Sub-rule (1), clause (b) of rule 4 of the Plastic Waste Management (PWM) Rules, 2016, stated carry bags or products made of recycled plastic shall not be used for storing, carrying, dispensing or packaging ready-to-eat or -drink food stuff. (File photo)
MUMBAI: In a sudden but serious climbdown from its five-year-old stand on not to allow carry bags or products made from recycled plastic for packaging, carrying, storing and dispensing food products, the central government recently amended its 2016 notification — to which two amendments were made in March 2018 and August 2021 — to allow the same.
Sub-rule (1), clause (b) of rule 4 of the Plastic Waste Management (PWM) Rules, 2016, stated carry bags or products made of recycled plastic shall not be used for storing, carrying, dispensing or packaging ready-to-eat or -drink food stuff. The rules were amended on March 27, 2018, and most recently August 12, 2021.
However, in a short span, another amendment to the PWM Rules, 2021, was brought in on September 17, 2021, according to which carry bags or products made of recycled plastic “can be used for storing, carrying, dispensing or packaging ready to eat or drink food stuff”. This, however, is subject to appropriate standards and regulation under the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006 (34 of 2006), by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India.
A complete U-turn by the Centre over the use of recycled plastic has shocked experts and environment activists. They say such permission for food and medicine packaging could pose a serious threat to human life as well as to the environment as the recycling process in India has largely not reached its purest level.
Continuous recycling of plastic not only degrades the quality of it but also brings in life-threatening toxic impurities in them, say chemical engineering experts. Very recently it has been found that garbage burning (that mainly include plastic bags and waste) was contributing to a serious air-pollution threat in Mumbai, Delhi and many other cities in the country, besides the dust and vehicular emissions. Another study has found that such polluted air was actually responsible for aggravating the Covid 19 cases in several residential wards of Mumbai.
“Such an abrupt introduction of a U-turn can potentially take away the safety cover for Indians and neither can it help in keeping the environment litter-free. Recycling means melting the used plastic and remoulding it. And this can be done several times to a plastic. There are many techniques, in which recycling can be done – some in systematic ways while some in very crude ways. At each such heating cycle, there is some degradation of the plastic with generation of contaminants or impurities. In most cases, the contaminants aren’t even known. Hence, there aren’t reliable test methods to detect and determine the impurities that can seriously pose a threat to human life and environment,” said Prof Vijay Habbu of Institute of Chemical Technology. Prof. DD Kale, former head of the Dept of Polymer Science at ICT, raised an alarming observation saying this amendment of September 17 actually takes away some of the items that were banned as single use plastics (such as cutlery and plates) in the previous amendment of August 12.”
In India, environmentalists allege the majority of the recycling industry has deployed very inferior quality of recycling machines or processes which can potentially make the recycled plastic more toxic in nature every time it is recycled with different chemicals and additives. The nature and quantity of these impurities that travel into them with every recycling vary depending on the process deployed. More importantly, the cumulative effects of contaminants – when a plastic undergoes multiple recycling cycles – are not yet established. For example, what happens to the plastic’s mechanical properties, its tendency to form microplastics, whether it causes leaching of the contaminants and so on. When we are already doubting phthalates and bisphenol A in fresh PETs then one has no control over polymer degradation in recycled plastics, they fear.
“Interestingly there is currently no way to determine how much recycled plastic has been mixed with virgin plastic. This inability gives room for false claims. Also, in the event of any problem, there is no way to track the cause and make a reliable analysis. Hence, the world over, recycled plastics are not used in applications where human safety is involved such as in the packaging of food and pharmaceuticals,” say Prof Habbu.
Ravi Jashnani, president of Maharashtra state plastic manufacturers’ association, said the news about such a notification has just come in. “We need to study and understand thoroughly whether the government intends to use such products only to pack or carry garments or even for other commodities of daily use. We will be able to officially comment once we understand the notification,” he adds, pointing out that there is so far no such move by the Maharashtra government.
Some manufacturers say newer recycling technologies (say chemical recycling) to make recycled plastics as pure as the virgin (original) are being developed. However, they are all in their infancy, experts and environmentalists say. “This is the reason even EU and USA are going slowly and stage-wise, and only by 2030 they are aiming to reach the use of 100 per cent recycled plastics. In contrast, by this amendment to the PWM Rules, India has allowed 100 per cent recycled plastics from 2021 itself. Thus, by allowing the use of recycled plastics for food packaging, the amendment only exposes Indians to health hazards without reducing the plastics litter one bit, adds an expert.