Anybody who is living in, or have been traveling in India, has for sure noticed the amount of plastic waste spread around roads and public spaces. It’s unsightly, it degrades very slowly and some plastics can be toxic.
From a recycling standpoint, the most problematic plastics are the thin film polybags and other types of thin film packaging. This type of packaging is especially popular for food items, shampoos, soaps and other types of consumer goods. It is very hard to separate and collect once entering the waste stream, and it creates large problems such as clogging drains (for those who were in Mumbai this monsoon – a lot of those floods are indeed caused by plastics). In India the problem becomes even greater since most of these products are sold in very small quantities (one time use sizes) as compared to products sold in larger packages in richer countries.
A recent article in Tehelka, an independant newspaper in India, discusses the recommendations of the ministry of environment and forests expert committee on these types of plastic packaging. It provides for both some hope and some questions that need to be asked.
The committee, created by the ministry in 2009, have recommended that plastic packaging – specifically the multilayered thermo-film sachet packaging common in India, used by fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies – be completely banned.
The industry (unsurprisingly) is arguing the case that these types of plastic packaging are more energy efficient during production, as well as much better for keeping the products fresh. They state that as of now, no suitable alternatives exist. This may indeed have elements of truth, and it’s important to evaluate what the options and not act from a dogmatic resistance to all things plastic – sometimes the alternatives might be worse for the environment if you take the entire lifecycle into consideration.
However, the claim by the industry spokesperson in the article that these materials are “recyclable” is one that hides an important problem. The plastics used might indeed be recyclable, but in the end it doesn’t end up being recycled. The infrastructure for recycling in India (based on waste pickers and a network of independent recyclers/waste buyers) is as far as we have seen not dealing with these types of packages in any larger scale. It’s simply too hard to separate from the mixed waste, and thus ends up in open waste dumps.
In the waste world, plastics is like the pandas or other furry animals in the world of conservation. Plastic waste makes for great photos and it’s highly visible on the garbage dumps – it becomes the focus “cause” for funders, NGO and the public. In fact, in contrast to richer countries, most waste in India is not packaging or plastics. It’s important to realize that waste management requires an integrated approach – attacking a specific part of the waste stream like this can potentially create problems in other parts of the waste stream.
Saying this, however, I don’t mean to say that the issue shouldn’t be dealt with. It’s good that the ministry is taking a stance, and in effect forcing the producers to find solutions that might be more environmentally sound.
The producers of these products do need to take responsibility for their products across their entire lifecycle. It is definitely a boon that there seem to be pressure and incentive created for the FMCG companies to produce better packaging.
If they can make sure that this packaging that can easily be collected by waste pickers and handled by recyclers & waste management companies, the materials can become part of this value-chain which will let the existing infrastructure manage them. This would reduce the amount of packaging ending up in dumps as well as be good to reduce the pressure on the FMCGs .
Finally, as always in India, the result of any new ruling or policy is highly variable and we should take these rulings as a good step, but not the final solution, for the long journey that is institutionalizing good waste management in India.