Seven Things to Know about the Biodegradable and Compostable Plastic Industry in India

Representational photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

In India, the bioplastics market appears to be expanding rapidly. Producers are increasingly making claims about plastic material that is ‘bio-based,’ ‘compostable,’ or ‘biodegradable’ in nature. In India, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change (MoEFCC) is also investigating compostable and biodegradable plastics as an alternative to single-use plastic and other conventional plastics. However, much more research is required before ramping up production and distribution, especially given the unregulated policy mechanism for the use of alternative forms of plastics, as highlighted below:

  • The Union Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change issued an extended producer responsibility (EPR) notification in 2022 that excluded biodegradable plastics from the EPR mandate, which means that producers and brand owners who place their products on the market in biodegradable packaging will have no collection or recycling obligations.
  • Compostable plastics are subject to EPR. EPR has collection and recycling targets for compostable plastics beginning in fiscal years 2021-22 and 2024-25, respectively.
  • According to a 2009 Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) report, the country produced 98,000 tonnes of biodegradable plastics in 2007-08. By 2021, the CPCB had authorized 167 manufacturers/ sellers of ‘compostable’ plastic, with another three dozen applications pending or in the works.
  • According to the CPCB’s 2019-20 Plastic Waste Annual Report, there are 47 manufacturers of compostable plastic in India, based on data from states and union territories. The Board, however, has not shared the cumulative production capacity of compostable plastics in India.
  • The method and scale used to confirm biodegradability and compostability are critical. For example, the medium in which the plastic begins to degrade into simpler molecules such as carbon dioxide and water molecules; and the time required to fully disintegrate or decompose. Schedule I of the Plastic Waste Management (PWM) Rules, 2016 lists nine Indian and international standards that can be used to determine a plastic’s biodegradability and compostability.
  • It has been reported that compostable plastics contaminate the conventional plastic recycling stream. This renders the entire batch of recyclable conventional plastic useless. At material composting facilities (MCCs), it has also been observed that the time required for compostable plastic to degrade is much longer than the 6-12 week period required for organic waste to degrade. Costs eventually rise as a result of additional man-hours, time, and unit operations. According to a waste management agency in Mumbai, the majority of compostable plastic has been found to emerge from the compost pile undegraded even after 30 weeks.
  • The European Union is still investigating the use of biodegradable and compostable plastics, whereas India has permitted the use of biodegradable and compostable plastics in the absence of a strong regulatory, monitoring, or evaluation mechanism.

In a country where the basic solid waste management mechanism is weak and waste is not segregated into wet and dry streams, incorporating compostable and biodegradable plastics into the conventional plastic waste stream creates an additional stream of waste that must be segregated and channelled separately. This places an additional burden on consumers, waste collectors, and the existing transportation system.

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