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Reducing waste is key as phase-out won’t be easy

PUBLISHED ON OCT 13, 2019 12:08 AM IST

New Delhi: The phasing out of single-use plastic bags may be feasible, but doing away with plastic packaging is a challenge as there is lower acceptability of alternatives and higher carbon footprint involved in large-scale manufacturing, use and disposal of alternatives like glass, cloth and paper, experts say.

A Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) report last year on the life-cycle assessment of plastic packaging products showed the total energy consumed and carbon emissions from plastic packaging products in comparison with alternatives. For example, the carbon dioxide equivalent emissions during the entire life cycle (extraction of raw material, manufacturing, transportation, use and disposal) of one tonne of glass bottles is 9905.6 kg compared to 8034.6 kg for a tonne of PET bottles and 4099.4 kg for a tonne of milk pouches. Similarly, the CO2 emissions from life cycle of a tonne of polypropylene (PP woven) sacks is 3871.2 kg compared to 5865.8 kg for a ton of jute sacks.

“Most alternatives for plastic packaging, including paper and glass, have a higher energy and carbon footprint. The most important aspect of waste management is to reduce and make choices that will last long. For example, instead of using paper or plastic cups, use a durable mug at work.” said Sourabh Manuja, a fellow at the Energy and Resources Institute (TERI).

Another challenge is that the plastic industry has not found an alternative to multilayered plastic (MLP) used mainly in food packaging as wrappers on biscuit or chips pack, for example.

The Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016, specified that “manufacture and use of non- recyclable multilayered plastic, if any, should be phased out in two years”. But after the industry bodies petitioned the Union environment ministry saying there are no alternatives to MLP, an amendment to the rules was made in 2018, saying only those MLPs are to be phased out which are “non-recyclable, or non-energy recoverable, or with no alternate use.”

Since most MLPs can be used for energy recovery, the amendment pretty much exempted all MLPs from being phased out.

The environment ministry, in its advisory issued to states on phasing out of single-use plastics (WHEN), also said that MLPs used for perishable items will not be prohibited because there are no replacement technologies available.

According to a TERI and environment ministry fact sheet released last year, around 43% of manufactured plastics are used for packaging purpose and most are of single-use.

The CPCB has estimated that each person in India consumes about 9.7 kg of plastics annually, most of which is packaging related. A relatively new addition to the burden of plastic waste is packaging from e-commerce.

According to an analysis by Pricewaterhouse Coopers, the current e-commerce market of $35 billion in India is expected to grow at a 25% compound annual growth rate over the next five years. Some e-commerce companies are already assessing cleaner alternatives to packaging.

Amazon India, for example, announced last month that it will eliminate single-use plastic from its packaging by June 2020. It will introduce paper cushions, which will replace air pillows and bubble wraps.

Flipkart announced earlier this month that it plans to use 100% recycled plastic in its own supply chain by March 2021. It plans to introduce paper shreds, replace poly pouches with recycled paper bags, bubble wraps and air bags with carton waste shredded material.

Bioplastics are also being considered as an alternative to some packaging. Biodegradable plastic which utilises starch, cellulose, polylactic acid as raw materials can be used for short term use products.

“Bags made of bio-plastics can cost 2.5 times more than regular plastic. Demand for these are less because of the high cost. There needs to be much more research and development in this sector. Also, bioplastics are not water-resistant,” said Manuja.

“Plastics came as a remedy for the inadequacies of other packaging material which was being used. For example, glass is an energy guzzler and heavy. Paper has a huge eco footprint because of water consumption, usage of chemicals and tree felling involved. We cannot avoid PET or plastic. Even the paper cups we use are lined with polythene to make them water resistant. Plastic has a lot of virtues,” said Vijay Habbu, adjunct professor at the Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai.

Habbu added that the development of alternative material will not happen in a few years. “Instead the government should ensure behaviour change among citizens, better disposal and collection by local governments and the industry. Only those that are already a nuisance like carry bags, straws, cutlery made of flimsy plastic can be phased out. The government should come out with a clear policy. A feature of plastics, PET is their importance during natural calamities. Water is the most critical need delivered in PET bottles.”

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