Dumping Pepsi's Plastic

by Ann Leonard

MADRAS, INDIA - " We wan"t safe drinking water, not Pepsi," proclaim signs posted in Sambalpur, in the eastern Indian province of Orissa, where Indians are campaigning against Pepsi. Hundreds of protesters, under the leadership of former Member of Parliament Bhabani Shankar Hota, have been blackening out Pepsi billboards in the district and report to have succeeded in extracting an assurance from the local Pepsi distributor to suspend operations.

Meanwhile, in the Indian capital of New Delhi, thousands of activists have vowed to disrupt the sale of Pepsi in the city. The activists have denounced Pepsi as among the most visible symbols of the multinational invasion of this country and have already succeeded in decreasing sales in government canteens and at Delhi University.

The anti-Pepsi campaign is part of a larger "Swadeshi" movement urging the boycott of many foreign goods in the country. The term "Swadeshi" has been borrowed from the movement launched by Mahatma Gandhi against British-made goods during India's independence struggle. At that time, Gandhi called upon the British to "quit India;" now activists are calling on multinational corporations - including Pepsi - to quit India. Demands for "Pepsi Hatao" (Evict Pepsi) are now ringing throughout the country.

While anti-Pepsi sentiment has been strong since the company entered India four years ago, new charges that Pepsi is contaminating the country's environment through plastic waste dumping and other schemes have significantly intensified national antagonism to the beverage giant.

Indian environmentalists, working with investigators from Greenpeace's International Toxic Trade Project, have discovered that Pepsi is involved in both producing and disposing of plastic waste in India. Under Pepsi's two-part scheme, plastic for single-use disposal bottles will be manufactured in India and exported to the United States and Europe, while the toxic by-products of the plastic production process will stay in India. Used plastic bottles will then be returned from these countries to India.

India will bear the burden of environmental and health impacts from plastic production and plastic waste, while consumers in industrialized countries will be able to continue using and disposing of massive quantities of unsustainable and unnecessary beverage packaging without absorbing the true costs - financial, health and environmental. In short, India gets shafted at both ends, while industrialized country consumers receive all the benefits.

Pepsi's plastic dumping in Indi

 Activists first learned of Pepsi's waste exports to India through U.S. Customs Department Data. Greenpeace researchers discovered records listing Pepsi as the exporter of about 4,500 tons of plastic scrap in 23 shipments during 1993.

 The U.S. Customs records indicated that all of the waste exports were destined for the Southern Indian City of Madras. All of the shipments left from the U.S. West Coast: eight shipments from San Francisco, two shipments from Long Beach, 10 from Los Angeles, and three from Oakland. The most frequently used shipping lines for these waste shipments were OOCL and Presidential.

 Much of the waste was dumped at the site of a factory owned by Futura Industries in Tiruvallur, outside of Madras. "As we came over the hill in our auto-rickshaw, we saw a mountain of plastic waste," recounts Madras environmentalist Satish Vangal, one of the researchers who discovered the site. "Piles and piles of used soda bottles stacked behind a wall. When we got closer to the factory, we found many bottles and plastic scrap along the road and blowing in the wind. Every bottle we saw said ęCalifornia Redemption Value.' They were all from California's recycling program and now they are sitting in a pile in India!" explains Vangal. "We have enough problems dealing with our own plastic wastes; why should we import other peoples's rubbish?"

 Pepsi officials in the United States acknowledge the waste is exported to India, but claim it is all recycled. Futura officials also say the waste is imported, but they admit that much of it is not actually recycled. The senior manager of the Futura plant, Dr. L.R. Subbaraman, estimated that 60 to 70 percent of the waste can be processed at his factory, but the rest is either too contaminated with residual materials or other garbage that arrives mixed in with the shipment, or is the wrong type of plastic. Subbaraman refused to disclose the fate of the waste which cannot be reprocessed at the plant.

 Subbaraman reports that Futura has imported a total of 10,000 metric tons of plastic waste from Pepsi and other companies since 1992. If only 60 to 70 percent could be processed within the Futura plant, 3,000 to 4,000 metric tons of plastic garbage have been imported which were not recyclable. A visit to the back of the plant revealed a massive pile of plastic discards.

In a process that can only loosely be termed "recycling," the plastic waste which can be reprocessed is washed, chipped and melted to be incorporated into polyester made by Futura's parent company, Indian Organic Chemicals, Ltd. , (IOCL). Incorporating imported waste into the production process lowers the cost of polyester production but is not true recycling. True closed-loop recycling, with no new resource input and no waste output, is virtually impossible with plastic waste. Each time plastic is reheated, its chemical structure changes and the quality degrades. For this reason, a used plastic Pepsi bottle may be made into a secondary product, but cannot be made into a new Pepsi bottle.

Vangal explains that "instead of a Pepsi bottle going to a dump in California, a few months later you have a piece of polyester going to a dump here in India. This isn't recycling. At best, this type of reprocessing delays the eventually dumping of the plastic. At worst, it encourages consumers in California to buy more plastic, since their environmental concerns are lessened by the promise the bottles are being recycled." [see "South Asia: The New Target of International Waste Traders," Multinational Monitor, December 1993].

Providing jobs for those in need?

 Although Futura and IOCL representatives boast about how their factory provides jobs for needy low- income women in Tiruvallur, Subbaraman actually has plans to replace as many workers as possible with machines. He explains that workers cause problems. Often, he says, they are lethargic. "Later they will ask for more money, form organizations, maybe a union. We are always trying to be more machine oriented." In the meantime, while they still need manual labor, T. Gangadharam, managing director of Futura Polymers, says he prefers to hire women because "they are more adept since they have picky fingers." While they are employed, Subbaraman says, each worker receives Rs 20, or about 60 cents, a day to wash and process used soda bottles. Women workers outside the factory tell a different story. Although they work all day, they report that they are lucky if they get 30 cents a day. The workers also say that they do not have protective clothing to guard against painful hot-water washing, inhaling fumes or other exposure to contaminated plastics.

Pepsi officials in the United States, as well as their counterparts at Futura in Madras, maintain that there are no health threats posed by recycling plastic. However, Dr. Paul Johnston, of the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, who has investigated the effects of plastic recycling, has identified a number of harmful effects of plastic recycling, including skin and respiratory problems resulting from exposure to or inhalation of toxic fumes, especially hydrocarbons, and residues released during recycling processes.

 According to Johnston, "Existing data, though sparse, illustrates that health and environmental impacts can arise from a number of steps in plastic recycling processes and therefore that such operations need to achieve the highest environmental and occupational health standards. Problems can occur with both the initial sorting of waste and with the onward processing of the separated plastics."


Plastic Waste: From California to India

 Rather than switching to more environmentally benign (albeit heavier, and more expensive to transport) glass bottles, Pepsi, Coca-Cola and other plastic producers and users have set up a Los Angeles-based enterprise called the Plastics Recycling Corporation of California (PRCC) to facilitate their plastic waste exports. These companies' financial contributions to PRCC subsidize its purchase and export of the waste, virtually all to Asia.

 Ron Kemalyan, the broker for PRCC's Los Angeles office, admits that despite the company's name, it maintains no actual recycling facilities, and only arranges for waste to be exported. "We are a brokerage. We buy the bottles at 46 cents a pound from the municipal recyclers and sell it on to anybody who will buy it. They pay eight to 10 cents a pound and the difference is made up by the soft drink companies who set up this company," he says.

 Futura Polymer's T. Gangadharam says it makes economic sense to treat "this junk" from PRCC in India since it is cheaper to handle the waste there than to recycle it in the United States or transport it to U.S. landfill sites. "PRCC is very happy [that we import the waste.] We have taken a big load off their head," Gangadharam explains.

 While officials from Pepsi, PRCC and Futura and its parent IOCL all maintain that the plastic waste imports are legal, the shipments may violate both Indian law and the terms of an international treaty.

 Last April, Commerce Minister Pranab Mukherjee banned the import of plastic wastes into the country. In addition, India is a party to the United Nations' Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous and Other Wastes. This convention regulates the international waste trade. While not listing plastic waste as a separate category, the convention does include "wastes collected from households." Much of the plastic waste shipped to Asia by Pepsi or PRCC are plastic wastes collected from households in U.S. recycling programs, so this waste is covered by the Basel Convention.

The Basel Convention prohibits the trade of Basel-covered wastes between parties to the convention and non-parties unless the countries have a separate waste trade agreement in place. Since India is a party to the Basel Convention while the United States is not, waste shipments between the two violate the terms of the Basel Convention.

Pepsi's plastic production plans

 Waste disposal is only one part of the problem with plastic.
Plastic production poses even more severe threats to the environment and public health than disposal. While Pepsi is exporting its plastic waste problems to India, it is also quietly setting up new plastic production plants there.

 The Indian Foreign Investment Promotion Board (FIPB) has already cleared Pepsi's proposal for a joint venture with IOCL to set up a $25 million plant to manufacture plastic PET bottles. Pepsi Foods Limited will hold 51 percent equity in the new company with IOCL holding a 49 percent share.

The factory will be set up in the same region where the used Pepsi bottles are sent, near the Southern city of Madras, and will produce polyester chips and pre-forms for PET soda bottles. PepsiCo Inc. has promised to buy 100 percent of the Indian company's output for its European and U.S. operations.

 Greenpeace has denounced the project as an example of the unacceptable practice of a U.S.-based corporation locating its toxic operations in less-industrialized countries in order to avoid strict domestic environmental and labor laws. Marcelo Furtado, a toxic technologies expert with Greenpeace, says, "Single use plastic soda bottle production is an example of a hazardous and totally unnecessary technology. Instead of shifting this polluting technology to the Third World, Pepsi should bring back clean, safe, refillable glass bottles, like those used throughout India."

 Many Madras citizens have also expressed opposition to Pepsi's construction of plastic-producing facilities in their communities. Madras activists point out that plastic production generates far more toxic emissions and waste than glass production and poses a much higher risk for chemical accidents than glass production. Says Vangal, "Westernized countries should worry about reducing their consumption of plastic, instead of quietly moving their hazardous plastic factories and shovelling their plastic wastes into my country."


Dangers of Plastic Production

Independent consultants Henry Cole and Ken Brown, in their recent report "Advantage Glass," explained that "the major ingredients used in glass production are naturally occurring minerals including sand, limestone, soda ash and feldspar. These materials are solid, inert, non-flammable, and are largely non- toxic. ... The major chemicals used to make plastic resins pose serious risks to public health and safety. Many of the chemicals used in large volumes to produce plastics are highly toxic. Some chemicals, like benzene and vinyl chloride, are known to cause cancer in humans; many tend to be gases and liquid hydrocarbons which readily vaporize and pollute the air. Many are flammable and explosive. Even the plastic resins themselves are flammable and have contributed to numerous chemical accidents."

 "The production of plastic emits substantial amounts of toxic chemicals (eg. ethylene oxide, benzene and xylenes) to air and water. Many of the toxic chemicals released in plastic production can cause cancer and birth defects and damage the nervous system, blood, kidneys and immune systems. These chemicals can also cause serious damage to ecosystems."