The what, why and how of a plastic waste brand audit

Brand Audit at DWCC of Kodagu District, Ponnampet Gram Panchayat. Photo credit: Pinky Chandran

Have you ever taken a close look at the plastic packaging waste you put in your recycling bin? Whether the bags, containers, bottles, packaging, toys, packaging materials are branded or unbranded? What are brand names? How are they classified? Do you know what the numbers on the packaging mean? Is all plastic waste actually recycled?

According to Sowmya Raghavan, a member of solid waste management think tank, Bangalore Apartment Federation (BAF), “Not all recyclables are recycled and not all items in the bin are recyclable.

Have you ever thought about carrying out an audit of your plastic waste? If so, how would you proceed?

In 2018, Break free from Plastics, a global movement envisioning a future without plastic pollution, developed a brand audit toolkit. The toolkit’s mission is to mobilize citizen science volunteers around the world to hold companies accountable for their plastic packaging. For years, citizens have internalized the cost of plastic pollution and waste pickers and other informal waste workers have subsidized the cost of waste management.

In order to control the costs of plastic pollution outsourced by companies, the 2011 and 2016 Plastic Waste Management Rules specified Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) to make manufacturers responsible for their packaging. But the rules have not translated into action.

Following guidance from the National Green Tribunal, the government recently released the Plastic Waste Management Rules 2022, which emphasizes the “polluter pays principle” for businesses. While it remains to be seen how this will be operationalized given its ambitious framework, consumers have demanded more than a transactional relationship from brands.

Plastic brand audit at Tarahunise Ecogram DWCC. Photo credit: Beula Anthony

Read more: Plastic waste: why EPR alone has no chance

Do a plastic brand audit

After the plastic waste is collected, data on each piece of plastic is recorded in the following categories: Mark; Item Description, Parent Company, Product Type. For example:

  • Food packaging—bottles, cutlery, foam, trays, packaging, bags of chips, straws; Personal care—soap, shampoo, diapers, makeup, sanitary napkins; Household products: cleaners, shoes, textiles, bags, toys, boxes, tarpaulins, pen; Smoking equipment—cigarette packs and cigarette butts.
  • Plastic resin packaging (#1 PET; #2 HDPE; #3 PVC; #4 LDPE; #5 PP (polypropylene) #6 PS (polystyrene;) and #7 Other/unknown, multi-material or multi-layer plastic).
  • Layers: Monolayer (transparent plastic films, packaging, polyethylene bags) or multilayer (composites, laminates, bags including tetrapak)
Segregation of plastic waste
Brand audit in progress at Good Earth Apartment Complex, Bangalore. Photo credit: Resident of Good Earth Apartment

Read more: Where does plastic waste go in Indian cities?

Why a plastic brand audit is important

For companies, it is important that they internalize the true cost of plastic production and plastic pollution and invest in sustainable systems. They must put information on the quantity of plastics produced or imported into the public domain. It is equally important that they rethink packaging and delivery systems and stop promoting chemical recycling and co-processing in cement kilns where these plastics are used as alternative fuels.

“Brand audits are key to understanding the entire flow of plastic packaging,” says Myriam Shankar, founder of The Anonymous Indian Charitable Trust. “Not only do they give a glimpse of the reality on the ground, but they are also a good checkpoint on the application of plastic rules. We have seen that because of COVID, single-use plastics have returned to the We have also seen that many products are not recyclable due to their composition, etc. These are important facts that we can report to producers to push for a better design or a better choice of material”.

“In my 20 years of experience, as a former waste collector and now as a waste entrepreneur, I would only classify materials according to the type of packaging material,” says Krishna, dry waste collection operator, district 112, Domlur. “But with the brand audit, I now know the brands under each product and now for me it’s an important tool, to use that data, to talk directly to companies about their packaging and so they can support the operations managed by the informal waste sector, in the recovery of these materials”.

Myriam adds: “Overall, the key is to upgrade the whole recycling industry. The informal sector, which takes care of most of the equipment, needs much more support in the form of infrastructure. We need decentralized recycling parks with appropriate facilities that can operate to standards set by pollution control commissions.”

Companies also need to invest in reuse and refill infrastructure systems, and build the capacity of informal waste workers to be able to engage and work in these new opportunities. “Our city is mature enough to handle charging systems, especially in gated communities,” says BAF’s Sowmya Raghavan. “Companies need to invest in these systems and as citizens we need to make more noise and demand more for this infrastructure.”

With contributions from Nirmala Shekar, Beula Anthony and Bianca Fernandes of Hasiru Dala

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