India’s plastic problems

By Malini Hariharan

A surprise court order in India earlier this month has put pressure on plastic packaging and has raised the risk of restrictions on its use in a very popular segment – cheap sachets or pouches that are used to pack a wide variety of consumer products ranging from shampoo to tobacco.

The Supreme Court has ordered a ban on the sale of gutkha, a mix of tobacco, betel nut and other ingredients, packed in plastic sachets from March 2011 and has asked manufacturers to explore and decide by March on an alternative packaging material.

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It has also asked the government to conduct a survey on the ill effects of these tobacco products and examine the effect of packaging these products in plastics pouches on human health.

The next hearing is scheduled for 9 March 2011.

Gutkha is a major health risk for millions of Indians addicted to it and a ban on its use makes sense. But what has upset the plastics industry is the court’s move to link its ban to packaging. And the worry is that these restrictions might slowly extend to other products packed in plastic sachets (multilayer structures made of polyethylene and metallised polyester).

The order has taken the plastics industry by surprise as the instead of banning gutkha the court has restrained the use of plastic sachets.

“Today it is gutkha; but there are hundreds of products packed in pouches. Tomorrow an NGO can give reference to this case and say shampoos should not be packed in pouches,” says an industry source.

For now the court has focused on sachets, which, thanks to the convenience factor, have boosted sales of gutkha.

Sachets are also cheap – products packed in them are usually priced at only a few cents. And they have grown to overtake other forms of packaging in many product segments.

Market research firm AC Nielsen estimates that sachets accounted for 74.5% of the Indian shampoo market of 104,000 kiloliters in 2008, up from 71% in 2006 and 73% in 2007

But sachets are part of a bigger waste management problem that India needs to urgently tackle. The court has already directed the Indian government to finalise and enforce within eight weeks Plastic Management and Disposal Rules that were framed in 2009.

Switching to an alternate form of packaging would pose a greater burden on the environment though this is not easily visible, points out the industry source.

Plastics are the most environmental friendly packaging method in terms of energy savings and emission reductions during production, he adds.

The industry needs to act fast to communicate this message to a wider audience and ensure that new regulations do not adversely affect use of plastics in India. As for the proposed gutkha ban, they need to ensure that the final Court ruling does not carry any negative reference to plastic packaging.

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