Whenever I am dealing with municipal solid waste management related issues, waste reduction is my topmost strategic approach. Particularly, waste that is easily avoidable and most harmful for the environment.
Plastic bottles fall in this category and consumers are generally unaware of their grave health and environmental implications.
According to the Guardian, a million plastic bottles are being consumed per minute globally and it is set to rise to an annual consumption of half a trillion bottles that will have a significant impact on the oceans and the environment. Singular use and throw bottles account for most of this plastic bottle consumption. It is important to tackle this impending disaster and one of the bold steps that needs to be taken at a policy level is in the direction of Extended Production Responsibility.
EPR is an environmental policy approach in which a producer’s responsibility for a product is extended to the post-consumer stage of a product’s life cycle.
The concept has been around since the 1980s and has resulted in a number of positive policies and initiatives across OECD countries particularly in Switzerland, Japan and Germany. As of 2016, in the US there were 94 EPR laws across 33 states for various items including paint and medicine products and over 350 initiatives across the world. The state of Connecticut in the US achieved a significant reduction in paint, electronic, mercury and mattress waste through its EPR policies.
The EPR efforts have largely resulted in waste-to-energy projects in which the waste is burnt to produce electricity. However, material recovery that entails breaking down the waste to extract materials for reuse which is crucial for resource conservation has not taken off yet. The EPR policies have also largely restricted themselves only to electronic waste.
As part of their EPR strategy, some countries such as France have adopted a small fee deposit that is refunded when the empty bottle/can is returned. Some have withdrawn it as it was difficult to implement. Moreover, the deposit fee is not high enough to incentivise significant returns of empty bottles.
It is my belief that if EPR laws levy a significant tax on beverages being sold in disposable plastic bottles that cannot be fully recycled, there can be a significant shift. It is essential to note that by full recycling we do not mean down-cycling which is the phenomena of reducing the quality of products to make it somehow reusable. As a consequence of stricter EPR laws, the consumers will be dis-incentivised to buy beverages in plastic bottles. This shall provide a competitive advantage to products that are offered in non-plastic containers and will ultimately lead to a greater societal shift.
In the absence of strong EPR policies, start-ups such as Vessel in the US that have opened up new possibilities in this space at the consumer level. The user borrows a stainless steel cup for a small fee while buying coffee and deposits it in one of the bins around the city. I envision a future where consumers carry reusable multi-container bottles to hold different beverages in a single bottle and fill it at beverage vending systems.
The space is ripe for unending innovation and in the meantime, I hope to see new EPR policies in India and elsewhere that encourage innovation in finding a sustainable substitute for disposable plastic bottles.