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‘EPR will become a reality for everyone’

Sanchita Jindal, Former Adviser (Scientist G), Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Government of India

In a conversation moderated by Ashish Jain, Director, Indian Pollution Control Association (IPCA) at the Waste Technology India Conference 2022, Sanchita Jindal, Former Adviser (Scientist G), Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Government of India spared no words while speaking about multiple amendments to the Plastic Waste Management Rules, confusion surrounding EPR (Extended Producer Responsibility) and why no organisation can afford to have an ostrich-in-the-sand approach to following them.

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Jain: Ever since the Plastic Waste Management Rules first came out, there were so many amendments made to them. Was there a gap between the real challenges on the ground and the process of framing rules?

Jindal: These days, plastic is in the limelight and is the talk of the town everywhere. In 2016, we made six waste management rules; I was the director of the division at the time and was involved in framing them. The draft rules were given enough publicity and we received a large number of the comments on these rules from various stakeholders. We received over 500 pages of comment on the Solid Waste Management Rules alone, and asked a few organisations to help us compile these comments.

Plastic was invented as an alternative to all earlier packaging materials like paper, wood, metal etc. Plastic was found to be so cheap that it became a necessity for the common man, especially for the people below poverty line. For them, plastic is such a boon!

Plastic per se is not a bad material. It is what we do or not do with it that makes all the difference. Having said that, we know that these days, plastic and its ill effects on various components of the environment have come to the fore. We keep learning about these.

The first rules on Plastic Waste Management were notified in 1990. Just as we have evolved and matured over the past 30 years, so have these rules. Rules cannot be static. As we learn more and get more experience, we change the rules as well, as per requirements. The Air and Water Acts are also going through the process of amendment; as the situation changes, we need to learn with time and adapt accordingly.

In 2016, the Plastic Waste Rules were not that evolved and we shouldn’t have been in a hurry to notify them. Only a few changes had been made between 2011 and 2016; probably a case of old wine in a new bottle. At that time, I was personally interested in bringing out complete packaging waste rules, not only plastic waste as is the present case. There is so much that is required for each kind of plastic to be handled in an environment-friendly manner.

However, we were constrained to notify. That is why currently, so many amendments are being made – which are all for the better, and for clarity – and many more will be needed. A lot of confusion prevails. We are in a hurry to do something about the problem and are still not taking a holistic approach.

Unfortunately, EPR rules are getting more and more complex. We need more clarity, and guidance on each of the rules.

Jain: Six years have passed, and only a handful of brand owners and producers are registered for EPR. Is there a lack of willingness in the industry to adopt EPR?

Jindal: Enough publicity has been generated and the smallest of plastic producers/users is aware that there is something called EPR and that he/she has to do something about the plastic/packaging items being produced/used. I won’t believe that people who are in the industry do not know about EPR requirements, rules and regulations.

Having said that, my impression is that plastic producers and brand owners who are conscious and of a certain size are trying to implement the guidelines. Big brands have already foreseen that the implementation of EPR will be required by each and every producer/brand owner. It is coming sooner or later. Some of them have started implementing the notification voluntarily. As of now, the government has shifted its focus from penaltes under EPA to environmental compensation.

These environmental compensations are quite heavy. These are not penalties like earlier, where governments and industries kept fighting in court for 10 years and more without any decision, while the damage to the environment continued. Now, the compensation is being levied by CPCB and SPCBs and NGTs.

Producers/brand owners who foresee that these rules are going to be enforced strictly and are law-abiding or conscious about it, are implementing them. But the general tendency of producers is to avoid them. I have seen this from the beginning, when EPR was introduced.

For example, in the beginning, Amul refused to implement EPR; they refused to take back the milk pouches. They had made a statement that they would stop supplying milk if they were compelled to do so. Earlier, these were the kind of answers we used to get from brand owners. But now, the representative of Amul has just informed us that they have started implementing the rules.

Even some top notch companies are trying to avoid implementation until the CPCB or SPCB sends them a notice. Perhaps they have a ‘we’ll deal with it when it becomes a problem’ attitude.

In many European countries, it has taken 20-30 years for EPR systems to be established, and they are still evolving with experience. We in India are also going to take some time; it is just the beginning. But we are definitely progressing faster than those Western countries; we now have a digital portal for EPR in place.

EPR will become a reality for everyone and I would advise all plastic producers and brand owners to start implementing it as soon as possible.

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