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Plastics – To ban or not to ban, is the question!

By Dr. Smita Bhatia

Plastic packaging is big business. The India Brand Equity Foundation (IBEF) estimated the Indian packaging industry to be at about US$28 billion in 2014, with roughly half the market share belonging to plastic packaging [see end note 1]. Polyethylene and Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) account for nearly 70% of the polymers used in flexible packaging [see end note 2]. However, if a small Dehradun-based NGO has its way, the face of this industry could be altered forever.

The National Green Tribunal’s (NGT) intervention stems from a petition filed by Him Jagriti, which sought a ban on the use of plastic bottles, multilayered plastic packages and PET bottles for packaging of carbonated soft drinks and to phase out the use of plastic polyethylene for all other non-essential items [see end note 3]. The NGT took cognizance of the health and environmental impacts of plastic packaging and indicated that, prima facie, it was of ‘the view that there has to be restriction placed upon such packaging and generation of municipal waste. [see end note 4]’ The NGT further ordered that a Public Notice be issued to the manufacturers and users of multi-layered/PET bottles packaging, so that interested parties could address the tribunal before the matter was finally disposed [see end note 5].Specifically, the NGT asked the parties to address:

  1. Whether there should or should not be ban on the use of plastic packaging in food items;
  2. Whether or not there should be complete ban or complete prohibition for use of plastic packaging in pharmaceutical formulations of any kind;
  3. Whether there should be a partial ban on either of the above, and if yes, its extent.
Is banning plastics the best answer to the underlying health and environmental concerns? If yes, are there readily-available alternatives that are less harmful, environment friendly, and sustainable?  What would be the cost associated with switching to non-polyethylene, non-PET alternatives, if any? Would the benefits outweigh the costs? Are the health concerns stemming from a specific chemical substance(s) used in plastic packaging, leaching into the container? Are the environmental concerns more from a lack of infrastructure for handling plastic waste? Stakeholders and policy makers need to carefully consider all aspects of this issue prior to arriving at a final decision.

In the meantime, we should consider how chemical substances, including those used in plastic packaging, are managed elsewhere in the world. The European Chemical Agency manages the registration, evaluation, authorization, and restriction of chemicals (REACH) database. Since its inception in 2007, the REACH database has grown to hold information on the properties of over 13,000 unique chemical substances. Canada's Chemical Management Plan (CMP) and the US Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) are similar science-based chemical management practices. These state of the art chemicals management regimes are based on assimilation of scientific data on over 100,000 different chemical substances. The primary purpose of these regimes is to develop measures to protect humans and the environment by assessing hazards and risks of the chemical substances. India has set up the National Chemical Profile to document chemical substances, however, it only has just over 3000 listed substances, thus providing very little technical support to policy makers, industry and general public to make informed decisions.

Plastic waste is not unique to India. What is unique is the management of plastic waste. Countries that have successful plastic waste management programs share certain common attributes. For example, the processes of waste collection and segregation, technologies for waste recycle, reuse or disposal were in put in place at the time regulations were enacted. Another attribute is the coalescence of all stakeholders – government, industries, the public and NGOs - in consortia or associations. These consortia or associations help in understanding and addressing a multitude of issues across the whole social spectrum without favoring to a select few. Finally, a majority of the citizens in these countries have taken it upon themselves to do their part in the proper disposal of plastic waste to minimize the environmental impact.

Any knee-jerk reaction, such as a total ban on plastic packaging, will not address the health and waste management issues. Instead, it may negatively impact the nation’s economic health and dampen the prospects of the “Make in India” initiative.
  
There is, however, a silver lining. The scrutiny of plastics presents an opportunity to all stakeholders to channel the plastic health and waste management issues towards a more sustainable outcome. Such collaboration can raise awareness on plastic waste management and develop better insights across the plastic supply chain.  After all, waste management is a shared responsibility between government, industry and consumer public. Perhaps, Swachh Bharath and Make in India can co-exist for the benefit of all.

[The author is a Director, Corporate Practice (Environmental Law), Lakshmikumaran & Sridharan, Delhi]

End Notes:
  1. http://www.ibef.org/download/Flexible_Packaging060112.pdf
  2. Ibid. at Fig. 8.
  3. NGT OA 15/2014: Him Jagriti Uttaranchal Welfare Society Vs. Union of India & Ors.
  4. NGT Order dated March 3, 2015 on OA 15/2014.
  5. Ibid.
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