Each year, over 640,000 metric tonnes of plastic leak into the Indian Ocean from Sri Lanka (Clean Cities, Blue Ocean, June 2020). The Western Province alone generates around 7500 metric tons of solid waste every day, out of which only 3500 metric tons are collected (Central Environmental Authority, 2018). Of this, close to 15% become compost, 10% is recycled and 75% is thrown into open dumps. While plastics have made essential products more accessible, the impact to the environment needs to be addressed.
As consumerism evolves, the earth continues to suffer. For over half a century, consumers have been placed at the forefront to bear the brunt of the burden they have placed on the Earth. But, are consumers only to blame? Consumers are a key stakeholder in the waste management process but they share this responsibility alongside legislators, civil society, importers of plastic and, producers who use plastic in their manufacturing and packaging processes.
Today’s consumers are even more aware of what they consume and hold these products, services and brands to renewed standards of transparency and accountability. Due to this, the conversation on sustainability among brands has shifted from a mere marketing gimmick, to a legitimate requirement that is demanded by the next generation of consumers, the world over.
The 3 Rs. of responsible waste management – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle will remain the holy mantra across the spectrum of sustainability. However, as producers take up accountability, we have to ask the important questions. Are organizations able to switch to plastic alternatives and meet their current demands? How will this affect the product design and its safety for consumption? Elimination and reduction will only take away from the end consumer’s ease of access to the product. The end consumers in this case, are Sri Lankans like you and I.
How do we address the issue of plastic waste?
This is where Extended Producer Responsibility comes into play. According to the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is a policy mechanism through which producers are given the responsibility (either financial and/or physical) for the treatment or disposal of post-consumer products. EPR is a critical tool in driving linear economies into a circular economy, as they supplement an extended product cycle even after the products initial use. Assigning such responsibility could in principle, provide incentives to prevent waste at the source, promote environmentally friendly product design and support the achievement of the national recycling goals.
EPR is systematic approach to ensuring commitment to the waste hierarchy of the 3 Rs by facilitating producers to remain responsible in the treatment and disposal of post-consumer products. This, at present, is a more sustainable tool over bans as most products are created for utility and cannot be removed from the market overnight. For recyclable items such as PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) and HIPS (High Impact Polystyrene) plastic, better alternatives need to be sought which encourage recovery and recyclability.
The Way Forward
Over the past two years we at the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce were working together with key stakeholders from public sector participants to recyclers and collectors; manufacturers, brand owners and importers; and, environmental lobbyists to address the issue of post-consumer plastic recycling. In our work towards developing feasible solutions for post-consumer plastic recycling and plastic waste management, we have formulated an EPR roadmap with the collective input and partnership of all key stakeholders which we are hoping to roll out with the approval of the relevant government authorities.
As we were initiating this thought process, we looked towards global best practices and success stories of systems implemented across six different nations varying in GDP, environmental and manufacturing policies and implemented EPR frameworks. The case studies were taken from Indonesia, India, Japan, Netherlands, Kenya and South Africa.
It is important to note that some of the most compelling producer led initiatives were present in South Africa, where the country’s plastic and overall waste management issue was addressed through a private sector based framework known as the South African Packaging Agreement. Under this agreement, importers ensure that all quantities of packaging are put into circulation on a quarterly basis. With the EPR systems in place, South African brand owners, manufactures and producers collaborate towards their vision of supporting material reduction, recycling, recovery and other related activities.
In Sri Lanka, the Chamber together with USAID, Ministry of Environment, Marine Environment Protection Authority, Central Environmental Authority, and Biodiversity Sri Lanka, over the past two years has been actively engaged on this subject. The most recent progress includes the completion of three consultations with key stakeholders from across the waste management ecosystem on this novel approach. As a positive outcome, all stakeholders who were engaged in these consultations including the private sector were willing to participate throughout the initiative and are awaiting to come into an agreement on taking the proposed EPR processes forward.
The voluntary EPR model which will soon be introduced in Sri Lanka, will be the first of its kind. With this Mandatory Reporting and Collect-Back System, brand owners, importers and manufacturers will have to report their annual sales volume of primary packaging used.
The collection targets given to each brand owner will be based on the country’s set target for collection, and this will progressively increase over the years. If brands are to exceed their collection target, there will be reward mechanisms set in place to further reinforce and encourage these organizations that move beyond the threshold. The Chamber will also ensure that brand owners maintain transparent records of their collection and recycling data.
The Initial EPR system will be rolled out for recyclable materials like PET and HIPS, which are materials used in the packaging of commonly found food like beverage and yoghurt products. Both products are recyclable. Primary packaging such as PET, that exists in the market already are a safer alternative to single use plastics. While PET is a part of the larger plastic family, it is recyclable and can be recycled many times over before it is no longer suitable for consumption. The product does not contain HDPE and is BPA free and has made significant improvements over the past 30 years, as producers are now using a lighter version of the product than they did three decades ago.
Everyone stands to benefit from collectively playing a collaborative role in managing our waste problem. EPR is only a single, but an extremely crucial extension of a larger solution that holds the ecosystem of stakeholders accountable from the time the product is designed, to the time the consumer disposes of it, and until it reaches back to the recycling and production process again.
In Sri Lanka, we are fortunate to have over 300 Plastic Polythene collectors working across the island, providing material to recyclers. More often than not, these recyclers run under capacity. A steady provision of the required feedstock will enable them to function at full capacity, and empower them to further enhance their contribution to the national economy. Mitigation of waste and better management of resources through recycling post-consumer products will provide for a robust and sustainable solution that is readily available at our fingertips.
Therefore, it is imperative to consider what more could be done with the existing products in the market. To this end, EPR will play a role in ensuring better waste management at large, while subsequently minimizing the ecological footprint created if producers had to switch to an alternate single use material.
The new bans on the plastic packaging and waste generation may come as a rude awakening, as these bans will only take away from the end consumer’s quality of life. Enforcing an industry level EPR program will be a more rational alternative to banning the use of the recyclable plastic material altogether. That is why all stakeholders should remain accountable and responsible reaffirming the role that we play as individual consumers, manufacturers, collectors, recyclers and policy makers in this larger waste management issue. After all, the circle will never truly be complete until all of us bound together to do our part.
(Manjula de Silva, the writer is the Secretary General and CEO of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce. The Ceylon Chamber of Commerce is implementing a project titled ’Introduction of an Extended Producer Responsibility System for Plastic Recycling’ in collaboration with the Ministry of Environment and the Central Environment Authority with the main objective of providing essential support for a circular economy for post-consumer plastic recycling and management, to minimize plastic loadings to the coastal and marine environment).