Sustainable Plastics: EPR is Driving Change in India

EPR act in India

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is a worldwide policy tool that redefines responsibility for managing product plastic waste and emphasises sustainability. Within an EPR framework, the responsibility for managing plastic waste shifts from the end consumer and government authorities, such as municipal corporations, to producers, manufacturers, and brand owners. Germany pioneered the establishment of an EPR system in the 1990s, specifically for packaging, leading the way among early adopters globally.

In the year 2022, it was estimated that 360 million metric tons of plastic waste were generated globally, with the Asia Pacific, North America, and Europe accounting for 40%, 25%, and 10% of the total waste generation. The realisation that manufacturers have a crucial role in minimising the environmental impact of their products throughout their lifecycle, from production to disposal, gave rise to the development of an EPR framework, under which manufacturers are legally and financially accountable for their products throughout their entire lifecycle. This is an effort to promote eco-friendly product design, reduce waste generation at both post-industrial and post-consumer levels, and encourage the practice of reuse, recycling, and correct disposal techniques for plastic consumed in the packaging of products.

As the leading producer of waste globally, countries in the Asia Pacific – including India – have taken a great leap toward environmental sustainability through the adoption of an EPR Act, which was introduced in India in 2016 and came into force in 2022.

EPR goals in the Indian context

The EPR Act in India envisions the achievement of a number of goals. These include:

– The minimisation of waste: One of the primary goals of the EPR Act is to reduce waste generation. Producers are encouraged to develop highly efficient manufacturing processes to reduce the generation of post-industrial waste and environmentally sound products that are durable, repairable, and recyclable, leading to a reduction in post-consumer plastic waste generation.
– Resource conservation: The EPR Act strives to protect non-renewable natural resources such as cellulose, coal, natural gas, salt, crude oil, and talc, which are utilized in the manufacturing of plastic. This can be effectively done by promoting responsible product design, sustainable packaging, and an efficient recycling ecosystem. Additionally, it can help drastically lower India’s import bills for fossil fuels such as coal and crude oil.
– More effective recycling: The Act encourages producers to establish mechanisms for the collection, recycling, and reuse of their products. This will reduce the burden on landfills and incineration facilities and lead to a reduction in environmental pollution.
– Environmental awareness: Another critical goal of the EPR Act is to raise awareness among producers and consumers about the environmental impact of products. This fosters a culture of taking responsibility and embracing sustainability among the citizens.
– Boost to sustainable packaging solutions: The obligations under the Act will encourage the packaging industry to shift towards sustainable alternatives such as bioplastics, compostable plastics, and mono-material packaging solutions that are easier to recycle. In the foreseeable future, significant advancements in these alternative materials are anticipated.
– Transformation of the plastic recycling industry: In India, the plastic recycling industry is predominantly unorganized, with over 80% of the market being dominated by small-scale recyclers with a capacity of less than 0.5 KTPA (over 10,000 recyclers). These recyclers don’t have a streamlined ecosystem or cutting-edge technology.

Furthermore, the waste collectors—who are a crucial component of the entire recycling value chain—work in appalling conditions, earn little money, and lack essentials including masks and gloves, which puts them at risk of serious illnesses. The entire ecosystem must be transformed to enhance the standard of living for these waste collectors, also referred to as “rag pickers” and to fortify the sector using contemporary operational techniques and technology.

Impacts: Value chain cooperation

Business collaborations appear to be an evident impact of the implementation of India’s EPR Act: a significant number of partnerships have arisen in the plastic recycling ecosystem in the wake of the EPR Act’s emergence.

Dow, a leader in material science, has partnered with Lucro Plastecycle, a plastic recycling company, to develop plastic packaging composed of post-consumer waste that will be used to package products of Marico, an FMCG company. Such collaborations will lead to the development of a circular economy in the plastic packaging industry.

Hindustan Unilever Limited and Procter & Gamble have collaborated with waste management companies, including Nepra Resource Management and Saahas Zero Waste, to develop a plastic waste management programme for these FMCG brand owners. This programme includes waste collection and segregation, community engagement, collaboration with recyclers, providing technology-enabled solutions in compliance with regulations, and the transfer of EPR credits.

LyondellBasell Industries, a multinational chemical company, has signed a memorandum of understanding with the country’s leading flexible packaging plastic recycler, Shakti Plastic Industries, to build India’s largest plastic recycling plant with a capacity of 50,000 tons of plastic recycling per year. The plant is expected to start in the latter part of this year.

Manjushree Technopack, a rigid plastics packaging solution provider with a manufacturing capacity of over 200,000 MT per annum, has entered into a collaboration agreement with India’s largest post-consumer PET waste recycler. Ganesha Ecosphere Group is a recycler with an installed capacity of 150,000 MT per year of different rPET products. They are set to co-develop and supply food and non-food-grade packaging products made of recycled plastics to brands for their rigid plastic packaging needs.

Apart from this, a large number of investments from foreign companies are being witnessed in India’s plastic packaging waste value chain. Dalmia Polypro Industries, a PET bottle recycler, has received funding from Circulate Capital, the Singapore-based investment management company, to increase its recycling capacities, along with an External Commercial Borrowing loan of $30 million from the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC).

Technological innovations

The EPR Act has incentivised companies to develop technologies that facilitate recycling and enhance the quality of recyclates, allowing for their reuse in the packaging of a wide range of products. For example, Lucro Plastecycle, a plastic recycler, has developed de-inking, dry washing, and deodorizing technology to remove dry ink, absorb oil & contaminants, get rid of the dirty odour from waste plastic packaging, and transform it into high-quality recyclates.

Banyan, a vertically integrated Indian plastic recycling company, has developed plastic waste cleaning technology along with a data intelligence platform. It helps to integrate thousands of informal sector last-mile plastic waste collectors into its supply chain to recover post-consumer as well as post-industrial plastic waste.

Shakti Plastic Industries has developed a multi-layer flexible packaging (MLP) recycling technology that can convert MLP waste into granules that are fit to be used for making a variety of products such as chairs, stools, benches, and flowerpots.

Polycycl Private Limited has developed patented technology named Contiflo Cracker that transforms low-grade waste plastic into hydrocarbon feedstocks for the production of virgin polymer.

Sustainable packaging

In line with the changing value chain scenario, several packaging companies have begun offering sustainable packaging solutions to brand owners.

Huhtamaki Oyj, a global food packaging specialist based in Finland, has introduced polypropylene and polyethylene-based mono-material packaging solutions with more than 90% content of a single type of polymer. These plastic packaging solutions claim to offer properties such as high barriers to oxygen and moisture as well as ease of recycling, which are essential for the food and beverage industry. Large-sized plastic flexible packaging companies such as Uflex Limited have introduced an entire packaging solutions range made of up to 100% post-consumer recycled PET under the trademark Asclepius.

As awareness among consumers regarding the impact of plastic packaging on the environment increases, consumer demand for products with environment-friendly packaging will surge significantly. Brands will try to promote their products by connecting them to sustainable plastic packaging to get consumers’ attention.

Emergence of waste management companies

Brand owners are focused on establishing a well-organized plastic waste collection and recycling ecosystem for their products. Since the plastic recycling industry in India is largely unorganized, several companies have emerged to serve as a bridge between producers and plastic waste recyclers. These companies are known as waste management companies or producer responsibility organisations (PRO). For instance, Saahas Zero Waste and Nepra are actively working in this domain, along with several digital marketplaces such as Recykal. They have established digital ecosystems to streamline the process of EPR credit transfer, which is a concept introduced by the government to transfer EPR credits from plastic recyclers to brand owners. This serves as a classic example of responsibility transfer from brand owners to plastic recyclers based on monetary aspects.

Conclusion

India’s EPR Act, with its multifaceted objectives, aligns with global sustainability goals. The Act is expected to play a major role in the transformation of the entire recycling ecosystem by turning it into an organized industry. This will lead to growth in income and improvements in the working conditions of waste collectors, along with a reduction in the industry’s reliance on landfills and incineration, leading to a decline in pollution in the environment.

It aims not only to minimise waste generation but also to foster resource conservation, encourage recycling, raise environmental awareness, and promote sustainable packaging solutions. The Act’s impact is already evident through rising business collaborations, growing foreign investments, and technological innovations in the recycling industry. It is poised to significantly elevate India’s plastic waste recycling to meet the ambitious national target of recycling 60% of total plastic waste by 2028.

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This article was originally published in the February issue of Sustainable Plastics.

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