Over the last few decades, the use of plastics has grown tremendously owing to its many useful properties (it is cheap, light-weight, durable, for example). However, these very properties allow widespread use in a multitude of applications; coupled with inefficient waste management, plastics are now found everywhere in the natural environment, where they will remain for a long time. The scale of the challenge has spurred world leaders to call for a globally binding treaty that will provide a pathway to a plastic pollution-free future.
The recently concluded fifth session of the United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA 5) made history when representatives from the UN Member States adopted a resolution to forge a legally binding global treaty to tackle plastic pollution and transition to a circular plastics economy. This treaty is especially significant as it will address the discharge of plastics into the environment by covering all stages of the plastic life cycle, ensuring that the world deals with the root causes of plastic pollution, not just the symptoms.
Action is also being taken at the national level; governments worldwide are enforcing legislation, such as plastic taxes, Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) rules, and single-use plastic bans, to tackle plastic pollution.
India notified its first plastic management policy in 1999 – the Plastics Manufacture, Sale and Usage Rules. These rules restricted the usage of plastic carry bags with a thickness under 20 microns. This was followed by the Plastic Waste (Management and Handling) Rules in 2011, which increased the permissible minimum thickness to 40 microns and banned the use of plastic materials in sachets for storing, packing or selling gutkha, tobacco and pan masala. However, these rules were limited to municipal areas only. The Plastic Waste Management Rules notified in 2016, expanded the scope to include villages, at the same time introducing the concept of Extended Producer Responsibility into India. The 2016 Rules mandated producers, importers and brand owners to collect the plastic waste generated due to the consumption of their products. As a policy, EPR is an effective tool for managing plastic waste as it places the responsibility of managing plastic waste on those who generate it, rather than leaving that task to the government.
In February 2022, India notified new comprehensive guidelines on EPR for plastic packaging, strengthening the existing rules. These guidelines provide a framework for stakeholders to transition to a circular economy for plastics by adopting sustainable packaging that is reusable, recyclable or compostable at scale. The guidelines also mandate the usage of recycled plastic content in packaging, which will drive investments in recycling infrastructure. Along with the ban on selected plastic commodities of single-use announced by the Government of India in August 2021, the new EPR guidelines will strengthen the collection and management system for plastic waste in India.
Businesses are also taking voluntary steps to address plastic pollution: several of them have public commitments to reduce their plastic footprint through initiatives aimed at enhancing the recyclability of packaging, using recycled plastic in packaging, and phasing out fossil fuel-based plastics. For instance, Coca Cola and Mondelez have committed to making all their packaging recyclable by 2025. Godrej Consumer Products has committed to using at least 10% post-consumer recycled (PCR) content in plastic packaging. Hindustan Unilever aims to halve the greenhouse gas impact of their products by eliminating over 100,000 tonnes of plastic from their packaging by 2030.
Individual business action can only go so far. To make impactful system change, collaborative sector-wide action is needed in the fight against plastic pollution. Against the backdrop of the EPR regulation prominent Indian businesses came together in September 2021, committing to the India Plastics Pact, a platform for stakeholders across the plastics value chain to unite towards the vision of a world where plastic is valued and doesn’t pollute the environment. As of April 2022, 33 organizations including India’s top brands, convertors, recyclers and NGOs had joined the Pact. The members of the Pact are united behind an ambitious set of 2030 targets to
- define a list of unnecessary or problematic plastic packaging and items and take measures to address them through redesign and innovation
- make 100% of plastic packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable
- effectively recycle 50% of plastic packagin
- incorporate 25% average recycled content across all plastic packaging
The targets were developed, keeping in mind the current scenario of recycling and reuse in India, and in consultation with leading Indian businesses to make them relevant to the Indian context.
As the Pact’s functioning is based on business commitments, it is closely linked to the EPR regulation, which is primarily driven by business action. The Pact’s detailed delivery programme will support the businesses in meeting their EPR requirements while also meeting the IPP targets. While the EPR regulations set out the overall targets, the IPP will provide a definite path to support those targets and move beyond the policy mandate. The Pact will,
- provide access to experience through the Global Plastics Pacts network: There are 12 other Plastics Pacts operating around the world and there is much information available about what has worked and what has not worked in other landscapes. Members and Supporters have access to these learnings.
- support businesses and work together on solutions: The Pact provides a collaborative platform for stakeholders to work towards addressing the challenges they face in achieving the EPR targets.
- provide guidance: a key aspect of the Pact is providing guidance on aspects such designing for recyclability and reuse which will help them meet the EPR targets for recycling and reuse.
- support improved data collection: The IPP data reporting process and support will provide IPP members a clearer understanding of their packaging and help identify the pinch points. This will help them complete the EPR Annual Returns.
- support research and innovation: The IPP technical projects and innovation challenges will contribute to the much-needed research and innovation in the plastics value chain that will help unlock the barriers to meet EPR targets.
India is a large and diverse country: different parts of the country may face different challenges while tackling plastic pollution. The India Plastics Pact is cognizant of the fact that no single solution exists for all these challenges. However, by providing a platform for actors across the entire value chain to collaborate and try new solutions, its members can change the way plastics are designed, used, and reused.
Together, we can!