With unabated urbanisation and commercialisation, there is one question even messier than the trash they generate: How do we effectively manage and reverse these mountains of waste that overload landfills, pollute the air, leach into the soil, and contaminate waterbodies?

One of the answers came from Sweden’s Thomas Lindhqvist in 1990 when, on behalf of Lund University, he introduced the concept of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). Here, manufacturers need to be responsible for recycling or disposing of their products after consumer use. This can help achieve sustainable consumption, which would contribute to mitigating climate change.

EPR was first mandated in India in 2012 for e-waste. As in Europe, manufacturers had to partner with Producer Responsibility Organisations (PROs), which have to function as the brand’s arm to collect and manage waste through authorised recyclers. And though the concept is alive on the ground today with around 30 PROs in existence, it is not working as envisaged.

E-waste is still processed and recycled in informal, unsafe and polluting units, sometimes with bare hands. This, despite the 7.82 lakh authorised dismantlers and recyclers. In October 2019, a study by environment organisation Toxics Link revealed that Delhi alone has over 5,000 illegal e-waste processing units, employing around 50,000 people. Clearly, there is a long way to go before the EPR concept becomes effective.

And the same goes for plastic waste — an estimated 9.46 million tonnes is generated annually in India, with 40 per cent left unattended. EPR was extended to management of plastic waste in 2016.

A draft asking for stakeholder comments on the modalities of plastic waste collection — the Uniform Framework for Extended Producer Responsibility (under Plastic Waste Management Rules 2016) — waits to be finalised for seven months now.

The draft, in essence, dilutes the EPR concept and gives producers of plastic other options to manage their waste, including buying credits to offset environmental damage. Experts point out this will help manufacturers duck the issue.

Central to this is the army of around two million waste pickers and aggregators, an essential but informal workforce. Brand owners cannot do the job without them.

So, where are we going wrong and what are the correctives required? Pranshu Singhal, founder of the PRO Karo Sambhav, which works with brands such as Apple, Dell, HP, Vivo and Cisco to implement EPR, feels the role of the PRO has been misunderstood. “PROs are not third-party service providers where you can auction the job to the lowest bidder, as is happening. They are extensions of the brands, follow ethical protocol and use only authorised recyclers,” he says.

He feels that with recyclers doubling as PROs it is a case of the auditee and auditor being the same; and the EPR system will collapse as it becomes a non-level playing field for compliant brands — a “race to the bottom”, as Lindhqvist once said. Singhal says the only way to transform e-waste disposal from a challenge to a formal environmentally conscious industry is to increase regulation.

Credit where due

Chitra Mukherjee from Chintan Environment Research and Action Group, which works with waste pickers and partners with their organisation Safai Sena, argues that the informal should be made the formal. She asks why informal recycling units cannot be upgraded. “We feel if you lower the barriers for PROs and help recyclers and collectors upscale their units, inclusion of the informal sector can be achieved.” The plastic waste draft, she feels, is “toothless”. Without incentivisation and penalisation it cannot work.

Hanumant Saraf, who runs Mumbai-based Gemcorp Recycling & Technologies Pvt Ltd, a subsidiary of Gemini Corporation NV Belgium, does not see much merit in PROs here. “To me it is only paperwork… The intention is not met with arrangement,” he says, emphasising the need for regulation, checks and proper auditing. Gemcorp has tie-ups with 20 companies including Amazon, Flipkart, Coca-Cola and Godrej to recycle their plastic waste.

“EPR has three pillars — environment, commercial and social responsibility. What we need is proper documentation of sale and purchase, with different types of checkpoints like the GST portal, to build a robust system. Until then it cannot happen right. For instance, plastic is divided into seven broad categories, but only PET is getting recycled in India and credit is taken for all plastics. Proper credit and debit need to happen,” he says.

Saraf feels the problem of informal recycling units can be solved by creating recycling zones, where common facilities are provided to take care of pollution and emissions. He says, “They are important to the value chain… You need to give them subsidies and incentives to relocate and time to upscale. There has to be merit to be a PRO.”