Milk pouches to PET bottles: Giving up plastic will be hard habit to break

Topics Plastics | plastic ban

According to the Central Pollution Control Board, India generates over 26,000 metric tonnes every day of plastic waste of which 6 per cent is MLP
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s clarion call on Independence Day urging citizens to eliminate the use of single-use plastics (SUP) from October 2, the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, has refocused the spotlight on corporate India’s preparedness in making his vision a reality. The reason: India Inc is one of the key users of SUP — ranging from pet bottles, tetra packs, multi-layered plastics (MLP) to milk pouches.

But opinion is divided on the PM’s war on waste. Some say it is all optics, lacking serious government legislation and punitive action. But senior government officials say they are planning to crack down on items such as plastic straws, cutlery, cigarette butts, PET bottles below 200 ml (which has been tried in Maharashtra) and plastic bags below 50 micron (banned in many states). This, they hope, will stir India Inc out of its ennui on the serious issue.  

Is it wrong to put the onus on corporate India? To be fair it has done well in recycling PET bottles (80 per cent is recycled) and has made reasonable efforts with tetra packs (53 per cent is recycled). But the big challenge which seems not to be in focus is recycling MLP (such as snack packaging like Lay’s, or Hindustan Lever’s sachet shampoos or Parle’s biscuit packs) which could be the key for succeeding in reusing or reducing SUP. MLP recycling is so negligible that no one is ready to hazard a guess.

According to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), India generates over 26,000 metric tonnes every day of plastic waste of which 6 per cent is MLP. But many believe that their share is far higher especially in cities. According to a global study by Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, a grassroot research association, MLP constitutes 60 per cent of all the branded plastic waste in 15 cities in 18 states which it randomly studied last year. The problem is that segregating MLP plastic from the metal is cumbersome and expensive, so rag pickers have no incentive to collect it and this packaging remains unrecycled and in the ecosystem.  

The other problem area is milk pouches. The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) estimates only 15-20 per cent of the pouches are recycled. Corporate India is trying to make some headway in MLP, with some 30 Indian and multinational players collaborating in a consortium christened We Care as part of their extended producer responsibility. Its backers include PepsiCo India, Nestle India, Perfetti, Dabur and Dharampal Satyapal. The mandate is to collect MLP and find alternative usages.  

Will this work? In 2016, the central government pushed through the Plastic Waste Management Rules making it mandatory to phase out MLP in two years. But experts say the government tweaked the MLP definition in such a way as to give companies a loophole to skip the deadline. Also, the rules did not mandate what percentage of the MLP waste producers should retrieve, giving them freedom to pay lip service to the rules.

The reality is that recycling MLP is a global challenge. Says Swati Singh Sambyal, who heads the programme on waste management in CSE: “The issue is there is no viable alternative packaging to MLP, so there is need for a lot of R&D. For instance, the industry is looking at standardising the polymers used in making MLP, instead of using different kinds, to make recycling easier”.

We Care is working on various ways to collect and dispose of MLP, which includes using it as an alternative fuel in cement kilns, for waste to energy pyrolysis to convert it into fuel, for road construction and even for making furniture. Says We Care President Atul Sud: “We are focused on creating an end-to-end system for sustainable management of plastics. There is also a large unorganised sector that is not committed to meeting its obligations”.  

In areas where corporate India has taken bold initiatives — in PET bottles, for instance — the compulsion comes from business logic. Reliance Industries, which provides the resin, the key raw material, processes over 2 billion pet bottles a year and according to a senior executive is scaling it up three times to 6 billion in two years. Like many others, it converts them into polyester fibre and some of it is used downstream to make fashion apparel.

Gem Recycling, which retrieves the waste PET bottle through its network, offers rag pickers Rs 20 per kg for pet bottles, which is far more attractive than the other plastic waste they pick up. Gem converts them into granules which are sold to the textile industry and makes reasonable margins from the business. Gem director Sachin Sharma: “Our total expense including paying rag pickers, washing, segregation and bailing is Rs 30 a kg. We sell it at Rs 33 a kg. We procure threads from companies to which we sell the bottles and make products like T-shirts, bags, jackets under our own brand”. 

Many companies say the biggest challenge is that the government has still not specified the SUP definition. They question how CPCB can define recyclable plastics as SUP and bring them under the purview of a ban. And experts say an arbitrary ban has a serious impact on jobs. “Most of the bags below 50 micron or plastic cutlery are manufactured in the unorganised sector so a huge number of jobs would be at stake. The people working here have to be shifted to new alternatives, such as making cloth bags. You cannot do it overnight,” says Sambyal.

Some experts say a ban on bags below 50 microns might fail because manufacturers will merely shift to bags above 50 micron which are still cheaper than cloth and can be reused by consumers and out of the purview of SUP, rather defeating the purpose of reducing plastic use. Consumers, too, see no economic benefit in reducing plastic use. Industry estimates that one can get 400 plastic bags for Rs 100; if they had to buy cloth bags they would cost between Rs 10 to Rs 150 a piece.

The CPCB is treading carefully too and the ministries of consumer affairs and food processing are pushing for a realistic policy. Milk pouches are yet to come under the purview of the ban. Even for plastic bottles, by concentrating on a proposal to ban below 200 ml, the government has virtually protected the beverage industry (only two brands have water packaging below 200 ml). Instead, it is concentrating on plastics bags below 50 microns where state bans have not made a significant difference. The question is whether Modi will be able to galvanise India towards more responsible use of plastics.

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