Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 05 April 2024

Implement precautionary principle in chemical industry regulation

Relevance: GS Paper II & III

Why in News?

The Norwegian #PlastChem project will soon publish a report and database revealing that a staggering 16,000 chemicals are used in polymer and plastics production, posing alarming threats to human health and environmental sustainability.

Ubiquitous presence of plastics:

  • Plastics permeate every aspect of daily life, from food packaging to medical devices. Chemicals used in the production of plastics leach into the air, water, and soil, contaminating our food and bloodstream through ingestion and dermal exposure.
    • Burning plastic releases toxic chemicals, while microplastics and nanoplastics from larger items contaminate air, rainwater, and food.
    • They have been found in human breast milk and placenta.
  • Globalised supply chains of plastic chemicals and polymers have far-reaching, geographic, and temporal consequences.
  • The economic lifetime cost of pollution caused by plastic produced in 2019 alone is estimated at $3.7 trillion.
    • This is more than India's projected GDP for 2023-24. Low- and middle-income countries like India bear this cost disproportionately, up to 10 times more than high-income countries.

Assessment of chemicals used in polymer and plastics production:

  • According to the #PlastChem project, out of 16,000 chemicals used in polymer and plastics production, about 33% (5,458) were assessed, 25% (4,105) were found to be hazardous, 7% (1,192) were less hazardous, and only 1% (161) were classified as not hazardous; the remaining 66% (10,839) have not yet been assessed.
    • Recent discoveries by the scientific community have exposed the negative effects of the petrochemical and plastics industry, which has been long praised as a foundation of modern civilization, driving economic growth and innovation worldwide.
  • Despite global evidence of health and environmental impacts, India’s polymer and plastics industry largely operates without regulation regarding hazardous chemicals in plastic products.
  • This entrenched ignorance within our institutions primarily arises from the alignment of deliberate strategies employed by the petrochemical industry and related economic stakeholders.
    • They leverage their exclusive knowledge of risks to evade accountability and the routine functioning of scientific and regulatory frameworks.

Regulatory oversight in India:

  • The lack of regulations for chemicals in plastics and polymers in India raises questions about deliberate and institutionalised ignorance regarding plastic pollution.
    • While data on chemical accidents and acute poisoning exists, information regarding chronic health impacts remains scarce.
  • India mandates rigorous testing for food, cosmetics, and pharmaceutical producers to ensure that their products are safe for human use.
    • For cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and medical devices, they must get approval certificates from regulatory agencies, such as the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) and the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation (CDSCO).
  • In complete contrast, plastic products are sold without any public information about their chemical composition and associated health effects.
    • This, like the infamous case of Dupont’s use of “forever chemical” C8 in Teflon manufacturing despite knowing its health risks, underscores the urgent need for regulation.
      • For decades, Dupont suppressed evidence linking C8 to cancer, miscarriages, and other health issues, putting profits ahead of public safety.

India's stance on the Global Plastics Treaty:

  • The Global Plastics Treaty is an opportunity to bring about systemic change -  improve transparency, phase out hazardous plastic chemicals and polymers, and promote the development of non-toxic plastics or non-plastic alternatives where appropriate.
    • However, India’s submissions (Part A, Part B) to the UNEP ahead of the third Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee undermine this historic instrument.
  • Opposition to binding targets: India has proposed that the treaty on plastic pollution should not contain any binding targets or caps on the production of plastic polymers.
    • Instead, the focus should be on addressing the problem of plastic pollution by covering substances, materials, and products as required.
  • Common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR): The country stressed the concept of common but differentiated responsibilities and did not mention the precautionary principle.
    • CBDR principle establishes that all states are responsible for addressing global environmental destruction yet not equally responsible
    • The principle balances, on the one hand, the need for all states to take responsibility for global environmental problems and, on the other hand, the need to recognize the wide differences in levels of economic development between states.
  • Technical and Economic viability of alternatives: India suggested that substitutes and alternatives to plastic should only be considered if they are technically feasible and economically viable.
  • National design standards: Design standards for different products should depend on national circumstances and not be standardised at the global level.
  • Reconsideration of single-use definitions: Products that are considered single-use in developed countries are often reused in developing countries.

Way forward:

  • Comprehensive approach: India's chemical regulatory framework and environmental stewardship need a paradigm shift.
    • Rather than relying on voluntary industry disclosures, consumer complaints, and accidents that prompt piecemeal action, scientists suggest adopting a comprehensive approach to chemical safety based on independent science.
  • Transparency and traceability: To promote transparency and traceability, India should develop its own inventory and contribute to a global inventory of plastic chemicals and polymers, including production and trade volumes.
  • Definitions and hazard criteria: Clear definitions and harmonised hazard criteria, such as those set out in the EU's Chemical Strategy for Sustainability, should be established. Regulation must be grounded in the precautionary principle.
  • Grouping chemicals: Chemicals should be grouped based on the structure to simplify prioritisation and preempt regrettable substitutions (i.e., marketing slightly modified chemicals with similar hazards).
    • A positive list of plastics, chemicals, and polymers should determine what can be used and be regularly tested for their potential to degrade and release chemicals.
    • A negative list of chemicals and polymers with known hazards should be restricted and phased out.
  • Accountability for the petrochemical industry: The petrochemical industry must become more transparent and should be required to disclose the full list of chemicals used in plastic production.
    • There should also be enhanced accountability for industrial pollution and the impacts of chemicals.


The #PlastChem project highlights the need to dismantle power dynamics and institutional structures that perpetuate systemic unawareness about the harmful impacts of chemical pollutants. It calls for fundamentally re-evaluating India's chemical regulation and environmental sustainability approach, focusing on proactive measures to protect public health and maintain a sustainable planet.

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