If we are asked to list down single-use plastic items in our day to day life, we would possibly identify plastic bags, straws, cutlery, plates and water bottles. This list generated by the common man is also reflected in policies laid by countries across the world. A common and costly oversight is the single-use plastic waste generated by the plastic industry. In fact, this commodity is the second-highest in the global waste composition. 40% of the global plastic produced is for the packaging industry. Multi-Layered Plastics (MLP) has become one of the favourite packaging materials in fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) and the packaged- food industry. These MLPs are used once and discarded - making these single-use plastics. The current Indian government is aspiring to phase out single-use plastics (SUP) by 2022. This article explores further why MLPs should be listed as SUP and banned from production.

According to the Plastic Waste Management (PWM) Rules 2016, Multi-Layer Plastic (MLP) is “any material used for packaging and having at least one layer of plastic as the main ingredient in combination with one or more layers of materials such as paper, paper board, polymeric materials, metalised layers or aluminium foil, either in the form of laminate or co-extruded structure.”  MLPs are a favourite material for the food industry as it protects sensitive food products and hence longer shelf life. The packaging industry used to have materials such as glass, metal or PET bottles. But each of these materials has its own limitations for eg: metal is not transparent, glass is fragile and heavy for transportation, PET does not work as a good barrier of oxygen for some products. 

In contrast, MLP is lightweight, makes transportation easy, and is also graphics friendly. In India, food products have to stay out under hot as well as humid conditions. The nature of MLP protects the food items under these extreme conditions. As a result, MLPs have become a ubiquitous part of the lifestyle of consumers, regardless of their buying power. It is present in products everywhere: from a small tea shop to big supermarkets. It comes in all sizes: from a shampoo sachet to large packets of chips. The lightweight and small size of MLPs, make them almost omnipresent, easy to throw away but difficult to collect. The eventual end of this material is therefore as litter,  in a landfill or waterways where it often mistaken as food by some animals. 

The recycling process of MLP in itself is cumbersome because the plastic has to be cleaned thoroughly after it is collected and then, separated based on its type. Hence, the only way to process MLPs in order to get it out of sight is incineration or waste to energy plants. The incineration plants are sold to the public as a better alternative to landfills. However, incineration releases dioxins and one-fourth of the incinerated trash remains as toxic fly ash which ends up in the landfills. The current solutions that are being touted to treat the fly ash are to use it in making paver blocks or use it for road construction. These solutions are being proposed without a backup of any scientific studies and this fly ash can pollute the air, water and soil for the next several generations. 

There are a handful of organisations “upcycling” MLPs such as Aarohana and Rimagined. They agreed that it is difficult to work with MLPs as it is a very labour intensive process at all stages of collection, cleaning etc. Though these upcycling methods tackle the existing plastic problem to a very little or negligible extent, the last stage of this plastic still remains to degrade and then turn into microplastics which leach into the ecosystem. This cannot be prevented by any existing, innovative ideas. 

 

Figure 1: Lays in a tin can

 

Handling MLP waste has proven to be unsustainable and damaging to the environment. The government needs to make manufacturers ultimately responsible for the waste they have created, as well as innovate a sustainable alternative to MLPs. The Plastic Waste Management (PWM) rules 2016 states that “manufacture and use of non-recyclable multi-layered plastic if any should be phased out in two years time.” In 2018, when the PWM rules were amended, the term ‘non-recyclable multilayered plastic’ was replaced with this definition:  “multi-layered plastic which is non-recyclable or non-energy recoverable or with no alternate use.” The addition of the term ‘non-energy recoverable’ impedes the phasing out of MLPs from the market because any plastic waste burnt at a particular temperature produces energy and it has harmful effects on health and environment. This gives MLP manufacturers the leverage to continue with its production. 

 

Figure 2: Nestle chocolate packaging in the 1940s

 

It wasn’t until the 1970s that manufacturers started replacing paper, glass and metal packaging with lighter, durable and cheaper plastic alternatives. Since then, globally, 8,300 million metric tons of virgin plastic has been produced. Of this, only 9% has been recycled, 12% was incinerated and 79% has accumulated in landfills or in surrounding areas (land or waterways). It is critical that we address this problem. It will require producers to change their design of products, packaging and delivery models. The primary step in phasing out the MLP from the economy would be to enforce EPR (Extended Producer Liability) strictly. The plastic waste management is neither the responsibility of the consumer nor the government. In the meantime, the manufacturers can look for alternatives like the times when lays came in metal cans or Nestle used to sell chocolate in paper wrappers.