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This article is written by Vibhor Goel, pursuing Diploma in Business Laws for In-House Counsels from LawSikho.

Introduction

Humans have forgotten that they share this world with a variety of plant and animal life forms, which are interdependent on each other for survival. The lifestyle we have adopted is killing our planet at a rapid rate and the majority of the human population is turning a blind eye to this issue. The earth is facing a plastic pandemic which is killing our plants and animals, affecting climate and marine life. This plastic pandemic has worsened in the past few years and at the rate at which it is growing, soon it will be too late to make a change. Plastic dumped in our oceans is choking marine life, tiny pieces of plastics can be found in fishes, the large plastic waste decomposes into smaller “Microplastics” and enters our food chain, spreading toxicity. This article discusses in detail the problem of plastic waste we face today and the major cause for it while shedding light on the amazing initiatives taken by Hindustan Unilever to tackle these issues.

The problems of plastic waste 

Plastics are a form of synthetic or semi-synthetic material that can be moulded into various different forms shapes and sizes. This highly adaptable behaviour is further enhanced by properties like high durability, being lightweight, flexible and being very easy and inexpensive to manufacture. While new variations of plastics are now being made from biodegradable organic material, the majority of the plastics we see today are made from fossil fuel chemicals. Today, we see and use plastic in almost every part of our lives, from daily routine habits like brushing teeth to the devices we use for medical care. 

The use of plastic generates plastic waste, and plastic is very resistant to the natural degradation process, i.e., it does not break down easily and is classified as non-biodegradable material. According to an article published on the WWF Australia Blog, a plastic bag can take up to 20 years to decompose, plastic straws can take up to 200 years, plastic water bottles and plastic cups can take up to 450 years and a plastic toothbrush can take up to 500 years to decompose.

This non-biodegradable plastic waste can be found in landfills and a large amount can be found in the world’s oceans. Once it enters the waterways, it can be carried across the globe harming a large number of ecosystems. We can take the example of Henderson Island that lies in the south pacific. It is an uninhabited island, not a single person lives there. However, one can find copious amounts of plastic waste on its beaches carried to it by the sea from all across the globe, including countries like the United States, Japan and Europe. 

Most of the types of plastics we use today contain potentially toxic compositions and they may also release toxic substances as they decompose. A recent study that studied 34 everyday products has further strengthened this fact. Moreover, plastic waste is increasing at an exponential rate, so much so that half of all plastics that have ever been manufactured have been made in the preceding 15 years itself and the production is expected to be doubled by 2050. Plastic production began in the 1950s, but back then the production rate and waste generated thereof was manageable. The first global tally was in 2015 that estimated that an average of 8.8 million tons of plastic waste flows into the oceans annually and it is estimated that almost 1 Lakh animals die in the sea because of plastic each year. 

1. Plastic waste in the FMCG sector

Fast Moving Consumer Goods or FMCG is India’s 4th largest financial sector. The FMCG sector is responsible for the production, distribution and marketing of fast-moving consumer goods which, as the name suggests, include all the fast-selling affordable products like packaged foods, toiletries, household cleaning products, personal care products etc. The FMCG sector is the major reason for plastic waste, not only does it generate plastic waste in terms of the product itself and its packaging, but the production of the goods also involves the generation of a lot of waste plastic. In the past few years, both the government and the people have become conscious of this issue and have started reusing, reducing and recycling these goods. Social media has become one of the major platforms through which activists have been able to spread awareness. Some people have started carrying reusable metal straws and some big establishments like Starbucks have switched from plastic straws to paper straws in many locations. When discussing plastic waste in the FMCG sector, one should be familiar with the concept of “single-use plastics”.

2. Single-use plastics 

Single-use plastics are those items that are thrown away after a single-use. Examples of this would include milk packets, straws, floss, small plastic cups or bottles, polythene bags, disposable cutlery or plates etc. Single-use plastics are the main cause of plastic pollution, feeding the human need for convenience. People fail to see the long-term consequences of their actions; they see clean streets and assume that the waste is being taken care of. Companies fail to put in the effort required to make their practices more sustainable and safer for future generations. Besides the quantity of waste generated, many single-use plastic wastes are too small to be recycled (if proper recycling efforts are undertaken) or are easily disposed of in the wrong places. Tiny items like straws, snipped parts of a milk bag, toothpaste caps, toffee wrappers etc. can make their way into animal habitats and make the wildlife sick when they accidentally consume them. It has also been reported that marine life like sea turtles can sometimes mistake plastic bags for food like jellyfish and consume them. 

3. Impact of COVID-19 on plastic waste 

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problem of plastic waste worldwide. The majority of the medical equipment like the syringes, medicine wrappers, oxygen masks etc. and personal protection equipment like masks, face shields, sanitiser bottles etc. are all made out of plastic. This sudden increase in single-use plastic materials can set back the years of progress that various nations and activists have made in environmental protection. According to a study, it is estimated that approximately 3.4 billion single-use face masks or face shields are discarded on a daily basis due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

India’s waste management efforts

India is conscious of the waste management issues that the world faces today and is doing its part to bring this issue under control. In 2014, the Indian government launched the “Swachh Bharat Abhiyan” or the “Clean India Mission” with an aim of eliminating open defecation in the country and also improving the solid waste management mechanisms. As part of the campaign, a large number of volunteers and NGOs worked together to educate people about the risks of open defecation and poor solid waste management, while the government provided subsidies for the construction of toilets and spread awareness through various means. The campaign led to the construction of over 10 crore toilets with over 6 lakh villages declaring themselves as open defecation free (ODF).

In 2016, the government revised the rules governing plastic waste management and released the Plastic Waste (Management and Handling) Rules 2016 which are the strictest measures taken against plastic waste. The rules have banned plastic that is less than 50 microns thick, in an effort to encourage the reuse and recycling of plastic. These rules have been extended to include rural areas as well and for the first time responsibility has been established for producers and individuals conducting any gatherings to properly dispose of the plastic waste generated. Only pre-registered vendors who have paid a certain registration fee will be allowed to keep plastic bags. In 2018, these rules were amended and the automation of the registration process was suggested while also stating that the “Multi-Layered Plastics” which have no alternate use, are non-energy recoverable and are non-recyclable have to be phased out. 

A new set of draft rules have been drafted that plan to ban more single-use plastics by the end of 2022. The ban is going to be done in 3 phases, the first phase will involve a ban on plastics used in decorations like balloons, flags, thermocol and also candy, ice-cream and earbuds. The second phase will include a ban on certain items that are less than 100 microns in thickness and the third phase will be for items that are less than 240 microns in thickness. These rules look promising. The NGT had banned plastic cutlery in Delhi and the results have been good, practically it is not easy to find plastic cutlery in restaurants and a similar country-wide ban could make a huge difference, especially in the country with the world’s 2nd largest population. However, India has a long way to go and can take insights from other nations for the better implementation of these rules. For example, when France announced its plastic ban, it suggested alternatives to the products that they banned; in Rwanda, the plastic ban has been largely efficient to their strict enforcement of heavy penalties that also include jail time; Sweden has been the most successful in recycling trash, their system is so efficient and robust that they have now started importing waste for incineration. Apart from these unique efforts, many countries have also made it mandatory for vendors to charge a decent amount for the carry bags which encourages individuals to bring their own reusable bags from home. 

India is notably one of the few countries aiming towards a ban on single-use plastics, which will lead to Indians having to carry their own carry-bags and straws. The public may face certain minor inconveniences, but these efforts and lifestyle changes will go a long way in ensuring a safe, clean and sustainable future for all of humanity. Besides these rules, the ban has many other moving parts like ensuring livelihood for waste pickers, identification of which single-use products to be banned (for which an expert committee is made), facing opposition from the plastics manufacturing industry, pressure from environmental activists and the NGT etc. Therefore, while the government is making efforts in the eradication of plastic waste, the companies and private individuals need to take initiatives themselves as well. In this respect, we can take the example of Hindustan Unilever. 

Hindustan Unilever: Waste management efforts 

Hindustan Unilever (HUL) is a consumer goods company that is also India’s largest FMCG company. The company has a very diverse range of products like skincare items, frozen food, cosmetics, oral care, soaps, shampoos, drinks, household cleaning products etc. Forbes has rated HUL as the most innovative company in India and the 8th most innovative globally. The company is headquartered in Mumbai and has given employment to over 21,000 employees. The company is also known for its efforts in environmental sustainability and one of the most popular initiatives it has taken is to collect and process more plastic packaging waste than it uses to ultimately achieve 100% plastic waste collection by the end of 2021. This initiative of achieving plastic waste neutrality is probably done for the first time by a large scale FMCG company.

1. Waste collection 

It is reported that the company plans to enable the processing of post-consumer plastic waste. In a statement by HUL, the company plans to process over 1 Lakh tonnes of plastic waste from over 100 towns across India. This initiative is supported by the municipal corporations and the company is also reaching out to various commercial establishments and housing societies. For the successful completion of this initiative, the company has partnered with various organizations including CARPE, Plant Savers, Geocycle, Ramky Enviro etc. The international organization Xyneto and the United Nations Development Programme is also involved in this initiative.

Vanashakti, an environmental group, had submitted an application before the NGT in 2018, according to which Mumbai dumps almost 80-110 tonnes of plastic waste into water channels or drains. Which is an alarming number. Since 2018, HUL has ensured the safe disposal of over 1.2 lakh tonnes of plastic waste. The CEO of CARPE has said that the waste collection is also positively impacting the lives of the workers involved and HUL has been a pioneer in implementing EPR (Extended Producer Responsibility). HUL in its partnership with Xyneto and Maharashtra Education Department has also launched a digital curriculum in schools that aims to educate kids on the need for safe disposal of waste, collection and segregation of waste. 

2. Smart fill machine 

The most recent and innovative step towards HUL’s aim of plastic waste reduction is the “Smart Fill Machine” that will enable consumers to refill products in the same bottles and motivate them to reuse plastic bottles. The first machine has been installed in a Reliance Smart store in Mumbai. To incentivize the consumers, the company is offering a discount of Rs. 30 on the MRP or effective store price if they get their own bottle and a discount of Rs. 15 to those who opt to purchase the “Smart Fill Bottle”. The consumers can at this point use these benefits on Surf Excel Liquid, Comfort Fabric Conditioner and Vim Dishwash Liquid Gel.

3. Other HUL goals

HUL has many other initiatives in the works for a more sustainable and green future. By 2025 they plan to half the amount of virgin plastic used in their packaging and increase the recycled plastic material content to 25%. They also plan to help collect and process more plastic packaging than they sell by the same year and design all their plastic packaging to be fully reusable, recyclable or compostable. Besides plastic packaging, HUL is taking big steps to reduce food wastage, protect and regenerate nature, positive nutrition, raise living standards, tackle climate change etc. All their initiatives and goals can be found by visiting their website here.

Conclusion 

Apart from HUL, many other companies have started taking steps to fight plastic pollution in their own way. Nestle India has already reached plastic neutrality and Dabur is on its way to do the same. ITC is also taking steps to collect plastic waste and is expected to collect more than 28,000 tonnes of waste in 2020-21. While the big companies have started doing their part in environmental conservation, we the consumer need to make a conscious effort to help them as well. We need to favour reusable products, segregate our waste for proper recycling and properly dispose of even the smallest piece of waste that we come across. We need to ensure that the societies we live in have proper waste management systems and educate other consumers to make environmentally friendly choices. We need to welcome any policy to ban single-use plastics and even without such policies, we need to phase out the use of single-use plastics from our lives. We can have a much better planet if we can find it in ourselves to make some minor changes in our daily routines, which will ensure better living standards for all and the proper allocation of resources elsewhere.

References


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