E-commerce waste

As In­dia catches up on on­line shop­ping, we need reg­u­la­tions to min­imise the waste that is gen­er­ated from pack­ag­ing the prod­ucts

Down to Earth - - CONTENTS - AKHILESHWARI REDDY @down2earth­in­dia (The au­thor works with the Vidhi Cen­tre for Le­gal Pol­icy, Ben­galuru)

There is a need to min­imise waste gen­er­a­tion from pack­ag­ing on­line prod­ucts

ONE OF the least stud­ied and un­der­re­ported gen­er­a­tors of plas­tic and non-plas­tic waste are e-commerce com­pa­nies. In 2017, e-commerce ac­counted for US $2.3 tril­lion of the US $23.24 tril­lion global re­tail mar­ket. Ac­cord­ing to the US En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency, e-commerce pack­ag­ing ac­counts for 30 per cent of solid waste gen­er­ated in the US. In­dia’s e-commerce pack­ag­ing in­dus­try was worth US $32 bil­lion in 2015 and is ex­pected to grow rapidly to about US $73 bil­lion by 2020. Flip­kart, for in­stance, does around 8 mil­lion ship­ments ev­ery month.

But there are no es­ti­mates about the amount of e-commerce pack­ag­ing or the dis­posal of waste, as no or­gan­i­sa­tion has both­ered to in­ves­ti­gate the same. E-commerce pack­ag­ing and the dis­posal of waste have huge en­vi­ron­men­tal costs. At present, e-commerce pack­ag­ing comes in multiple lay­ers, which is made of plas­tic, paper, bub­ble wrap, air pack­ets, tape and card­board car­tons.

While most of these pack­ag­ing ma­te­ri­als are re­cy­clable, In­dia’s abysmal record in­di­cates that a large por­tion of these ma­te­ri­als will end up clog­ging our drains and land­fills. The prob­lem of ex­ces­sive pack­ag­ing has been ex­ac­er­bated due to the growth of pri­or­ity cus­tomer ser­vices that place a pre­mium on ul­tra-fast de­liv­ery which do not al­low for con­sol­i­dated de­liv­ery of pack­ages. This is lead­ing to multiple in­di­vid­u­ally packed de­liv­er­ies thus in­creas­ing the gen­er­a­tion of waste.

In ad­di­tion to in­creas­ing the waste gen­er­ated in In­dia, the grow­ing trend of ex­ces­sive pack­ag­ing will cer­tainly lead to con­sid­er­able loss of for­est cover, as wood pulp re­mains the main raw material for mak­ing pack­ag­ing card­board. For in­stance, around 165 bil­lion pack­ages are shipped in the US each year, and the card­board used would roughly equate to more than 1 bil­lion trees be­ing chopped.

More­over, the toxic chem­i­cals used in the pro­duc­tion of these pack­ag­ing ma­te­ri­als are bound to af­fect hu­man health as they en­ter our food cy­cle. Some of these chem­i­cals are bromi­nated flame re­tar­dants, polyvinyl chlo­ride and Bisphe­nol A, which is an en­docrine dis­rup­tor.

Many com­pa­nies use a pos­si­ble car­cino­gen called Sty­ro­foam, which is used as a com­mon filler. Long-term ex­po­sure to even small quan­ti­ties of Sty­ro­foam can cause fa­tigue, ner­vous­ness and sleep dis­or­ders. Vinyl chlo­ride, which is used to man­u­fac­ture pvc, can se­verely im­pact the central ner­vous sys­tem caus­ing headaches and dizzi­ness. Long-term ex­po­sure to vinyl chlo­ride can re­sult in can­cer and liver dam­age. Yet there are no stud­ies to es­tab­lish this link.

Need for a law

At present, there is no law in In­dia that reg­u­lates e-commerce pack­ag­ing and it is clear that there is an ur­gent need for the cre­ation and strin­gent im­ple­men­ta­tion of the same. Such a law must be grounded in the doc­trine of Ex­tended Pro­ducer Re­spon­si­bil­ity (epr), which man­dates that the pro­ducer of the waste shall be re­spon­si­ble for its end-of-life re­cy­cling and dis­posal. The doc­trine is a proven doc­trine that has re­sulted in some of the high­est re­cy­cling rates in the world.

The Solid Waste Man­age­ment Rules, 2016, states that pro­duc­ers of pack­ag­ing prod­ucts such as plas­tic and cor­ru­gated boxes must take up the re­spon­si­bil­ity of col­lec­tion, re­cy­cling and dis­posal of such waste in ac­cor­dance with en­vi­ron­men­tally sound prin­ci­ples. Fur­ther, the Plas­tic Waste Man­age­ment Rules, 2018, also place the pri­mary re­spon­si­bil­ity of re­cy­cling and col­lec­tion of plas­tic waste on the pro­duc­ers, im­porters and brand own­ers who in­tro­duce the material in the mar­ket.

Any law that aims to reg­u­late e-commerce pack­ag­ing must ad­dress some crit­i­cal issues. Firstly, stan­dard pack­ag­ing rules akin to those Le­gal Metrol­ogy (Pack­aged Com­modi­ties) Rules, 2011, must be framed and en­forced on the sec­tor. Sec­ondly, the law must reg­u­late the method and ma­te­ri­als used for e-commerce pack­ag­ing based on sci­en­tific and en­vi­ron­men­tally sound prin­ci­ples. There is also a need for com­pa­nies to in­vest in smaller and more sus­tain­able, en­vi­ron­ment-friendly pack­ag­ing. This will au­to­mat­i­cally re­duce pack­ag­ing vol­umes as well as costs.

At the same time, e-commerce com­pa­nies must fac­tor in three dif­fer­ent as­pects of sus­tain­abil­ity to en­sure sus­tain­able pack­ag­ing—those of re­duc­tion in the amount of pack­ag­ing ma­te­ri­als used; in­crease in the re­cy­cla­bil­ity of the pack­ag­ing ma­te­ri­als; and, in­crease in the use of re­cy­cled pack­ag­ing ma­te­ri­als. They should also ex­plore the pos­si­bil­ity of im­ple­ment­ing buy-back poli­cies, or even pro­vide cus­tomers with the choice to choose more sus­tain­able meth­ods of pack­ag­ing.

A care­fully drafted law and gen­uine co­op­er­a­tion among all stake­hold­ers, in­clud­ing e-commerce com­pa­nies, con­sumers and lo­cal mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties will be the key to en­sure that the law is suc­cess­fully im­ple­mented. The re­cent ex­ten­sion of Ma­ha­rash­tra’s plas­tic ban to e-commerce com­pa­nies is a wel­come step and one whose im­ple­men­ta­tion could hold valu­able lessons for other states.

While it is un­der­stand­able that sturdy pack­ag­ing ma­te­ri­als must be used to re­duce dam­age to prod­ucts in tran­sit and dur­ing han­dling, but ex­ces­sive use of plas­tic and other ma­te­ri­als is en­vi­ron­men­tally un­sus­tain­able. Op­ti­mi­sa­tion and in­no­va­tion hold the key to a sus­tain­able pack­ag­ing rev­o­lu­tion in In­dia.


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