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Indian Government backs down on impractical plastic ban

Indian Government backs down on impractical plastic ban, Packaging, Asia, India, legislation
The Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests has backed down from an earlier attempt to place a blanket ban on the manufacture, use and sale of non-recyclable plastic/metallic pouches, multi-layered packaging and other non-recyclable plastics.

On 17 September 2009, the Ministry originally gazetted a 10 page Draft Notification “Plastics (Manufacture, Usage and Waste Management) Rules 2009” which

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proposed sweeping changes to the plastic packaging industry in India covering biodegradable plastics, compostable plastic, plastic bags as well as flexible laminated packaging pouches. Industry stakeholders were given until 15 November 2009 to object or make suggestions.

However, on 4 February 2011, the Ministry gazetted an entirely new set of regulations, Plastic Waste (Management & Handling) Rules 2011, that supersedes the 2009 regulations entirely turning the legislative focus away from the production of plastic towards the establishment of proper waste management systems.

In recent years plastic packaging come under a High Court directed spotlight from two different directions; poor municipal waste management and health:  

Following severe flooding in Mumbai, which was blamed on plastic choking the city’s sewers, the State Government imposed a ban, effective from September 24 2005. Other states rapidly followed suit with Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Jammu & Kashmir, Kerala and West Bengal, imposing their own diverse local rules to limit the use of plastic bags, and from 2 October 2009, the Himalayan stare of Himachal Pradesh imposed a ban on the production, storage, use, sale and distribution of all types of bags made of non-biodegradable materials.

These bans were appealed by industry which took their complaints to the Supreme Court in New Delhi. The Court directed Justice Copra to establish a committee to investigate and report back with its findings.

According to Joint Secretary for the Environment Ministry Rajiv Gauba, the original 2009 Plastics (Manufacture, Usage and Waste Management) Rules followed the ‘findings of the Chopra Committee formed at the direction of the Delhi High Court, while hearing a case related to the plastic menace in the national capital."

Tobacco pouches banned

Meanwhile, on 18 December 2010, the Supreme Court of India December 7, 2010, during the hearing of a batch of petitions filed by manufacturers of tobacco products, which challenged a Rajasthan High Court order upholding the 2009 ban in that State, the Bench ordered a specific ban on the sale of tobacco, gutka and pan masala in plastic pouches from 1 March 2011.

Gutkha is a concoction of crushed areca nut (betel nut), tobacco, catechu, paraffin, lime mixed with sweet or savoury flavourings. Also banned is the plastic packaging for pan masala (seeds and nuts often chewed after a meal as a mouth freshener) and chewing tobacco.

Typically sold in single portion packs these products are sold across India for less than US$0.13 and while having a mildly narcotic effect are also the largest single cause of mouth cancer in India. In 2008 an estimated five million children under 15 were addicted to gutkha with oral cancers detected in around 16% of these.

The Plastic Manufacturers’ Associations reacted quickly to the new regulations banning gutkha packaging: Maharashtra Association President, Bansilal S Lunkad said "The plastic material used for packaging tobacco goods is cheap and has a longer shelf life than paper. Similarly, foodstuffs when packaged in plastic have a longer shelf life. Also, recycled plastic costs less," Maharashtra has about 3,000 plastic carry bag manufacturing units of which some 60-70 are located in Pune, these are estimated to produce between 200-250 tonnes of plastic packaging daily.

The court’s response was to state, “This court’s decision will be better for the country” and ordered the Government of India to implement plastic regulations by 1 March 2011.  

In a statement accompanying the new regulations, Mr Jairam Ramesh, Minister for Environment and Forests said “It is impractical and undesirable to impose a blanket ban on the use of plastic all over the country.  The real challenge is to improve municipal solid waste management systems.

“In addition to the privatization and mechanization of the solid waste management systems, we must be sensitive to the needs and concerns of the lakhs (thousands) of people involved in the informal sector.”
Unlike the earlier effort, the new regulations do not attempt to group all forms of plastic packaging as being evil pollutants, but take a more measured approach.]

Key New Features

From a plastic packaging production perspective, the regulations do ban outright the use of plastic sachets for gutka and pan masala packaging, in line with the Supreme Court decision.

  • Foodstuffs will not be permitted to be packed in recycled plastics or compostable bags.
  • Recycled bags shall conform to Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) standards.
  • Plastic carry bags shall be either white, or coloured using pigments in compliance with BIS standards for food-contact colourants.
  • The carry bags must not be less than 40 microns thick. Earlier regulations had specified that the minimum thickness was to be 20 microns.
In recent years, however, various State Governments had imposed their own technical specifications as to what was acceptable in their State, each of these varied in thickness, with the effect that it was impossible to produce bags in compliance with these different regulations. The Ministry now ‘expects that the 40 micron norm will become a uniform standard across the country.”

The regulations now specify a minimum size of 8”x12” for all plastic carry bags, all previous regulations governing minimum bag sizes of 12” x 18” have been superseded.

All carry bags must be marked with the name, registration number of the manufacturer, the bag’s thickness and in a complete reversal, the new regulations permit carry bags to be made from compostable plastics, providing they comply to BIS standards, and are marked as being either recyclable or compostable.

Waste Management
In a deft maneuver the national government shifted future waste management responsibility and liability to municipal authorities in the new Plastic Waste (Management & Handling) Rules 2011, which may divert upcoming lawsuits from the Supreme Court to State Benches.

The new regulations require municipal authorities to “constructively engage companies or groups, particularly the informal waste pickers, in waste management”.

Specifically, Municipal authorities are to “ensure safe collection, storage, separation transportation, processing and disposal of plastic waste. That open burning of plastic waste is prohibited by local by-laws and that no environmental damage is done in the process.

Extended Producer Responsibility
The regulations also hand-off two important EPR functions to municipal authorities:

No carry bags shall be made available free of cost to consumers, the municipal governments are given the authority to determine the minimum price to be charged for the bags.

Additionally municipal authorities are to ensure that centers for the collection of plastic waste, are set up by the plastic manufacturers.

This paves the way for the introduction of localized taxes on plastic bags.

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