The Kerala government's decision to ban single-use plastic from January 1, 2020, has been hailed as an important step to curb major environmental and health hazard, but there is no clarity on how the state will meet the deadline in less than 40 days.
Single-use plastic bags are being widely used in Kerala to pack perishable food items. However, food processing and marketing companies appear to be in the dark on getting rid of plastic packs and adopting alternative packaging methods.
For example, officials of the Kerala Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation Limited – producers of Milma milk, the top-selling milk brand in Kerala - said the company is not equipped to shift to new packaging immediately.
Milma chairman PA Balan Master said the company has been exploring packaging options such as tetra pack, vending machines or milk ATMs, but its implementation may take at least two years.
"At least 10 lakh milk packets sold by Milma are in 500 ml plastic covers. Changing the package at one go is practically impossible," he said.
But he said Milma will buy plastic covers and bottles back from customers till it rolls out the new packaging system. “Milma has been spending one paise earned from selling one-litre milk for recycling,” he said.
It is estimated that Milma will have to buyback at least 31 lakh plastic covers from consumers per day. Seven tonnes of plastic are used by the company on a day-to-day basis for packaging its various products such as milk, curd and ghee.
Milma's board is currently associated with the Clean Kerala Company – a firm formed under the local self-government department - to collect and recycle plastic milk covers as part of its Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR).
EPR is a policy approach under which producers are given responsibility for the treatment or disposal of post-consumer products. With the introduction of EPR, the burden of waste management shifts from the government to the producer.
As part of the policy, a pilot scheme to collect Milma covers will be implemented from the month of December in Thiruvananthapuram, Alappuzha, Kottayam and Kannur districts.
Other companies such as Kerala State Beverages Corporation (BEVCO), which enjoys a monopoly of alcohol sale in the state and Kerafed, the largest producer of coconut oil in India, are also obliged to buy back the plastic bottles and covers produced by them under the EPR scheme.
Besides Milma, Clean Kerala Company will be responsible for collecting the plastic waste on behalf of BEVCO. Estimates show that BEVCO will have to collect 38 crore plastic bottles from the consumers every year under the EPR. Collection centres to gather these bottles is expected to be established soon.
Despite the uncertainty, government officials are confident that Kerala will soon shed its reliance on plastic carry bags.
"The cabinet decision is a result of the deliberations held by a committee constituted by the chief minister a year ago. The committee which included the Kerala State Pollution Control Board chairman and the chief secretary conducted year-long discussions with the stakeholders before recommending the single-use plastic ban,” said TN Seema, Vice-Chairperson of the Haritha Keralam Mission.
The green protocol which is part of the Haritha Keralam Mission is a significant movement gathering momentum to make the state plastic-free. The mission's efforts, in collaboration with Suchitwa Mission, to promote green weddings and green festivals have won wider acceptability.
The chief minister's office and other offices at the secretariat had switched to alternatives like steel, ceramic, glass plates and tumblers last month.
"The local self bodies associated with plastic waste collection often complain that though anti-plastic trends are gathering momentum, a large section of the population still prefers plastic. A legal ban will encourage manufacturers and consumers to consciously reduce plastic use," Seema said.
But she said the plastic ban will open up plenty of opportunities for women. “It will increase livelihood opportunities for women engaged in the production of alternatives to plastic,” she said.