World Environment Day 2023: Extended Producer Responsibility, backed up by voluntary pledges, is the means to address plastics' environmental impact
The invention of plastic was a watershed moment for the contemporary world. The material’s durability and versatility led to major transformations across sectors. Products that were difficult to store, perishable, or too heavy to transport now had a solution that could counter these drawbacks and reach a much larger number of people. The applications of this ubiquitous material include transportation, packaging, and manufacturing of a wide range of consumer products, electronics, vehicles, and medical devices. Owing to its multiple applications, the world went from producing 1.5 million metric tons of plastic in 1950 to nearly 390 million metric tons in 2021.
However, today this non-biodegradable material presents multiple environmental challenges that include overflowing landfills, polluting marine ecosystems, and the infiltration of microplastics into food chains and the air. According to a study conducted by the Un-Plastic Collective, India single-handedly contributes to the global plastic crisis by producing 9.46 million tons of plastic waste annually. It's alarming to note that out of this massive output, 40% is not gathered for proper disposal, and 43% is attributed to single-use packaging materials.There is an urgent need to manage waste and explore alternative materials to curb the menace of plastics as they continue to threaten life on the planet.
Extended Producer Warranty (EPR) is a strategy for creating circularity for plastics and reducing the production of fresh plastics. As the name suggests, EPR places the responsibility of managing the environmental impact of products on the producer. EPR takes a life cycle approach, which includes the choice of materials used in the products, the impacts stemming from the manufacturing processes, and the utilization and eventual disposal of the products. Effectively, extended responsibilities often cover the costs related to the repair, reuse, or recycling of the product. They ensure that manufacturers play an active role in reducing the environmental impact of their products even after they are sold.
The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Government of India, introduced guidelines for Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) with respect to plastic packaging. The guidelines mandate quantifiable targets for plastic packaging waste recycling, the reuse of rigid plastic containers, and the incorporation of recycled content. By 2025, they will establish a recycling target of 30-50% for different types of plastic packaging and require 5-30% of recycled plastic content.
Recognizing the detrimental impact of plastic waste on our environment, several Indian companies have voluntarily taken up the mantle to reduce plastic waste. These actions precede legal obligations and highlight the dedication of the business sector toward environmental responsibility. One of the most significant voluntary initiatives in this regard is the India Plastics Pact. It seeks to unify businesses, solution providers, and NGOs, setting time-bound commitments to curb plastic usage across value chains. The pact's foundation lies in promoting a circular economy for plastics via innovative solutions to eliminate, reuse, or recycle plastic packaging.
Aligned with the principles of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's New Plastics Economy, the India Plastics Pact has set four ambitious targets:
1. Identify and address unnecessary or problematic plastic packaging and items via redesign and innovation.
2. Ensure 100% of plastic packaging is reusable or recyclable.
3. Achieve effective recycling of 50% of plastic packaging.
4. Incorporate an average of 25% recycled content across all plastic packaging.
The pact's overarching aim is to transition from the current linear plastics system to a circular plastics economy by 2030, bringing together diverse stakeholders to make this transformation possible.
Voluntary participation in the India Plastics Pact is just one example of how companies in India are adopting responsible plastic management practices. Several businesses have committed to offsetting the amount of packaging plastic used, extending the reach of recycling programs, and incorporating more recycled plastic in packaging by 2030.
Moreover, some organizations have developed robust plastic waste management systems, exceeding regulatory mandates. They have established collaborations with independent agencies known as Waste Management Agencies (WMAs), which direct plastic waste to approved recycling agencies. State-wise equitable targets are assigned to each WMA proportional to the product sale volumes, ensuring traceability, transparency, and accountability through digital technology and through independent audits at recycling and collection centres. The actual plastic consumption data is periodically reported to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). With the recent amendments to the Plastic EPR rules, CPCB is in the process of transitioning the entire process of assessing plastic use, estimating EPR liability, and approving recycling credits and offsets of EPR through its online portal.
Such concerted efforts are resulting in consistent progress towards meeting plastic waste management targets, with some companies offsetting more than 100% of their responsibilities. These companies have scaled up these initiatives to cover an increasing number of states and all types of packaging plastic they use. The commitment to reduce plastic use, ensure its reuse, and recycle plastic waste is an integral part of their strategy, demonstrating that corporate India is leading the charge towards a sustainable future.
It is evident that the plastic predicament demands not just policy changes and technological solutions, but a fundamental shift in how we produce, use, and manage this material. It is crucial that we continue innovating, reimagining, and fortifying these endeavours to truly conquer the monumental task of plastic waste management. A growing number of businesses are extending their responsibilities beyond legal obligations, underscoring a tangible sense of environmental accountability. As more businesses, individuals, and the government collaborate to rise to this challenge, the hope for a sustainable and plastic-free future seems within reach.
(The author is Head of Environment and Sustainability, Godrej & Boyce)