India generates over 26,000 tonnes of plastic every day, with consumer packaged goods companies contributing a large chunk. Many of these companies have recently claimed they are “plastic neutral” as part of wider sustainability commitments. However, it remains unclear how valid these claims are.
In February last year, Indian fast-moving consumer goods firm Dabur announced that it had recycled 100 per cent of the plastic it had produced, making it the first Indian plastic waste neutral company. This assertion was soon followed by consumer goods giants such as Hindustan Lever, Procter & Gamble and Amway India. These claims have emerged at a time of regulatory vacuum in India, with no independent verification or certification of plastic waste neutrality.
According to Dabur’s chief executive, Mohit Malhotra, the company had set a target to collect, process, and recycle 35,000 tonnes of post-consumer plastic waste from cities between April 2022 and February 2023. He claims they are well on track to achieve this, having already collected and processed over 33,500 tonnes. Furthermore, Dabur is expected to become plastic waste-positive “soon”, he told Eco-Business in an interview in March.
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Companies claiming to be plastic waste neutral mean they have collected the post-consumer plastic equivalent to the amount of plastic products and packaging they have put out into the market in a particular fiscal year. However, a closer examination reveals that not all plastic neutrality claims ring true.
The term “plastic waste neutrality” is not well defined in any Indian policy document, including the Plastic Waste Management rules for producers introduced in 2016, or the five amendments made in the years that followed.
Even if a company claims to be plastic waste neutral, this means that they have collected the same amount of plastics they have introduced – but not necessarily recycled it.
Moreover, the amount of plastic collected maybe the same amount that was produced by a company, but not necessarily the same kind of materials. Consumer goods companies mainly introduce non-recyclable mono-layer and multi-layer plastics, such as chip packets, but may collect rigid and recyclable plastics, which are easier to manage. For example, Dabur collects around 18,000 tonnes of the 27,000 tonnes of plastic in the rigid and flexible category, while 80 per cent of what Amway India collects is recyclable.
The term plastic neutrality is “tricky,” said Siddharth Ghanshyam Singh, the programme manager at New Delhi-based public interest think tank Centre For Science and Environment. The regulatory framework is still developing in India, and enforcement agencies have little power to enforce measures. Although the director-general of the Bureau of Indian Standards, Pramod Kumar Tiwari, warned against greenwashing in April, consumer protection laws, such as the Advertising Standards Council of India, which deal with unsubstantiated claims and misleading practices, remain an option to pursue legal action against violators.
Singh added that the pollution control board should intervene to stop companies from leveraging their brand value and sending misleading claims. Without stringent and specific anti-plastic legislation and policies related to consumer goods companies, enforcement agencies must act and send a message that they are serious about legislation, he said.
Lastly, the processing of single-use plastics does not always contribute to the circular economy. For instance, waste-to-energy systems, such as cement kilns that burn waste plastic as fuel, emit harmful gases and may not be considered a legitimate form of recycling.
India and plastics
The country with a population of 1.4 billion is currently grappling with a significant environmental crisis caused by the overuse and improper disposal of plastic waste. Less than 60 per cent of plastic waste is recycled in India, leading to severe environmental degradation that causes water, soil, and marine pollution. India is the third-largest producer of single-use plastics, after China and the United States.
Despite the government’s efforts to embark on a series of sustainability initiatives in recent years, the impact of those policies is not always being felt at the local level as implementation is difficult. Although New Delhi banned the use of single-use plastics in July last year, such products are still widely available in the market, and enforcement remains weak.
One step taken to address the issue is the introduction of the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) portal for plastic packaging. The portal aims to improve accountability, traceability, and transparency among manufacturers, importers, and brands of plastics. Since its launch on 18 February, over 4,500 importers and 1,600 producers, and a few consumer brands have registered themselves on the portal. Dabur declared itself plastic waste neutral on 14 February, four days before the EPR notification came into force.
Under the EPR regime, companies are required to collect the same volume of material that they put out into the market. However, as companies self-declare their recovery and recycling efforts, which are not always independently verified, there is potential for misleading plastic claims.
Consumer goods companies admit that plastic waste management is a challenging process that requires a major shift in business models, processes, and supply chain management. According to Amway India’s Khanna, major investment in research and development is also needed to produce new technologies for plastic waste recovery and recycling.
Dabur’s Malhotra said that waste management can be addressed through innovation. His company is not only looking to minimise waste at its production units but also working towards using alternative methods of waste treatment to prevent post-consumer material from reaching landfill. “One of the challenges that most companies face today is the non-availability of recycling centres across all states in India,” he said.
A challenge for consumers, meanwhile, is to tell how real a company’s plastic claims are. A global study in 2021 by the International Consumer Protection Enforcement Network found that nearly 40 per cent of brands make false claims when it comes to sustainability and environmentally-friendly measures. “If a brand claims to be plastic neutral, they want me, as a consumer, to have a perception that this company is operating sustainably,” said Singh. “But often it is a hoax.”
Vasudevan Sridharan was part of the Asia Pacific False Solutions Media Fellowship conducted by the not-for-profit Break Free From Plastic
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