The missing piece in the plastic puzzle
The T.N. government’s proposed ban risks missing the mark, as multi-layered plastics, which account for around 70% of the plastics that end up in landfills, have been left out of its ambit. Unlike single-use plastics, multi-layered ones can’t be recycled.
More often than not, the first thing that comes to mind when we talk about plastics is the one-time, use-and-throw carry bag that comes in handy while buying day-to-day provisions and other essentials. Granted, such plastic bags are a menace, and when burnt, release cancercausing carcinogens into the air. Also, they don’t allow percolation of rainwater into the soil and choke plants and aquatic animals in waterbodies. But these carry bags represent just one element of the “plastic that pollutes”.
Multi-layered plastics, such as wrappers used to keep food items fresh for an extended period of time, account for 60%-70% of the plastics that goes into the municipal landfills. However, the State government’s ban on plastics from January 1, 2019, does not include this variety, which cannot be recycled and can only be incinerated.
Plastic manufacturers’ associations in the State have asked for multilayered plastics also to be covered by the ban on single-use plastics. Pointing out what they describe as certain gaps in the proposed ban, they have urged the State government to take into consideration the large volume of goods that comes in prepacked, multi-layered plastics.
As far as recyclable plastics are concerned, items like milk packets and broken buckets normally find their way into reprocessing units, since people prefer to sell them off for money, says ecologist Sultan Ahmed Ismail. “However, in the case of soft drinks and mineral water bottles, this is not happening. Though soft drink companies ensure that buyers also pay for the recycling, they don’t follow it up. Most bottles carry the recycling symbol on their label, but [the notion of ] social responsibility ends with just that. The plastic straws and cutlery that we get along with takeaway food items and eatables on board flights too are a headache, because nobody seems to want them [for recycling]. A proper system of segregation, collection and recycling must be put in place to ensure that the collected material does not end up in landfills or water bodies,” Dr. Ismail adds.
Around 6%-7% of the municipal solid waste dumped in landfills is plastic, 60%-70% of which is multi-layered plastic. The Commissionerate of Municipal Administration (CMA) claims it collects such non-recyclable plastics and sends them to cement factories, where they are burnt in the kilns, at high temperatures, along with other items like footwear, old clothes, furnishings and the like. Cement factories have been asking for the materials that are sent to them to be provided with less moisture content and in a more compact manner. The firms have tied up with nearby municipalities for the supply of such non-recyclable waste, explains a CMA source.
But that alone will not work, say manufacturers, since by single-use plastics, the government notification refers primarily to plastic carry bags, singleuse plastic wrappers and cups. They want the producers and users of multilayered plastics — FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) companies — to be roped in as well.
Tamil Nadu Plastics Manufacturers Association spokesperson B. Swaminathan says there is a need to rope in producers and users of multi-layered plastics at the very beginning. “Extended Producer Responsibility needs to be implemented. These FMCG companies should be made to invest in the technology that is available for reusing or recycling of such bags. As plastic manufacturers, we are willing to set up processing plants for recycling the ordinary kind of bags, which can be processed. We cannot bring in a collection system; we need the government’s help for that. However, what is required is a scientific solution to multilayered plastics. They cannot be burnt in the longrun. Technology for this is available in India itself,” he adds. [According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is a policy approach under which producers are given a significant responsibility – financial and/or physical – for the treatment or disposal of post-consumer products.]
Former member secretary of the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board K. Karthikeyan says a plastic recycling park, like the one in Japan, should be set up if the ban is to succeed. “They are producing urea, pig iron, oil from plastics and also dehydralysing plastics to produce HCL and hydrocarbon in 2,500 hectares at a centralised plastic waste facility,” he says, adding that akin to ewaste, where EPR is being implemented, albeit on a smaller scale, the same should be done for fastmoving consumer goods.
Livelihoods on the line
The same distributor–wholesaler-retailer chain should be used to collect plastic wrappers. “Household-level segregation must be insisted upon by local bodies so that waste goes to the correct recycling centre,” Mr. Karthikeyan adds.
G. Sankaran, president, Tamil Nadu Puducherry Plastic Association, says a total ban on plastics would mean the death of the industry, on which the livelihoods of five lakh people depend. “A total of two lakh people are directly employed in the State’s plastics industry, and another three lakh, indirectly. Most of these units are small- and mediumscale enterprises that are already burdened with loans. If our goods are banned, carry bags from neighbouring States will flood the market. Also, alternatives for food packaging and carry bags must be well-thought-out before the ban is implemented,” he says.
Explaining why multilayered plastics cannot be recycled, he says they are — as the term suggests — made of different layers of plastics, with printing taking place on the top-most layer.
“These materials melt at different temperatures, and cannot be separated before being reprocessed, which only makes them fit for land refills or incineration,” Mr. Sankaran explains.
G. Sundar Rajan, of Poovulagin Nanbargal, an environmental organisation, says the ban won’t work if imposed on one kind of plastic alone. “It should be a comprehensive ban, and no exception should be given to one sector alone. The FMCG industry should come out with an alternative for multi-layered plastics, as they have become a social evil,” he says.
Meanwhile, hoteliers and snacks outlets are looking at alternatives to plastic packaging materials. A 5% discount on the bill amount was announced recently by restaurants for customers who brought their own utensils. Many have switched to aluminium foil, which is not covered by the ban. Instead of plastic carry bags, containers made of sugarcane bagasse or corn starch are being used, an industry watcher says. “The corn starchbased bag, if placed on soil, turns into compost within 180 days, leaving no residue behind. The bags have been tested by the CIPET (Central Institute of Plastics Engineering & Technology) lab and have also received approval from the Central Pollution Control Board. The Tamil Nadu government’s order banning the use of plastics permits [the use of ] such bags. After the announcement, a lot of companies have evinced interest in alternatives,” says Vasundhara Menon, distributor for Truegreen Compostable bags in Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
Sources in the Environment Department say they are studying alternatives to replace plastics. “Paper or cloth bags can be used. These do not pollute, and help reduce our carbon footprint. The steering committee on the plastic ban met recently, and they also discussed how the plastic industry could be helped. The government will ensure that the industry is not affected, since lakhs of people would lose their jobs [otherwise],” a department official says.
Some municipalities have issued notices to FMCG companies, asking them to take steps to reduce the use of multilayered plastics. “The ban on plastics is only the first step. We will include other kinds of pollutants, including multi-layer [plastics] in phases,” the official adds.
A proper system of segregation, collection and recycling must be put in place Sultan Ahmed Ismail Ecologist
Some FMCG leaders are already contemplating solutions to the issue. C.K. Ranganathan, Chairman and Managing Director of FMCG conglomerate CavinKare Pvt. Ltd., says, “We are working [on this] closely with the government through the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII).” Amrutanjan Healthcare Ltd., which shifted from manufacturing primarily glass bottles to plastics just a few years ago, is working with various plastic manufacturers to bring in recyclable plastics. “We are pushing for recyclable plastics,” says the firm’s Chairman and Managing Director, S. Sambhu Prasad.
However, environmentalists say regulations must be put in place, instead of leaving these groups to their own devices. Instead of pinning hope on their commitment to society, rules should govern which packaging materials can be used.
Widening the scope: Associations of plastic manufacturers across the State have urged the Tamil Nadu government to take into account the large volume of goods that come in pre-packed, multi-layered plastics.