use of packaging material, especially plastic. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) should undertake periodic surveys with the help of Indian market research bureaus, to measure the packaging weight of all products, including fruits, vegetables and other food items, as also consumer durables at the point of sale. It should also set acceptable standards and recommend punitive action, (such as a landfill tax), along with incentives (such as certificate of appreciation that will enhance the profile of the concerned companies in the eyes of consumers as well as of the government). 

In Germany, the New Packaging Act, 2019 has made all retailers, offline and online, legally bound to disclose the weight of packaging materials on the label. Failure to comply would incur a heavy fine and an automatic ban on sales, depending on the severity of the violation. In the UK, the British Market Research Bureau has been monitoring packaging weight since 2007. In the decade since, major supermarkets in the UK have developed roadmaps to reduce packaging footprint. Superstore giant Tesco has had a 31 per cent reduction in average packaging weight since 2007. Sainsbury’s has committed to save 1,300 tonnes of plastic by 2025. Most of them are slowly removing plastic wrapping from food and vegetable items. Outside the UK, Tesco Lotus in Thailand has introduced a new tray for meat sale, which has reduced packaging weight by 38-41 per cent.

Tectonic reform with enactment of similar laws, coupled with regular monitoring, is urgently needed to reduce the use of paperboard, fibreboard and plastic, and subsequently lower waste generation from the packaging sector in India. The practice of multiple-layered huge packaging for even a small article, especially by online retailers, is a burden on both, the customer and the earth. Most of the time, such packaging material is left at the customer's end, and s/he simply doesn't know what to do with it. Therefore, a delay in packaging reforms would cost the country dearly, especially at a time when the market is penetrating deeper into households by expanding retail outlets and online selling. We need to be especially cautious in regulating packaging practices at a time when India is aspiring to become a $5 trillion economy by 2025. Such a target would foster an unprecedented growth in consumer items and consuming population, which in turn would see a spike in packaging material.
The author is an Assistant Professor at Ambedkar University, Delhi.  She has a PhD from Manchester University (UK), and an MPhil in Planning & Development from IIT, Bombay.

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