World Environment Day 2023: With the introduction of environmentally friendly alternatives, we must lay the foundation for a sustainable future
The rise in global population has led to a critical environmental issue - plastic pollution. As per the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) data, plastic waste generation is set to almost triple by 2060, with about half ending up in landfills and oceans.
Such increase in plastic waste generation poses an immense threat to the environment and human health. Hence, adequate measures are required to be taken throughout the lifecycle of plastics (production, design and disposal) to curb the rise in plastic pollution. Recently, the 2nd session of the intergovernmental negotiating committee (part of the United Nations Environment Assembly) was conducted at UNESCO headquarters in Paris to discuss and develop the first international, legally binding treaty to tackle plastic pollution.
India is the fifth-highest generator of plastic waste and produces more than 430 million tonnes of plastic every year, out of which around 280 million tonnes are single-use and not recycled or reused.
In light of such increased plastic generation in India, the Government of India (“Union Government”) implemented Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016 (“PWM Rules”) and related guidelines to focus, inter-alia, on two key aspects: (I) effective plastic waste management through extended producer responsibility (“EPR”) framework; and (II) banning single-use plastic. Under the EPR framework, the producers, importers and brand owners (“PIBOs”) of goods are made accountable for the end-of-life of their plastic products. This approach encourages companies to design products that are easier to recycle and creates responsibility on PIBOs to collect generated plastic waste and accordingly process it by way of recycling, reuse, or destruction, as applicable. The PWM Rules prescribe yearly targets for different classes of PIBOs, (known as EPR targets) to ensure that the relevant entities are focusing on recycling and reusing plastics.
The only exception to the EPR norms is for entities that use plastic packaging with 100% biodegradable materials (i.e., plastics that decompose naturally in the environment under specific conditions, excluding microplastics and other plastic residues that have a detrimental environmental impact). The PWM Rules also mandate that each plastic carry bag must have a name and the registration number of the producer or brand owner.
Further, in 2022, the Union Government identified 19 single-use plastic items and prohibited the production, import, stock, distribution, or sale of such items, including straws, cutlery, earbuds, packaging films, and plastic carry bags (less than 120 microns).
Additionally, the Union Government and various state governments have created a special task force to conduct regular enforcement drives to implement a ban on identified single-use plastic items and on plastic carry bags.
Despite governmental actions, there hasn’t been a significant impact on the ground. The initiatives have to therefore increase substantially including, programs such as effective public engagement, concerted action by end consumers (refusal to use), and research and development by relevant industry experts and stakeholders to introduce innovative, eco-friendly and sustainable alternatives such as biodegradable polymers, chemical recycling, genetic engineering of natural products, etc. Innovation is also needed in separation and recycling techniques, which can help create a circular economy for plastics. It is pertinent for manufacturers to come up with eco-friendly alternatives at every step of the production process, including the usage of sustainable raw materials, to curb both the production of plastic products and the mass accumulation of unusable plastic waste. In the context of electric vehicles (“EVs”), with rising demand for EVs globally, there is a rising demand for plastic-engineered products (such as bumpers, powertrains, connectors, cables etc.), owing to the lightweight, mechanical strength, chemical, and heat resistance properties of plastic (as compared to metals or glass). Indian EV companies are making strides in addressing concerns regarding the management of plastic components in EVs. For instance, Tata Motors, one of India's leading automobile manufacturers, has committed to using recycled plastic components in EVs.
Similarly, Mahindra Electric, another key player in the Indian EV market, is exploring bio-based plastics and other sustainable materials for its vehicles. Moreover, the Indian EV industry is also focusing on the end-of-life management of EV batteries, which often contain plastic components.
Battery recycling initiatives have also been implemented to recover and reuse valuable materials from end-of-life EV batteries, thereby reducing plastic waste.
Plastic waste management requires a multi-faceted approach involving individuals, businesses, governments, and organizations at all levels. By implementing strategies such as reducing consumption, improving recycling infrastructure, promoting innovation, and educating the public, we can create a sustainable future where plastic waste is minimized and managed effectively.
It is our collective responsibility to take action and make conscious choices to protect our planet from the harmful impacts of plastic waste. India's plastic pollution crisis is daunting, yet the country's innovative spirit and regulatory action provide hope. The developments in the EV industry are surely setting the stage for a sustainable future with the initiation of eco-friendly alternatives. These, coupled with robust waste management techniques, can provide valuable lessons for other nations.
(Saurav Kumar, Swathi Sreenath and Saurabh Raman are Partner, Principal Associate and Senior Associate, IndusLaw)