The conundrum faced by state dairies: Reluctant customers and a recycling plan that hasn’t taken off

Partha Sarathi Biswas
While dairies in Maharashtra have tried recycling the pouches to a limited extent, a sustainable solution to the problem still eludes them.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi s call to ban single-use plastic has made it more urgent for state dairies to find a viable alternative to the plastic pouches milk is sold in. While dairies in Maharashtra have tried recycling the pouches to a limited extent, a sustainable solution to the problem still eludes them.

What is the issue about?

On an average, dairies across India report sale of over 10 crore milk pouches per day. In Pune, 18 lakh milk pouches are sold on a daily basis. Dairies pack and sell pasteurised milk, usually in 1-litre or half-litre pouches. Once packed, the milk is transported to retailers in plastic crates for sale and distribution.

Like other FMCG commodities, dairies have little say in the final disposal of empty pouches by the end consumers, and there is no interaction between the chain which delivers the milks and the agency which deals with municipal solid waste.

Last year, the state government had banned the use of plastic bags and imposed steep fines on those who violated the ban. Finally, in December last year, state dairies considered stopping the retail supply of milk after plastic pouch manufacturers threatened to stop making the pouches. The issue was resolved, albeit temporarily, after state Environment Minister Ramdas Kadam intervened in the issue, but the problem persisted.

Why do dairies find it difficult to implement the buyback policy?

After the Maharashtra government banned plastic, dairies were asked to reach an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) agreement with recyclers to dispose of plastic pouches. The dairies were supposed to give a buyback price for the used pouches, to incentivise the customers to sell them back instead of dumping them in trash, from where they would be taken to landfill sites along with other municipal waste.

The dairies were supposed to collect the used pouches and transport the same to plastic manufacturers for recycling.

The plan, however, remained mostly on paper. The biggest drawback was that although dairies had printed the buyback price on pouches, the end customer had shown little or no inclination to sell them. Meanwhile, retailers as well as wholesalers pointed out that they lacked the knowhow and resources to handle the used pouches.

Given the short shelf life of milk, the pouches start smelling within a few days. Dairy owners say it is not possible for them to transport back the pouches everyday as the process simply wouldn t be economical.

The biggest stumbling block in the plan, however, is that end customers often don t sell back the used pouches.

Why don t customers recycle used milk pouches?

Multiple dairies in Maharashtra have started printing the buyback price on milk pouches, but most say the response to the scheme has been lukewarm. There are many reasons why end customers fail to sell back the used pouches, and they range from indifference to usage of the pouch for other purposes. Interestingly, milk pouches are hardly found in landfill sites as most customers prefer selling them to recyclers due to the higher price they fetch.

The chairman of a Kolhapur-based cooperative dairy said dairy owners have to find a way to get customers to change their habits and bring back the used pouches to them. The pouches are not recycled in a conventional manner and the government s insistence on involving the dairies in the process is not helpful, he said.

Schools, colleges to ban single-use plastic items

All schools, colleges and institutions of higher education in India will soon have to start doing away with single-use plastic items.

The University Grants Commission (UGC) and the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) have both issued circulars urging educational institutions to plan schemes to introduce alternatives for single-use plastics and organise special programmes for creating awareness as part of the Swachhta hi Seva programme.

This comes in the wake of Prime Minister Narendra Modi s call against the use of single-use plastic, and the Centre s plans to ban the use of plastic items such as carry bags, cutlery, milk pouches, decoration items, packaging materials and bottles, among others.

The educational institutions will also organise various events till October 2, the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, which will be observed as Swachh Bharat Diwas.

In October, the collected material will be sent for recycling and appropriate disposal by these institutions. (Express News Service)