CAG Brand Audit: Who’s the biggest plastic polluter in the city?

A household brand audit identified manufacturers whose products generate maximum plastic waste. Aavin leads the pack, but is also among the few that buy back their packaging.

We’ve likely seen coloured garbage bins in malls, airports and so on. The bin colour indicates, of course, what kind of trash we should put where, based on whether it’s food waste or recyclable waste. Many a time, I have stood in front of these bins and wondered where to put the coffee cup and the little styrofoam container. Are they the same material? Are they both recyclable?

Manufacturers must step up!

For years the burden of dealing with plastic disposal has been with the consumer. We are told to reduce, reuse, and recycle while the manufacturers who sell us these products just keep producing more and more plastic. There is now, a growing realisation that it is unfair to place the onus of dealing with plastic pollution solely on the consumer.

Globally there is a push for manufacturers to adopt Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) norms. EPR is basically a framework that requires companies to take responsibility for the plastic they use in making or packaging their products till the end of the plastic’s lifecycle. They can do this by setting in place buy back or collection systems to get the plastic back and recycle it so it doesn’t end up in our oceans or dumpyards. They must also develop better, more sustainable alternatives.

The obvious question then is there an EPR framework in India?

Well, the Plastic Waste Management Rules 2016 does mention it but doesn’t really provide any details and so little is done on the ground. Recently, in 2020, the government brought out draft EPR Guidelines, which was made public for comments. While this is a step in the right direction, there are many issues with the draft as pointed out by civil society organisations (CSOs) working in this sector.

While the government moves forward on these much needed guidelines, it never hurts us consumers to arm ourselves with knowledge. Citizens can be a powerful push for change, but first, we need to understand the problem. We need to know what plastics we are using, if they are recyclable and also who are the major companies producing or using these plastics.

Auditing your garbage

A simple tool that CSOs worldwide have been using is the Brand Audit. This is where volunteers collect plastic trash from a public place – like a beach – for a specified period of time. The plastics collected are then sorted and recorded by some parameters like brand/manufacturer, type of plastic, and type of product (such as food packaging, personal care).

A global network called Break Free From Plastic (BFFP) has been conducting audits for a couple of years now. This year’s Brand Audit came during unusual circumstances and so, CAG modified the plan to do a home-based audit. We collaborated with two colleges in Chennai to have 200 students audit the plastic waste in their home for three weeks and record the data on a simple app-based questionnaire.

Participants collected the plastic waste in their home for a week and at the end of the week categorised and recorded the plastic by brand name, type of product (food packaging, personal care, household items, etc), type of plastic, layers (single or multi layer), and quantity.

The type of plastic was an interesting question because it gave us the opportunity to understand how companies were labelling their products. Just like products come with MRP, use by date, ingredients and the like, products are also supposed to indicate if the material is recyclable.

The system followed is to have the recycle symbol (of 3 arrows in a triangle) with a number inside which indicates the plastic type: 1 indicates PET, 2 is for HDPE and so on. If one knows which plastics are hard to recycle, one can then try to avoid buying such products. It is also be useful for the recycler to quickly identify and sort products.

At the end of three weeks

The Brand Audit logged 13,979 plastics of which nearly a third (30%) was of Aavin products (mostly milk packets, but also a few ghee bottles and so on). Last year Aavin had announced that it would take back milk packets and pay Rs 0.10 per packet.

Representational image. Pic:

What we found interesting was that almost none of our participants were aware of this, speaking of the lack of advertising on this take back policy. Only one participant had heard of this and was actively taking the milk packets to Aavin.

The next big polluter was Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL) at 13%, followed by Britannia at 6%, Nestle (4.48%), and ITC (3.5%). Nearly 8% of the plastics collected were either not branded or the manufacturer details could not be ascertained (mainly because these were of stand- alone shops such as local grocery stores).

We had also noted if the plastics collected were single or multilayer, as multilayer is notorious for not being easily recyclable and having little value in the recycling sector. These invariably end up in the dump yards.

Multi-layer plastic constituted 32% of the total plastic collected. The biggest contributors of multi-layer plastics in this data set were HUL (29%), Britannia (18%), and Nestle (10%).

And finally, looking at whether the plastics were labelled for recycling, we found that 15% of the plastics did not have any recycling number (this indicates the composition of the plastic).

The commonly recycled plastics (PET, HDPE, LDPE, PP with the numbers 1, 2,4, and 5 respectively) constituted exactly half the plastic collected and of this 78% was LDPE (mainly milk packets). One a third of the plastics were marked 7 – OTHER, which indicates that they are made of more than one type of plastic.

So what do all these numbers tell us?

If we recycle our milk packets, potentially 30% of the plastic waste we generate will not go to the dumpyard. Aavin is the only brand currently with a take back policy. If other major milk manufacturers in the state also institute such a policy, the gains could be considerable.

Milk packets are usually made of LDPE plastic which are recyclable (40% of the plastic collected was LDPE and most of it was milk packets). Irrespective of a take back policy, consumers can take the milk packets to their local scrap shop. This holds good for other easily recycled plastics (1-PET, 2-HDPE, 5-PP) too.

With regard to multi-layer plastics, while companies must come up with measures, consumers should try to avoid using such plastic.

A simple way to identify multilayer plastic is to note that this is commonly used for food products that need to be kept fresh, away from moisture, or crisp. Common examples are chocolates, chips, and masalas. If you look at the inside of the packaging for such products, you will likely see a layer made of a shiny aluminium foil-like material.

Takeaways and alternatives

At the end of the brand audit, CAG conducted a webinar with the students. Two students presented the data and shared some simple steps we could all take, to move towards a more sustainable lifestyle. During the discussion, several students shared that they had not, till that point, given so much thought to all the plastic they had used in their life. Watching the quantum of plastic collected over the week was an eye-opener.

So as a consumer then, what can I do?

The first step is to minimise use of plastic. The motto should always be reduce, reuse, and then recycle. So we should try to reduce our consumption of goods, especially those with a lot of plastic.

Some quick and easy steps that we can take which can have a positive impact on the environment:

  1. Reduce plastic use by using cloth bags when shopping and say ‘No’ to packaging material used to wrap food, clothes, shoes etc.
  2. Switch to sustainable alternatives for commonly used items – bamboo toothbrushes, menstrual cups, cloth masks, cotton clothing (dri-fit has plastic!)
  3. Where plastic is unavoidable, look for the recycling number (can be anywhere on the package/bottle – even on the bottom) and choose brands that use more recyclable materials.
  4. Ideally, find shops that sell things ‘loose’ — take your own container and fill it with oil or dal or rice.
  5. Avoid multilayer plastics, such as chocolate wrappers, chips packets, tetra pak cartons
  6. And finally, segregate waste: Compost the food waste, and take all the paper, plastic, metal, glass, etc to a scrap shop for recycling.

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