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Civil Society Audit Identifies India’s Top Plastic Polluters

Civil Society Audit Identifies India’s Top Plastic Polluters

Representative photo: Marc Newberry/Unsplash

  • In a 19-state audit, civil society organisations found Pepsi and Coca Cola to be among India’s top plastic polluters.
  • One big concern is multilayered plastics, used to wrap biscuits, chips, etc., and which can’t be recycled at scale.
  • The amended Plastic Waste Management Rules required manufacturers to phase out multilayered plastics in a couple years from 2018.

New Delhi: In an audit of 19 states, seven civil society organisations have found a clutch of popular FMCG brands – including Parle Products, ITC, Britannia, Haldiram’s, Tata Consumer Products, Milky Mist and United Spirits – to be among India’s top plastic polluters.

The report was released on November 18.

More than 1,000 volunteers of six organisations, part of a global conglomeration called ‘Break Free From Plastic’, conducted the audit, including by collecting plastic waste from two sources – homes and public spaces.

In all, they collected 1,49,985 pieces, of which 61% was reportedly used for food packaging (and of this, 25% was for milk alone). Some 18% was used as packing plastic material, 8% in personal care, 7% for household products and 1% in smoking material.

The top 10 international companies implicated in the report are Unilever, Pepsico, Coca Cola, Nestle, Amazon Whole Foods, Reckitt Benckiser, Colgate Palmolive, P&G, Kraft Heinz and Mondelez International.

This was the fourth year of the audit. Some of these brands have featured in the top 10 in the past as well.

One concern is that the majority of these pieces (35%) were multilayered plastics – which can’t be recycled at commercial scale. That is, they are single-use. They came in the form of sachets, packets, wrappers, etc. – as well as in toothpaste tubes and cigarette butts. They are also difficult to segrate and collect in the first place.

Disposable cutlery, however, doesn’t contain multi-layered plastic – but it isn’t commonly recycled either.

Another 31% were low-density polyethylene and polyvinyl chloride resins, which aren’t always recyclable. They came in the form of milk packets, cling wrap, plastic bottles, squeeze bottles, plumbing pipes and wire insulation.

Items that could be widely recycled and were found at audit sites included bottles used to hold products like shampoo, oils, detergents, soda and liquid medicines (syrups, etc.). According to the report, these products can be recycled a few times before they must be down-cycled, at which point they leak into the environment and become pollution.

Low-density polyethylene and polypropylene plastics used to package foods get rejected in the recycling stream, especially at the place of sorting, because they are contaminated with wet waste at the time of being discarded.

Also read: People Bristle at Waste-to-Energy Project’s Rush To Expand in the Aravalli

The Plastic Waste Management Rules 2016 say that plastics producers, importers and brand-owners must take ownership of waste management, as part of their so-called ‘extended producer responsibility’. In this paradigm, the rules envisaged that multi-layered plastic, which can’t be recycled, would be phased out in a couple years.

In 2018, the Centre decided to amend the rules and ease brand-owners’ responsibilities. The change said that only multi-layered plastic would have to be phased out, especially if it couldn’t be converted to some form of usable energy or treated or recycled for other uses.

According to the report, most items containing multi-layered plastic and which fall in the ambit of ‘extended producer responsibility’ are either designated for incineration or transported to some other sort of waste-to-energy plants. This is not recycling, however – notwithstanding the fact that most attempts to install functional waste-to-energy plants in India have been abortive.

“In recent years, corporate companies have been working hard to greenwash their image by legitimising incineration, chemical recycling, and bioplastics as a solution to multi-layered plastics,” the report reads.

Incineration – either in the form of waste-to-energy or plastic-to-fuel – releases three tonnes of CO2 for every tonne of plastic processed, the report estimates, apart from also emitting carcinogenic substances. The report also called assessments of chemical recycling – that is, chemically breaking down plastic polymers into monomers and reusing the monomers to create new polymers – “notoriously misleading”.

“Companies need to redesign their packaging and delivery systems to eliminate their use of these low-value and non-recyclable single-use plastics, and invest in sustainable reuse and refill delivery systems,” according to the report.

“There is only one solution – which is to decrease the production of such plastics that are not recycled at scale,” Lubna Anantakrishnan, project manager at SWaCH Plus, an organisation that works with rag-pickers in Pune, and the lead author of the report, told The Wire Science. “The technologies suggested for … recycling are not sustainable at large scale. And it has to be backed by legislation.”

And how have the companies named in the report responded to its findings? “Except for ITC, which is onboard to tackle this issue, we have not shared it with anyone.”

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