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BW Businessworld

Needed: Flexible Alternatives

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On 17 November, the plastics (manufacture, Usage and Waste Management) Rules 2009 came into force. This effectively bans usage of ‘flexible packaging materials'. In other words, plastics used in packing materials, from milk and food packets to tablets to condoms. The rationale behind this ban is that the plastic used in such packaging leaves behind a huge trail of wastage in nature.

On the face of it, this is a corrective step taken by the government to save the earth from further pollution. However, it throws up a host of other issues. For one, the government notification is in direct conflict with many of the existing Acts and provisions of other ministries. Industry representatives say that the notification contradicts government rules such as Prevention of Food Adulteration, Edible Oil Packaging Order, the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, Standards of Weights and Measures Act and Standards of Weight and Measures (Packaged Commodity) Rules 1977, all of which set standard for plastic being used for packaging. This only indicates the lack of coordination amongst the various government departments.

There is also a lack of focus on waste management techniques and effective disposal systems in the country. A blanket ban on packaging materials, especially those used in food and medical products, will have health and economic implications.

"Globally, there is no ban on the flexible packaging material," says P.V. Narayanan, CEO of Paper, Film & Foil Converters' Association. The plastic industry continues to cry foul and have even forwarded an alternative mechanism for the government to consider. But it does not indicate what the industry is willing to do on its part to safeguard environment. They argue that the consumers would be deprived of hygienic food and pharmaceutical products, and warn that there would be enormous job losses in the packaging sector.

Former cricketer Vijay Merchant, who is also a member of the governing council of Indian Centre for Plastics in the Environment, points out that the notification is a departure from the understanding arrived at with the environment ministry on limited use of flexible packaging material in the health and food industry.

Globally, plastic manufacturers' associations or individual companies manage waste collection in cooperation with the local civic bodies. There are also taxes that are levied on usage of plastic products, clearly assigning the responsibility on the manufacturers as well as users to pay for management of waste disposal. Therefore, the Indian plastics and flexible packaging industry needs to share part of their profits to save the environment.

Specialised packaging is critical for medicines, food and perishable products. There are alternatives to plastics such as glass, tin and paper; but the government and industry need to work in tandem rather than in vacuum to manage the cost and environment aspects of such alternatives.

Therefore, unless and until proper alternatives are worked out, a blanket ban like this is not going to work. So, will the government take a re-look at the notification? "We are examining it, but do not jump to conclusions," says a joint secretary in the Ministry of Environment & Forests. The thinking in the government is that a stringent law like this is necessary to prompt the industry to use disposable packaging.

"Globally, there is strict and voluntary adherence of basic rules like coding of every plastic material and its use, but not in India," says an environment ministry official.

Both the government, in seeking to introduce rules to save environment, and the industry, in helping offer quality material, plead to safeguard the interest of the users. However, their actions do not reflect their intent.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 30-11-2009)