Draft extended producer responsibility policy: How gaps in achieving fundamental goals can be closed

The draft incorporates important objectives but leaves out some fundamental ones

By Siddharth Ghanshyam Singh
Published: Monday 06 December 2021
Draft extended producer responsibility policy: How gaps in achieving fundamental goals can be closed. Photo: iStock

Extended producer responsibility (EPR) is a critical policy mechanism that helps advance the circular economy, decreases the environmental impact from a product and its packaging, and promotes the principle of “polluter pays” by holding the producer accountable for the entire lifecycle of the product.

The objectives of EPR are as follows:

  • Integration of environmental costs
  • Improved waste management
  • Reduction of disposal 
  • Reduction of burden on municipalities
  • Design of environmentally sound products

The Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) released a draft EPR policy for management of plastic waste in India on October 6, 2021. Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) has sent its suggestions and recommendations to MoEFCC, laying out the key achievements and issues with the draft policy on EPR of plastics. 

The Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016 introduced the concept of EPR to manage plastics in India. While the EPR is at a nascent stage in the Indian sub-continent, the last five years have failed to translate policy into action, due to the lack of accountability from the producers and lack of enforcement from the authorities. The latest draft rules have managed to take a small step in the right direction.

Achievements of the draft EPR policy:

  • Brand owners and e-commerce players have been brought under the ambit of EPR
  • EPR is now applicable to both pre-consumer and post-consumer plastic packaging waste
  • Producers and brand owners (PIBO) have finally been assigned targets for collection of plastic waste that they put out in the market
  • Provisions and targets for collection, re-use (by brand owners), recycling (by PIBOs) and use of recycled plastic (by PIBOs) have been laid out. 
  • Bi-annual plastic characterisation studies.

However, a lot of basic elements of EPR for efficient waste management have been neglected. 

Policy recommendations:

  • Include the first principle of waste management — plastic waste reduction / minimisation — in the EPR mandate

The waste hierarchy can be found in most of the guidelines released by MoEFCC and Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). It lays out the order of priority for the most preferred and the least-preferred option for managing all the streams of waste. The most preferred option for management is waste minimisation.


Source: Central Pollution Control Board, CPCB

Unfortunately, this is perceived and left alone as a theoretical option and we never try to translate this into action. 

The draft EPR policy is no different. It talks about all the forms of management from reuse to end of life disposal, conveniently leaving out the most-preferred option of plastic waste reduction / minimisation. 

What’s interesting is that the draft policy clause 1.2 reads “The Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016, mandate the generators of plastic waste to take steps to minimise generation of plastic waste….” This, however, is not applicable to the PIBOs.

One of the most important pillars of EPR is to encourage manufacturers, producers, importers and brand owners responsible for plastic waste to minimise / reduce the amount of plastics they introduce in the market through their products. The ‘polluter pays’ principle, on which the waste management rules are based, failed to translate to policy.

Through the new EPR policy in India, the brand owners should be encouraged to gradually decrease the amount of plastics they introduce in the market by adopting alternatives such as paper, glass, metals, among other things. 

Offering a diverse range of packaging material, apart from plastics to the consumers. This should be strengthened by incentives in the form of EPR certificates to the brand owners who diversify their packaging and reduce the amount of plastics they put out in the market. This will also help the brands to develop a green image, especially among conscious consumers.

  • Compostable and biodegradable plastics should have an EPR mandate of collection and processing

Plastic waste management is defined in the rules as “collection, storage, transportation, reduction, re-use, recovery, recycling, composting or disposal of plastic waste in an environmentally safe manner”. 

Globally, 1 per cent of the entire plastics produced are from non-fossil sources and are known by various names like bio-plastics, compostable plastics and biodegradable plastics. This means that India generates more than 250 tonnes of compostable and biodegradable plastic every day. 

Whether a biodegradable or a compostable plastic breaks down and the rate of breakdown depends on the conditions it is exposed to once it is disposed of. These include temperature, duration, microbial presence, nutrients, oxygen and moisture. 

Different types of biodegradable and compostable plastics are designed to break down under “certain” conditions. In other conditions, they may biodegrade slowly, not biodegrade at all or fragment into microplastics.

Source: European Environment Agency (EEA)

Testing, certification and proper labelling become an important aspect when we are promoting products like biodegradable and compostable plastics.

European standards exist for assessing the compost-ability of plastics in industrial composting plants and the biodegradability of mulch films in soil for the use in agriculture. Plastic materials or products fulfilling these standards may be certified and labelled accordingly. 

India does have standards for compostable plastic (Schedule I of the Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2021). But the certification and labelling mechanism is very weak and needs to be addressed through policy.

The most recent ISO 17088:2021 (plastics-organic recycling-specifications for compostable plastics) explicitly mentions that the “aspects are suitable to assess the effects on the industrial composting process”. It is also mentioned that these standards are “not applicable to biological treatment undertaken in small installations by householders”. 

This underlying message that compostable plastic should be channelised to industrial composting facilities and cannot be composted at home or littered in the environment is found nowhere in the policy document or even the guidelines.

Moreover, it is important to note that India does not have such facilities. These are either littered, harming the environment or even if they make it to a plastic recycling facility, they end up contaminating the batch of fossil-based plastic that could have been recycled. 

This happens because of poor labelling and weak understanding of handling of compostable plastics. Given this, clause 7.9 from the draft should be removed and compostable / biodegradable plastic should also be bought under the ambit of EPR. 

It is important to note and understand that even compostable plastics have to be channelised to relevant facilities (industrial composting units) for proper treatment and processing.

Definition of “industrial composting” should be added to the list of definitions in the EPR policy as well as plastic waste management rules. 

  • Ambiguity around the action plan to be submitted by PIBOs

It is mandatory for PIBOs to submit an action plan, according to the draft EPR policy. The template for the action plan, however, is not discussed or provided anywhere. The “must, should and could” elements have not been talked about. 

This will result in a non-standardised action plan submitted by various PIBOs with redundant data, which will not be comparable.

The PIBOs will have to engage with producer responsibility organisation / waste management agency and tie up with plastic recyclers / processors as a part of their EPR, disclosing channelising partners and recycling / processors partners should be a part of the action plan to be submitted on the centralised portal developed by the CPCB.

Hence, a standard template, developed by CPCB in consultation with all the stakeholders, is a must. This will ensure receipt of relevant and standardised data, which can be comparable across all the PIBOs. it will also help us verify and avoid duplication of data.

  • Lack of transparency in the proposed process

The centralised portal developed by CPCB is a closed door portal, which can only be accessed by the PIBO’s, plastic waste processors / recyclers, SPCBs / PCCBs and CPCB. 

Plastic waste processors are supposed to disclose the total amount of plastic waste handled on their website. This will also be available on the centralised CPCB portal. The PIBOs, however, have not been directed to disclose the amount of plastic they placed in the market. 

Brand owners who will disclose their plastic footprint will not be able to greenwash their brand or position themselves as a low carbon-footprint organisation, thereby misleading consumers, as they may end up contradicting the information available in public domain. This will place more accountability on the shoulders of PIBOs, especially brand owners.

  • Inclusion of the informal sector in the draft EPR

The CSE report Integration of the informal sector in solid waste management: Strategies and approaches mentions: 

While the informal sector’s waste recycling operations are unlicensed and unregulated, they can potentially contribute to the national economy. The informal waste management sector turns waste into usable and tradable goods. New businesses emerge; trade networks develop; capital is accumulated and invested; and raw material transportation and energy costs are reduced due to interventions of the informal sector. 

Most informal waste management operations generate a net profit, according to reports. In contrast, most formal waste management operations generate a net expense. 

Hence, the informal sector should be included in the draft EPR policy as most of the plastics in India are channelised by the informal sector. This fact is acknowledged by the government agencies and ministries alike. 

The draft EPR notifications achieve a handful of meaningful objectives of extended producer responsibility, but they also fail to include and incorporate the fundamental objectives of EPR. CSE, through its recommendations, attempts to fill in the gaps to make the EPR policy more inclusive and efficient.

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