The latter half of the year is likely to witness increased activity in plastic waste management, with producers and importers of plastic as well as brand owners looking to comply with the latest round of regulations. The Plastic Waste Management (Amendment) Rules 2022 was announced last month, a few days before the fifth session of the UN Environment Assembly, in Nairobi, which discussed the exigencies of tackling global plastic pollution. The UN meet resolved to work on a legally binding global treaty, which is envisaged to take around two years.

Meanwhile, each country was expected to continue its ongoing efforts. India’s latest regulation dealt with a host of issues regarding post-consumer plastic waste. These included the on-ground implementation of the ‘polluters pay’ concept — extended producer responsibility (EPR) — by stakeholders. Spelling out the different types of plastics that come within the ambit of single-use plastic, it mandated specific targets and timelines for taking back this waste. The stakeholders are required to take back 25 per cent of the material by 2021-22, 70 per cent by 2022-23, and 100 per cent by 2023-24. Apart from this, recycling targets are to be met, which start at 10 per cent and expected to reach 85 per cent in a decade.

‘Surplus’ certificate

The 2022 rules have introduced the concept of ‘minimum recycled content’, which means producers of plastic will have to add a minimum quantity of recycled material in their product, increasing the recycled content over the years. There is also a provision for surplus EPR certificate offsets, roughly on the lines of carbon credits.

To monitor the process, a digital platform has been envisaged, entailing self-declaration of business-related data by all stakeholders including producers, brand owners, importers and recyclers. There are penalties for non-compliance.

A forward-thinking regulation, no doubt, but is it possible to reach these ambitious targets? Will it help increase plastic waste collection and reduce pollution? What are the gaps that may obstruct implementation?

“Our business and collection will increase with more producers looking for recyclers,” says Raj Kumar, CEO, Deshwal Waste Management Pvt Ltd (DWMPL), which entered recycling in 2013 and provides solutions across the waste chain for plastic, e-waste and metals. Though several of Kumar’s clients are from the auto and IT sectors, he says that, since the regulation, he has been talking to electronic manufacturing units as well.

Citing R&D as a crucial input in improving the quality of the material recycled, he is confident that the mandate to add recycled matter to products is an excellent initiative taken by the government.

The human element

Pranshu Singhal, founder of the oldest ‘producer responsibility organisation’ in the country, Karo Sambhav, which works with some of the largest brands, lauds the intent but feels it may be too ambitious to implement as it overtakes even electric vehicle targets. “Will we be able to meet the numbers?” he says, pointing out a major gap. “There is an absence of dialogue on collection mechanisms. There is a big question mark on how we create these collection systems. There is also nothing on fair wages for collection, on no child labour to be involved, health safety issues and how municipality collections will be managed,” he says.

The regulation, unfortunately, is silent on the role played by the traditional kabadiwala, the waste pickers and rag pickers who remain in the informal sector but are the main source of plastic waste collection. Enhancing their livelihood, uplifting their status and helping them transition to the formal sector with adequate training needed to be part of the document.

Digital face

“One of the critical aspects is the digital platform for stakeholders,” says Hanumant Saraf, head of Gemcorp Recycling & Technologies Pvt Ltd, a subsidiary of the Belgium-based Gemini Corporation NV. He feels that this self-declaration, self-target and self-submission system with penalties will work like the GST portal set up by the government and could streamline the process.

Singhal, however, feels that the platform would be difficult to monitor as it would have a humongous number of waste streams and stakeholders. Would the government have the capacity and resources to audit it, and check on the EPR offsets? He recommends turning it into a public platform that can be scrutinised by one and all. That itself would work as an automatic deterrent to providing incorrect information, he says, citing how the system collapsed in several countries.

At the end of the day, the new regulation, if pushed towards implementation, means an increase in business for all the stakeholders. While many producers are still figuring out their compliance strategies, recyclers are waiting to expand their capacity. DWMPL is setting up a new facility in Haryana and promising “good recovery”, Gemcorp is planning a string of 20-25 recycling plants across the country in the next six months. Interesting times ahead for plastic waste.