Multiple categorisations trip single-use plastic regulation

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Published: October 23, 2019 1:46:23 AM

Uttar Pradesh has only one category of SUPs—products that are banned. Its list of banned products includes all kinds of carry-bags and disposable cutleries.

So, Tamil Nadu has categorised SUPs into two categories—products that are banned and products that are exempted.

Single-use plastics (SUPs), or disposable plastics, are products that are used only once before they are thrown away’. This is the dictionary definition of SUPs. But, this definition is not useful when it comes to banning and phasing-out SUPs. The reason is simple: It is practically impossible to ban all SUPs because we do not have viable alternatives for many. That is why no country in the world has come out with a regulation to ban all SUPs. In fact, the effort in most countries has been to target the most problematic SUPs. But, to identify the most problematic SUPs, we need to define and categorise them for regulatory purposes.

In India, we do not have a national categorisation of SUPs. In the absence of this, states are defining SUPs on their own, and the differences between them are quite stark. Considering that India is a single market, such differences are creating market distortions as well as hampering the enforcement of regulations. Let me illustrate this by comparing the rules of four major states—Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Odisha and Maharashtra—that have brought in some ban on SUPs.

Maharashtra has the most comprehensive legislation on banning and managing SUPs. It has banned plastic carry-bags, plastic & thermocol cutlery and dish/bowl used to package food in hotels, non-woven polypropylene bags, pouches for liquids and decorative materials made from plastics and thermocol. For other SUPs, it has prescribed buy-back schemes as part of the Extended Producers Responsibility (EPR) of companies. Companies have been asked to put in place buy-back scheme for PET bottles, and plastic packaging materials of more than 50-micron thickness. It exempts plastic used for packaging medicines. Also, it has allowed the use of compostable plastics for nurseries, horticulture, agriculture and handling of solid waste. Maharashtra has, therefore, classified SUPs into three categories—products that are banned, those allowed with EPR and those that are exempted.

Odisha has also categorised SUP products into three categories, like Maharashtra. It has banned carry-bags, bottled water of less than 200 ml volume, disposable cutlery made of thermocol and plastics and decorative materials made of thermocol. It has exempted plastics used in nurseries, horticulture, agriculture and health sector and those used for packaging of milk and milk products. It has imposed EPR on PET bottles. Interestingly, Odisha has applied this regulation to only major cities.

Tamil Nadu has defined ‘use and throwaway plastics’ and banned them. The items included by the state are quite specific and don’t figure in the list of other states. For instance, Tamil Nadu has banned plastic flags, plastic sheets used for spreading on the dining table and plastic coated teacups. Tamil Nadu has given exemptions to plastics used for forestry and horticulture nurseries and packaging of milk and milk products, oil, medicine and medical equipment. So, Tamil Nadu has categorised SUPs into two categories—products that are banned and products that are exempted.

Uttar Pradesh has only one category of SUPs—products that are banned. Its list of banned products includes all kinds of carry-bags and disposable cutleries. This ban is only enforceable in urban and industrial areas. As one can see, there is a vast difference in how states have categorised SUPs. But, from these diverse categorisations, one can also discern a trend. We can synthesise the differences to arrive at a national classification of SUPs. I see four categories under which we can place SUPs:

Category 1: Products that should be banned; these include all kinds of carry-bags, disposable cutleries, straws, pouches for liquids and small bottled water, decorative materials and flags, etc.

Category 2: Products that can be brought under buy-back EPR scheme; These include PET/PETE bottles, plastic packaging used by hotels and takeaways, milk pouches and food packaging of more than 50-micron thickness, big plastic bottles of body care products and medicines, etc.

Category 3: Products that can come under non-buy-back EPR scheme; these can include multi-layered plastics, small sachets and bottles , etc. Companies producing these products will have to work with local authorities to ensure maximum recovery and recycling/end-use of these products.

Category 4: Products that can be exempted, these include compostable plastics, plastics used in nurseries, horticulture, agriculture and health sector.

Readers can add/ subtract products in the above categories. But, I believe that the above is a good starting point to initiate the discussion in the country on the categorisation of SUPs. Once we have agreed on the categorisation, we can design a national regulatory plan for management of single-use plastics. I will discuss this management and market transformation plan in my next column.

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