PET peeve: ‘Our industry is being unfairly targeted’

PET peeve: ‘Our industry is being unfairly targeted’

Interview

Behram Mehta

The ubiquitous packaged drinking water sold in PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles is at the centre of controversy after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement that India would shun single-use plastic (SUP) from October 2. Naturally, the PET industry is a worried lot.

Behram Mehta, the secretary of the All-India Association of Natural Mineral Water Industries, tells DH’s Sagar Kulkarni that he hopes that the government will not take steps that would leave the small-scale industry and the medium, small and micro enterprises devastated.

How big is the plastic industry in India?

We employ around 71 lakh people, and a total of seven crore persons are dependent on the industry. The packaged drinking water industry alone has a turnover of Rs 30,000 crore, while the PET sector as a whole, including the forward and the reverse revenue chain which, in turn, includes the recycling ecosystem, is worth Rs 7.5 lakh crore.

How does the PET industry view the prime minister’s call to shun single-use plastics?

We are being unfairly targeted in all this. PET bottles do not fall under the category of single-use plastics. Since the PET bottle is the most visible (type of plastic), unfortunately it has become the poster boy of the campaign against single-use plastics.w

But, don’t we see plastic bottles all around?

Out of the daily production of plastics of about 60,000 tonnes, PET bottles account for 1,000 tonnes. We have a fantastic ecosystem of ragpickers and recyclers, which has achieved a recycling rate of 92% for PET plastics. PET is 100% recyclable, it is a miracle material. Many have confused PET with other plastics, which has led to erroneous assumptions and a host of rumours about PET.

Are you perturbed about the impact the move to ban single-use plastics could have on your industry?

I hope and believe that whatever the government does will be done in a phased and a systematic manner. Small-scale industries (SSI) and micro, small and medium enterprises (MSME) are driving the economy, and I don’t think there will be any sudden action that will hurt the economy in such a way that SSIs and MSMEs will be devastated. India cannot afford to have a further slowdown. Any blanket ban or sudden restrictions will be grossly unfair and will adversely impact employment and the Indian economy.

Are there any alternatives to PET?

Despite being 100% recyclable, if PET is not viewed as a viable long-term solution, we have worked out the option of compostable plastic packaging, which is allowed under the Plastic Waste Managment Rules, 2016, and the Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016. This material is 100% compostable packaging material, which is made from cornstarch and other biomass. It is 100% plastic-free. This packaging material will compost itself and disintegrate in the form of organic manure within a certain amount of time.

Is glass or steel not a viable alternative?

Glass and steel have a higher carbon footprint (than plastic). Both consume more energy during the manufacturing process and require more water for cleaning before being put to reuse.

What is the difficulty in using compostable plastic?

It needs to be approved as packaging material under the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) and Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI).

What are your suggestions to the government?

It should urgently formulate standards for plant-based compostable bottles for drinking water under the FSSAI and BIS. The government should also offer incentives to those units using compostable plastic. It should also develop new standards under BIS to allow use of re-cycled PET for packaged drinking water bottles. The European Union follows a similar model where PET bottles are recycled to reduce the use of virgin plastic.

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