On 2 March 2022, the gavel came down on a historic resolution at the resumed fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-5.2) in Nairobi, Kenya to end plastic pollution and forge an international legally binding agreement by 2024. Heads of State, ministers of environment, and other representatives from 175 nations endorsed this landmark agreement that addresses the full lifecycle of plastic from source to sea. Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), said the agreement is the most important international multilateral environmental deal since the Paris climate accord.
Plastic production has risen exponentially in the last decades and now amounts to some 400 million tons per year – a figure set to double by 2040. Both Indian government statements in parliament and reports of research by non-profit organizations suggest that India generates 26,900 tons of plastic waste daily which amounts to approximately 9.8 million metric tons annually. Although this number needs to be verified, the implication, even if the number is higher – is that currently 14% of the world’s population only produces 2.5% of its plastic waste. In other words India and its industries have a historic and doable opportunity to clean up their act.
The UNEA resolution to tackle plastic pollution including marine ecosystems contains both binding and voluntary approaches from member states to curb plastic pollution. It aims to address the entire lifecycle of plastic, from sustainable production and consumption to what is called ‘environmentally sound’ waste management. Countries will be responsible for developing national action plans to prevent, reduce and eliminate plastic pollution.
“Plastic pollution has grown into an epidemic,” said Espen Barth Eide, President of UNEA-5 and Norway’s Minister for Climate and the Environment, in a press release. “With today’s resolution, we are officially on track for a cure.” Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN Environment Program (UNEP), called the resolution the most significant environmental multilateral deal since the Paris accord.
Plastics are not easily if at all recyclable
There is an important commentary published by Down to Earth, the platform of the Center for Science and Environment based in New Delhi on the UNEA 5.2 that points out plastic does not lend itself to circularity at all and that it is both difficult to recycle and poisonous to burn for energy. This report republished by The Daily Hunt quotes several experts that the only viable alternative is to reduce the use of plastic and to reuse them.
The DTE report quotes Espen Barth Eide, Norway’s minister of climate and the environment, who said during the meeting. “Plastics cannot fit in a circular economy before the many harmful chemicals they contain are eliminated. Even though they have value, their recycling has to be done safely and in a healthy way.”
The report also quotes Kirils Jegorovs, the co-founder of German packing solution company, Circolution who said that one way of ensuring that the reduction of plastics was by making containers for goods that are returnable after use, as it happened with beer bottles, and putting in place shared infrastructure for cleaning used containers. Jegorovs said reuse was the most ideal way out, prolonging a product’s life, ensuring that the need for buying a similar container did not arise.
Nestle, one of the biggest food companies globally, acknowledges that recycling polymers would neither work nor was it sustainable. According to the CSE report, Nestle has been working on a pilot project that seeks to introduce reusable food packaging in nine different countries around the world, with the aim of attaining a target of having “both reusable and recyclable packaging by 2025.” According to the company’s chief executive, Mark Schneider, “Nestle will scale up efforts in finding reusable food packaging while working to ensure that it does not compromise on food safety.”
As a result, Nestle is setting reuse standards while installing waste collection bins in cities around the world. “As a company, we must pack food safely at all times. We are conducting customer education on the importance of reuse and we have achieved plastic neutrality in nine countries,” Schneider said. He added that the food manufacturer and a hundred others at the UNEA 5.2 meeting in Nairobi were advocating a ‘robust’ plastics treaty that will also spell out good regulations for all concerned.
The resolution suggests that countries should take into account ‘national circumstances’ and capabilities in implementing national-level actions to address plastic pollution. According to an Indian government press release, this clause was put into the text of the resolution at India’s insistence to allow developing countries to follow their development trajectories. A draft resolution submitted by the Indian government was one of the three draft resolutions to address plastic pollution considered by UNEA. “India also stood for not mandating the intergovernmental negotiating committee with development of targets, definitions, formats, and methodologies, at this stage, pre-judging the outcome of deliberations of the Committee,” adds the government’s press release. Union environment minister Bhupender Yadav called it a “historic step” in a tweet.
Indian prime minister Narendra Modi launched its ‘Swatch Bharat’ campaign as early as 2014 and the central government raised the issues of plastic waste and especially single-use plastics, several times including its waste management rules and orders of 2016, that were subsequently modified and diluted in 2018 and with the latest set of rules has phased out the use of single-use plastics on plastic straws, earbuds, water bottles and several types of food packaging such as wrapping film.
However, the prime minister’s announcements in 2018 and 2019 that the country would phase out single-use plastics by 2022 have not seen concrete action on the ground. The environment ministry recently notified the new Plastic Waste Management Amendment Rules 2022, making it mandatory for plastic carry bags to be at least 120 microns thick, to take effect from 31 December 2022.
Plastic packaging in Europe and India
While the European CEFLEX rules have specified 2025 as the year by which all plastic packaging will have to be recyclable or demonstrably part of the circular economy, the UNEA resolution to end plastic pollution by 2024 brings renewed urgency to the flexible, semi-rigid, and rigid plastic packaging industry. For the Indian packaging industry, there is some confusion because the waste management rules when they were modified in 2018, also accepted burning plastic waste to generate energy as a form of recycling.
Notwithstanding this confusion, several states have banned plastic packaging and the use of thin carry bags and have imposed extended user responsibility for collecting and recycling plastic waste. At the same time, several groups for waste collection and recycling have come up in the country which include brand owners, polymer and film suppliers, plastic packaging converters, waste collection, and recycling companies.
Notably, global investors have also set up funds to finance this process. Also, many consumer product brand owners and packaging material suppliers have built plants that can manufacture single polymer packaging which is much easier to recycle and to be recycled laterally and not merely into inferior value products. However, there is a significant pipeline of plastic film manufacturing machines that are being installed each month. These machines, if not used to produce recyclable materials are likely to add considerable plastic waste into the ecosystem.
Clarity on the plastic waste management rules is especially urgent for the packaging industry in light of the 2025 CEFLEX deadline in Europe. Moreover, the historic United Nations Environment Agency resolution signed in Nairobi on 2 March 2022 by 175 nations sets 2024 as the year to end plastic pollution. The Indian packaging industry its brand owner customers now have an additional impetus to do their share in ending plastic pollution.