Plastic crisis in the mountains: Will extended producer responsibility bring in change

September 18, 2020

EPR initiatives so far have been few and far, and in no way keeping up with the levels of plastic pollution they cause  

By: Priyadarshinee Shrestha (WWF-India in Sikkim) & Roshan Rai (DLR -Prerna, Darjeeling)

Neatly stacked in trucks comprising layers of plastic — that’s how waste travels to the mountains. These are piles of of plastic bottles of fizzy drinks, multi-layered boxes of fruit drinks, shiny packets of chips, biscuits and instant noodle — puffed up in excess sugar and salt laden with fat and preservatives.

Biscuits sit pretty in trays and there are tiny sachets of personal and household care items — all of which ultimately end up littering our mountain landscapes endlessly.

More than 40 per cent of all plastics are made into single-use products in India. Companies are only creating trash with them, and that’s what we, as consumers, are ultimately paying for. This is the reason our landfills are exploding; our dumpsites are burning more than ever and our waterways are more choked with plastic pollution.

It is clear that the recycling and dustbin narrative to manage plastic waste is not sufficient. We live in the times of plastic crisis.

The flawed linear production system that has resulted in plastic pollution should ring alarm bells, but to the contrary, single-use products and use of unnecessary plastic packaging have only escalated over the years without question, and is projected to still rise.

For mountains already grappling with issues of climate change, it spells disaster and the scars of plastic pollution are already visible.

The Himalayan Cleanup (THC), an annual event organised by Integrated Mountain Initiative and Zero Waste Himalaya that takes place across the 12 Himalayan states on a single day, has revealed that plastics in the mountains has become all pervasive.

THC 2018 revealed that 97 per cent of the trash collected was plastic; the results in 2019 were also similar. This exponential rise in plastic use can lead to irreversible damage to mountain ecosystems.

If life in the mountains, the biodiversity and ecological values are to be conserved, the one-way flow of plastics into the mountains has got to be re-evaluated and reversed.

The much-awaited change in narrative on waste came through with the extended producer responsibility (EPR) under the Plastic Waste Management Rules of 2016, which sought to pin the responsibility of plastic waste on the producers. It even had a clause of phasing out MLP by 2018, which unfortunately got lobbied out in the amendment of 2018.

MLP collected during a cleanup drive in Darjeeling. Photo: Roshan Rai

It is a tool to make producer companies become conscious of the environmental consequences of their production systems and products, and push them to start cleaning up their act. Local authorities and communities on whom the sole responsibility for waste has rested so far also get additional support.

But so far, EPR initiatives of corporations have been few and far, and in no way are matching the levels of plastic pollution they cause.

EPR needs to respond to the plastic crisis by closing the tap on plastic pollution at source. It is now irrefutable that production systems have to be made responsible and sustainable through designing out of single use products and a rethink on material choices has to be expedited, which should be the vision of extended producer responsibility.

In its current form, the draft uniform framework put up for comments by Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) seems more like an industry-led effort that is simply advancing the pay and pollute principle for companies.

A much-concerted effort is required to set true goals for EPR centered around sustainable production choices, and to get companies to align towards the fulfillment of this goal.

Low value, non-recyclable plastics that ultimately end up in the landfills should be disincentivised and companies should invest in looking at sustainable products and delivery systems.

Mountains carry their own burdens of managing waste. There are extra costs at every step of the process — from collection to recovery to transportation. Low volumes of recyclables that have to be aggregated from scattered locations do not make economic sense in the mountains, with the result that much of it is not recovered.

A large part of plastics flooding the mountains are also mostly of packaged food items that are non-recyclable in nature. While the widespread pollution caused by these plastics is visible to the eye, what is not seen or studied is the impact on food habits of mountain communities that have occurred over time.

The increasing challenges of empty calories and nutritional insecurity that these products are bringing into communities cannot be ignored.

The Uniform EPR framework, which is currently envisioned as geography neutral, disregards all socio-ecological specificities that mountain regions have. Without special attention given to mountain states vis-a-vis the extra costs of managing their waste, the EPR framework leaves them in a seriously disadvantageous position.

The plastic credits system proposed has only specifications for recycling targets for companies; geographical parameters are not set. With the existing challenges of plastic recovery due to access and volumes, mountains may not be a priority for companies, unless specifically mandated as a high focus area under the EPR Framework.

Moreover, allowing companies to draw credits for burning or ‘energy recovery’ of their plastic waste through waste-to-energy, plastic roads, etc, is a highly counterproductive process and simply not feasible for the mountains.

Plastic pollution in the mountains will not end anytime soon unless provisions in the EPR framework compel producers to look at mountains with a special lens. One that considers the socio-ecological fragility and ecosystem services that the mountains provide.

The waste that travels up the mountains by the truckloads also needs to find its way down the same path, or even better, still not produced at all.

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