The Union government has scripted a U-turn in a year. Until March 2015, several regulatory authorities held the common stand that PET bottles and plastic multi-layered packaging was injurious for human health, besides being a serious environmental hazard. By August 2015, this common line turned fuzzy. By March, the volte-face was complete; the government, almost unanimously, concluded that there was no proof that plastic packaging was dangerous, at least for medicines.
How did the about-face happen?
National green tribunal
The National Green Tribunal took note of this reversal. In March last year, the Tribunal concluded that various regulatory authorities and government ministries had ‘a commonality of stance’ against plastic packaging. But by August, the Tribunal noted in exasperation, “it appears that none of the concerned ministry is prepared to take a decision which, according to them, at one time, was the need of the hour in the larger public interest.” The Tribunal was hearing a case filed by an NGO asking for restriction on use of plastic packaging of non-essential goods.
The NGT’s March 2015 observations came from the fact that the Director General of Health Services (DGHS), the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) and the Drugs Technical Advisory Board (DTAB) had all at one point spoken along similar lines – either recommending restrictions or ban on use of plastic and PET packaging.
CPCB had said, “It is respectfully prayed that this honourable Tribunal may restrict use of PET bottles and multi-layered packaging products in non-essential food items such as liquor, soft drink, hair oils, shampoo etc to protect the environment from unnecessary accumulation of plastics waste and to protect the health of people.”
DGHS in its affidavit referred to an earlier government report by R H Khwaja Committee on waste management to note, “It is clearly mentioned that leaching happens from PET packaging to food products even at room temperature. The chemicals thus leached may cause great harm to human health including the endocrine and neurological system.”
By 2015, the Drugs Technical Advisory Board had repeatedly warned and recommended against plastic packaging of pharmaceutical products. “Reports of environmental and health hazards because of increasing exposure to endocrine disrupting chemical known as phthalates are increasing,” it said, asking for application of precautionary principle.
“In the first phase, the use of PET containers in liquid oral formulations for primary packaging of pediatric formulations as well as formulations meant for geriatrics, women in reproductive age group and pregnant women should be phased out in a time-bound manner and subsequently banned,” it concluded. This made the health ministry put out a draft notification ordering a ban on PET bottles in September 2014. However, it did not pursue it further after adverse comments poured in from industry and others.