Faulty policies allow unchecked use of multilayered plastic

The government has no clue how to deal with multilayered plastic and the industry has been aided by the government’s lackadaisical attitude

By Dinesh Raj Bandela, Swati Singh Sambyal
Last Updated: Friday 05 October 2018
Plastic wrapping
Getty images Getty images

Have you wondered what happens to the wrapper of a biscuit packet once you discard it? It stays in the environment forever because rag-pickers do not pick it up and the producers do not have a plan to meet their extended producer responsibility (EPR) to retrieve it from the open. The government too does not have a clue how to deal with these packets which are indestructible and add to garbage dumps. Such wrappers are made of multilayered plastic (MLP). Mostly, MLP packets have two sheets of plastic enclosing a layer of aluminium, but technically MLP can be any material that has at least one layer of plastic.

What makes the problem worse is the sheer volume of MLP waste. Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), an international alliance of non-profits and grassroots groups in over 90 countries, undertook a study in May 2018 in 250 sites across 15 cities in India and found that 53 per cent of plastic waste in the cities was MLP. “Due to low source segregation and lack of continuous supply of MLP to the industries, it is not recycled,” says Pratibha Sharma, Indian Coordinator-GAIA.

The industry has been aided by the government’s lackadaisical attitude. In 2016, the government passed the Plastic Waste Management Rules that mandated phasing out “non-recyclable multilayered plastic” in two years. But on March 27, 2018, it amended them and “non-recyclable multilayered plastic” was substituted with “multi-layered plastic which is non-recyclable or non-energy recoverable or with no alternate use”. This gave producers an escape route by claiming that the packaging material, if not recycled, can be put to some other use. MLP manufacturers used this loophole to continue to use the material. The 2016 rules also mandated companies to practise EPR and collect MLP that they have used to package their products. But they did not mandate a minimum percentage of the waste they must retrieve. Technically, companies can use MLP even if they retrieve just one per cent of what they sent in the market.

Moreover, manufacturers say that they cannot do without MLP. “Indian supply chain works in areas with sub-zero mercury levels as well in regions where temperatures reach 50°C. The humidity too is sometimes 100 per cent. Moisture and gas transmission rates through packaging materials go up with increase in temperature and humidity, but MLP can survive all that,” says an official with the Central Public Health and Environmental Engineering Organisation, on condition of anonymity. “An alternative material to match the performance of MLP is not yet available. However, we are working on mono materials and compostable laminates,” says Sanjib K Bezbaroa-vice president, Sustainability initiatives, ITC (see ‘Dealing with MLP’).

But till this material is developed, companies must focus on collecting and recycling MLP waste. This has started happening too, though mostly after government push. In Punjab, for instance, about 30 major food companies will launch an initiative with non-profit Punjab Plastic Waste Management Society, to collect MLP waste in the state on October 2. The initiative hopes to clean 95 per cent of the waste in the state by 2022, says the Punjab Pollution Control Board that forged the collaboration. Similar EPR initiatives are being carried out in other states. In response to a notice by Ramanathapuram municipal commissioner S Parthasarathy in August 2018, PepsiCo India said that it would soon start collecting the plastic waste generated by its products in Tamil Nadu. In Maharashtra, PepsiCo India announced a collaboration with Delhi-based company Gem Enviro to collect and recycle MLP waste and “PET bottles” of any brand.

Similarly “We care” initiative launched by five major food companies—PepsiCo India Holdings Pvt Ltd, Nestle India Ltd, Perfetti Van Melle India Pvt Ltd, Dabur India Ltd and Dharmpal Satyapal Ltd in Delhi, Noida, Gurugram, Faridabad, Ghaziabad, Chandigarh, Dehradun and Mumbai in November 2017, aims to develop a sustainable value chain for recovering MLP waste through rag-pickers. The companies have involved Indian Pollution Control Association (IPCA), a Delhi non-profit, to educate rag-pickers that they should collect MLP and pays them Rs 1.5-2/kg. “The MLP waste is sent to processing units in Delhi, Himachal Pradesh and Maharashtra. So far, we have saved 1,000 tonnes of MLP from ending up in landfills,” says Ashish Jain, director, IPCA.

The government needs to frame a comprehensive EPR policy with clear responsibilities of all the stakeholder throughout the lifecycle of MLP. Initiatives, like deposit-and-return schemes or advanced disposal fee, should be enforced. It is also necessary to bring the informal sector into the mainstream of plastic waste management.

Dealing with MLP
Multilayered plastic (MLP) waste is difficult to collect or treat. A look at what can be done with it

There are no proven industry solutions for tackling MLP. The only way is to recover aluminium and convert the plastic into a chemical or fuel via a process called pyrolysis. Collecting MLP too is tedious. In the US, Recycling Partnership, a consortium of companies and state governments, has put special bins for recyclable plastics, which includes MLP. Enval, a spin-off from the Department of Engineering, Cambridge University, provides the infrastructure for pyrolysis to recover 100 per cent aluminum. Plastic components are converted to fuel, which is used to power the process.

In India, MK Aromatics Ltd, a Bengaluru-based company, converts MLP into sulphur-free polymer oil. The impurities during the processing are collected as coke from which aluminium is extracted. MK Aromatics also treats the industrial MLP waste of Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL) and the oil manufactured is bought back by HUL.

Vikram Bhadauria, director of Gurugram-based company ALOK Masterbatches, says,"We have filed a patent for an MLP recycling machine we have created. You just put in MLP and the machine separates aluminum and plastic layers, which can then be recycled."

The story was first published in October 1-15 issue of DownToEarth

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