By Rameesh Kailasam & Madhabi Sarkar
Plastic products including bags, straws, and fibre have been used and patronised indiscriminately by humanity and now the world stares at an ecological disaster. Non-biodegradable forms of plastic have now found their way into land and water thereby becoming a threat to the lives of animals and those present in water bodies. It is alarming and sad when we read news stating 15kg of plastic waste was inside the stomach of a stray cow or 88 pounds of plastic found inside the stomach of a young whale.
Many countries around the world have now started taking efforts to either ban or penalise plastic bag usage. As per various estimates the world produces every year around 380 to 400 million tons of plastic of which 50 percent gets utilised for manufacturing products for packaging, bags, single-use straws, and cutlery, and around 15 million tons enter the
oceans every year.
In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took a bold all-round approach to eliminate this environmental hazard. The Prime Minister pledged in 2019 that India will get rid of single-use plastics by end of 2022, a defining step to curb pollution caused by littered and unmanaged plastic waste is being taken by the country. The Plastic Waste Management Rules 2016, as
amended and notified on August 12, 2021 and September 17, 2021 prohibiting specified Single Use Plastic (SUP) came into effect from July 1, 2022. It was a bold initiative for a country that consumes over 6 billion straws annually with zero manufacturing happening around paper straws or any other alternative. While many of India’s beverage and dairy manufacturing companies that sell affordable juices, milk, and drinks have been repeatedly representing to the government to either exempt or extend due to a huge shortage of 3mm paper straws thereby forcing them to import at a higher price
affecting price points and margins.
The paper manufacturers however believe that they have the technology and capacity to meet this rising demand.
India alone generates 3.5 million tonnes of plastic waste each year. The government data reveals that India’s per capita plastic waste generation is 3 kg per year. Several states have enacted state-specific laws to tackle this. However, the fundamental implementation challenge is that currently, the interpretation of the banned items at the ground level seems
to be varying. Municipalities and ground-level enforcement authorities are reading and interpreting the ban differently with even confusion around what is banned, who undertakes packaging, who should be liable, what is integral part of packaging etc.
Since enforcement is at the state and municipal level, differing interpretations of the Rules may lead to massive disruption and interruption of businesses. Additionally, at present, organisations are already receiving arbitrary notices from various States/ Municipal Bodies due to limited information or understanding about the Rules. Different states have defined banned items differently. For example, a couple of states have put PE-lined paper glasses additionally on their banned list while another has put carry bags made up of compostable plastic on the banned list. These types of differences in interpretations can lead to serious problems for the industry. Creating uniform awareness of the ban and items listed will contribute to the objectives of the CPCB.
It is therefore essential that the Central government issues necessary clarifications through modes like FAQs or an SOP document to ensure uniform interpretation and also direct state governments to overturn existing state-specific bans and align with the SUP list at a Central level for a period defined under the law. From a user perspective, it is important to note that in the restaurant industry is highly fragmented with over ~2 million restaurants of which 60% are in the unorganised sector.
Freshly prepared food contains many items which are mostly semi-solid or liquid such as dal, sambhar, rasam, gravy items, chutney, buttermilk, raita etc. The rigid food-grade plastic packaging used by restaurant partners has proven to be an effective way to keep the food safe from contamination and is an integral part of the food delivered hygienically to the consumers. Though the ban on specific SUP is welcome and the restaurant ecosystem is making all efforts to comply with the regulation, clarity is required at the implementation agency level to avoid business impact.
If we look at Rules 3(c) and 4(d) of the Plastic Waste Management Rules 2016, they make exception for bag and plastic sheets that constitute or form an integral part of the packaging in which goods are sealed prior to use. Some of the listed SUP items, including trays with sealed sheet/ lid and cups with sealed sheet/ lid used for food delivery (except the plastic
cutlery), are actually an integral part of delivered food items.
There exists a major misunderstanding on the ground amongst states that online food aggregator platforms and even delivery partners have a role in the packaging of the food. The reality is that packaging is undertaken completely by the restaurants, and the platforms and delivery partners just carry them for delivery to the customers. Hence, it would be unfair to target online platforms and delivery partners for actions not undertaken by them.
Further, the prohibition on select SUPs increases the need to utilise alternatives such as PE-lined paper glasses and compostable plastic which may not be possible in these states with their own specific banned items. These state-specific prohibitions will lead to major operational challenges and enforcement could be the biggest gap in the process. There is
a need to have mechanisms at the state level supported by the Centre to impose checks and bans and ensure enforcement and uniformity. The government should also work with the industry players to evolve acceptable plastic substitutes. All of these put together can bring a paradigm shift in India’s efforts to save the environment.
(The authors are CEO, and Senior Manager (Public Policy), Indiatech.org respectively. Views expressed are personal)