Plastic waste: Why EPR alone doesn’t stand a chance

The guidelines on extended producer's responsibility (EPR) are problematic as they ignore the informal waste workers in the recycling value chain.

There is value in sifting through the remains of what we discard. And each act of sifting, collecting, sorting, grading, trading is a revolution of sorts. But what does this have to do with Extended Producer’s Responsibility (EPR)?

The moment of truth came in when my colleague Krishna, a former child waste picker and a manager of a dry waste collection Centre in Bengaluru, made a statement at one of the meetings on Inclusive EPR. “We talk about producers’ responsibility and stewardship, in terms of environment and economic angle but there is a more pressing issue that needs to be addressed, that of social cost and justice,” said Krishna. 

After all, waste is also a social priority, intricately connected to the sustainable development goals, culture and politics of the country. And the COVID-19 pandemic amplified the need for social-environmental stewardship for economic sustainability. 

EPR in India

In June 2020, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, released the Draft Uniform Framework for Extended Producers Responsibility under the Plastic Waste Management Rules 2016. While this was the first time that such a document was released, India had first introduced Extended Producer’s Responsibility (EPR) in 2011 under the Plastic Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2011 and E-Waste Management and Handling Rules, 2011.

Read more: Where does the plastic waste in Indian cities go?

This was the result of the recommendations made by the expert committee set up to examine the comments and suggestions including economic instruments in the Draft Plastics (Manufacture, Usage and Waste Management) Rules, 2009.

The major changes suggested by the Committee involved

(i) Introducing a system of EPR for recycling plastic waste

(ii) Requiring state and central fiscal policies to explicitly account for plastic waste

(iii) Introducing “explicit pricing” for all plastic carry bags sold

(iv) Setting up a state level advisory body to advise and assist in monitoring the impact of these rules and the degree to which they are complied with by different sections of society, and

(v) Including informal sector actors such as waste pickers in plastic waste management.

The 2011 rules define “Extended Producer’s Responsibility (EPR)” as the responsibility of a manufacturer of plastic carry bags, and multi-layered plastic pouches and sachets and the brand owners using such products for the environmentally sound management of the product until the end of its life.

The rules also defined multi-layered plastic (pouch or sachet) and defined the term ‘waste pickers.  According to the 2011 Rules, plastic waste was defined as any plastic product such as carry bags, pouches or multi-layered plastic pouch or sachet etc. which have been discarded after use or after their intended life is over. 

The Plastic Waste (M & H) Rules 2011, put the onus on the municipal authority for setting up, operationalising and coordinating waste management systems and working out the modalities of a mechanism based on EPR, for manufacturers and brand owners within their jurisdiction. This included setting up collection centres for plastic waste involving manufacturers by financing the operations, channelising plastic waste to recyclers and engaging agencies or groups working in waste management including waste pickers.

Unfortunately, not much progress was made.  The Central Pollution Control Board’s Annual Report 2012-13 observed that municipal authorities have not set up any mechanism or engaged any agency for the management of plastic waste and this trend has continued.

Read more: Beat plastic: Yes, but how?

Fast forward to 2016

The PWM Rules was declared as progressive and bold, as it put the focus of phasing out multi-layered packaging plastics within a time frame of two years, and proposed a comprehensive framework on EPR, which was otherwise left to the discretion of the municipal authorities.

The Environment Ministry issued Standard Guidelines for Single Use Plastics (SUPs) on January 21st, 2019 to all states/UTs and ministries. The guidelines detail legal options for states and Union Territories to prohibit SUPs, while acknowledging the states that have already done so.

It also lists measures to promote eco-friendly alternatives and makes a reference to the Guidelines of Creation of Management Structure for Hazardous Substances that provides assistance and incentives for innovative technologies and solutions for municipal solid waste segregation, handling and treatment of different waste streams. The SUP guidelines further detail social awareness and public education and actions to be taken by government offices. 

One of the most disturbing notes in the guidelines is on Multi Layered Packaging (MLP), which says that since replacement technologies for this are not available, these should not be prohibited and that only those packaging products which are non-recyclable or non-energy recoverable should be phased out. However, even as it allows for MLP to continue, it makes no mention of any explicit EPR obligation on such products.

Why are the draft guidelines on EPR problematic?

Going back to Krishna’s statement on EPR, the draft guidelines on EPR are problematic as it completely ignores the informal waste workers and the actors in the recycling value chain. In the push to fast-track the EPR guidelines, consultations with waste pickers and other informal waste collectors, or representatives of waste pickers and informal recyclers were completely missed.

Informal waste workers
The EPR consultations missed the inclusion of the informal waste sector including waste pickers and recyclers. Pic:Nikita Malusare

Any EPR policy must be multi-stakeholder, for solutions to emerge. The policies need to be built from an understanding of collection on the ground, with people working in waste along with industry representatives, given that the majority of current recycling activity takes place in the informal sector. 

Read more: How has Bengaluru fared in empowering waste workers?

Shifting blame

In the 25th Lok Sabha Report of the Standing Committee on Urban Development (2018-2019) on Solid Waste Management including hazardous waste, medical waste and e-waste, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs notes Pune’s model of bringing waste pickers into the city’s solid waste management systems.

In Chapter IV on issues related to waste collection, segregation and recycling, the discussion is on 

  • The need for setting up robust infrastructure and upgrading set up for Scrap Dealers. 
  • The need for joint efforts by Corporates, Recyclers etc with State Governments/ULBs.
  • The need for promoting segregation at source 
  • The need for essential registration of waste pickers by every municipality and ensuring their safety
  • The need for scientific collection and transportation of Solid Waste along with its time-bound target and monitoring
  • Extended Producer Responsibility

Unfortunately, most documents and reports always point out the occupational and environmental hazards of informal waste collection, without offering concrete solutions for infrastructure upgrades for better access to waste. Many of these documents fail to put in place a vision for inclusion of waste pickers and other informal waste collectors, and also fail to recognise the experience and ability of informal aggregators/traders in the recycling space and their potential to be scaled up to a Producer Responsibility Organisation (PRO) level.

Why ‘inclusive’ EPR?

“Existing efforts at setting up plastics recycling systems and enforcing EPR rules have shown limited success. This analysis shows that a one size fits all policy created without the input and consideration of those who currently do the work is doomed for failure. For too long India has depended on precarious, caste-oppressed workers to do its dirty work. Cleaning up waste chains, securing resources and protecting the environment will require bold and inclusive actions.”

  • Manisha Anantharaman, Associate Professor, Saint Mary’s College

Inclusion and Integration are often used interchangeably. However, they are not the same. Integration means mere acknowledgement of waste pickers and other informal waste collectors and must move beyond registering waste pickers and engaging registered waste pickers in collection – to expand the benefits to the entire downstream recycling industry.

Read more: The lives of Chennai’s unsung, invisible environmentalists

Merely co-opting waste pickers in an EPR plan threatens their livelihoods in earning fair compensation, fails to create opportunities for social mobility, destroys natural waste markets, criminalises informal recycling and will perpetuate inequalities through privatisation, deepening discrimination and increasing harassment. 

Inclusion, on the other hand, means respecting different settings, systems, operations and the varied groups in the informal waste space and allowing for full participation in policy design and governance that affects their livelihoods. Inclusion moves beyond ‘register, regulate and tax’, and looks at ways to improve their technical capacity, access to finances, upgrades to infrastructure, skill upgradation and social security. Inclusion, also acknowledges that the informal economy varies across the country, respects the entrepreneurial nature of such work and accepts that a one-size-fits-all policy, will not serve any purpose of achieving the recycling mandate. 

In conclusion, I repeat what Krishna articulated: “With the right support, we (waste pickers and other informal recyclers), can become key enablers in solving the plastic problem. We need to be invited to the table, to discuss policies that will affect our livelihood and until you see as partners in this, the problem is not going anywhere”.

This article is comprised of edited extracts from an essay, written as part of a special series on Extended Producers Responsibility and Inclusion. The full essay can be seen here. The author would like to acknowledge Manisha Anantharaman, Associate Professor at Saint Mary’s College for her critical inputs to the paper. 

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