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    Giving LAC’s First Plastic Packaging Law Teeth

    By Keith R | November 3, 2007

    Topics: Cleaning Products, Cosmetics/Personal Care Products, Environmental Protection, Food/Beverage Issues, Packaging, Pharmaceutical Issues, Waste & Recycling | No Comments »

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    An interesting thing happened over the last two weeks. Well, interesting to people like me who’ve been following the packaging waste debate for decades, at least. Environment enforcement officials for Rio de Janeiro (RJ) state “blitzed” supermarkets in Rio de Janeiro city — first on 19 October in the well-to-do Leblon section, then on 23 October in the Tijuca section — and fined them for not complying with Latin America’s first plastic packaging law. This quickly led to a meeting of state officials with the retail industry, resulting in industry commitments to (finally) fully comply with the seven-year old law.

    What, you didn’t know LAC had plastic packaging laws, much less that Rio had the first? Ay mama, I really do need to do that packaging waste report I have been promising to Temas clients…

    The First, But Long a Paper Tiger…

    Yes, RJ passed a law in January 2000 modelled after bills on plastic packaging and packaging waste that had been introduced (but never passed) in the National Congress. Soon Mato Grosso do Sul state, the Federal District and a few municipalities (mostly notably São Paulo and its neighbor Santo Andre) adopted their own versions of the law, with legislators in many other states and municipalities seeking to follow suit (a similar bill was vetoed by Esprito Santo’s governor not long ago).

    Under the RJ law, both producers and distributors are responsible for ensuring that all plastic packaging utilized for selling beverages (of all kinds), foods, lubricating oils, cosmetics, cleaning products and chemical products (but not pesticide packaging) is either recycled or reused rather than landfilled or incinerated. Producers/distributors of such packaging have to buy their used plastic packaging from consumers — at least 25% of what they sold (notably, the laws passed by other jurisdictions afterwards — MS, and the municipalities of São Paulo, Santo André and Ribeirão Preto all set tougher targets — 90% by the end of the third year after their laws are published). Award of a company’s environmental licenses is conditioned on compliance with the buy-back provision.

    The producers/distributors of the aforementioned plastic packaging have to devote a portion of their advertising budget on anti-litter, pro-recycling public messages. Labels of affected packaging sold in RJ state must inform consumers on (1) proper disposal of the packaging; (2) buy-back procedures; (3) the toll-free number for more information on buy-back.

    RJ’s authorities made no moves to enforce the law until they issued an implementing decree in 2002. This is all too common in Brazil (and elsewhere in LAC): a law sets the general principles and framework, but nothing happens until a decree is adopted that fills in essential details and points of regulatory interpretation. If an authority tries to enforce a vague law alone, the subject of the enforcement effort will complain in court that they did not act because they needed regulatory guidance.

    Even after the implementing decree was in place, RJ authorities were timid about enforcing the law. Their efforts were mostly limited to exhorting large beverage producers to cut deals with cooperatives of informal recyclers (catadores) to buy the empty plastic bottles they collect.

    …Long Honored More in the Breech…

    When Carlos Minc became State Environment Secretary earlier this year, one of his top priorities was to finally get meaningful implementation and enforcement of RJ’s many environmental laws. Minc, you see, during his years as State Deputy was the author or co-sponsor of many of them (including the plastic packaging law). He even had a print and web campaign devoted to the theme “cumpre-se!” (comply!).

    While still Deputy and chair of the state assembly’s environment committee, Minc held a public hearing in October 2006 on the implementation of the law, with representatives of the beverage industry [primarily Coca-Cola, Ambev and the Brazilian Soft Drinks Industry Association (Associação Brasileira da Indústria de RefrigerantesAbir)], retailers [both the state supermarket association (Associação de Supermercados do Estado do Rio de JaneiroAsserj) and some of the chains], and representatives of the plastics industry (primarily the Brazilian PET Industry Association, Abipet).

    The soft drink industry argued that they were making best efforts to comply, supporting many catador co-ops and buying much of their used PET. They also made public commitments on ad spending to promote container recycling, and to provide better information to the consuming public about where they can return their empty plastic bottles (Ambev and Coca-Cola had already set the information systems up, but some of their competitors had not). Ambev particularly made an impression, revealing that they would build a large packaging recycling facility in RJ state [the plant was finally inaugurated just last week]. Even so, calculations were that the bottlers were only buying back about 12% of the packaging their operations generated in the state.

    The presentation of the retailers was less impressive. The Extra chain said that they had eight plastic packaging collection points and planned to add six more. Extra said that instead of cash, they gave consumers bringing in plastic packaging rice and beans (a staple of Brazilian cooking). Two other supermarket chains promised to adopt buy-back programs.

    …But Now, Cumpre-Se

    Last May Minc, now State Environment Secretary in a new administration, sent letters to about 200 retailers advising them to comply with the 2000 law, that the grace period for doing so was long past. In October Minc led the Integrated Coordination to Combat Environmental Crimes unit (Coordenadoria Integrada de Combate aos Crimes Ambientais – Cicca *) in highly publicized enforcement “blitzs” on Sendas and Zona Sul chain supermarket locations in Rio’s high rent district, Leblon, and then Extra and Guanabara chain stores in the Tijuca district a few days later. [Temas Observation: It’s interesting that Minc chose two stores (Extra, Sendas) belonging to the large Brazilian retail group, Grupo Pão de Açucar, but none belonging to rivals Wal-Mart or Carrefour. Is that because the latter have shown themselves already to be working toward compliance? That he didn’t want to be seen picking only on foreign-based chains? Or some other calculation entirely?]

    In each case when the local manager could not present documentation of their store’s packaging buy-back efforts (as the law requires that they have on-hand), they were conducted to the offices of the environmental unit of the RJ civil police. The chains were fined and had to signed “terms of conduct adjustment” (termo de ajuste de conduta) agreements stipulating compliance steps they would take within set timelines or else face further action.

    During the raids Minc was clear that his patience was ending. They were given ample warning and time to comply, he told reporters. The state spends around R$18 million a year to clear its waterways of plastic trash, he pointed out, so focusing resources on getting the private sector to meet its legal obligations under the law may be money well-spent. Supermarkets sold around 900 million plastic bottles of goods every year in Rio; it was time for them to meet their legal target of 25% buy-back.

    The raids and their attendant publicity got the attention of the retail trade (nothing focuses the mind of top executives like seeing bad publicity linked to their brand and their managers taken off to a police station). On 29 October Minc met with representatives of the Industry Federal of Rio de Janeiro (Firjan), Asserj, Abipet, and the RJ chapter of the Commerce Federation (Fecomércio-RJ). The retailers agreed to bring themselves into line with the state law within six months, and formed a committee to present to the State Environment Secretariat within two months a detailed operational plan, complete with timelines and targets, to implement that commitment that would become the basis of an industry-wide term of conduct adjustment agreement.

    They also agreed to (1) work closely with catador co-ops, including giving them equipment such as transport, presses and balers, to recover plastic packaging; (2) work with catadores and SERLA to create “eco-barriers” where waterways feed into Guanabara Bay that would catch plastic packaging before it enters the Bay so that it can be collected and recycled.

    Still More to be Done

    I suspect that this will not be the last we see of Minc’s enforcement efforts regarding the plastic packaging law. He has long expressed frustration at the cosmetic, pharmaceutical, cleaning product and lubricants sectors for refusing to discuss their role in implementing the law. Given that several cosmetic and pharmaceutical firms, including Natura and Johnson and Johnson (J&J) have recently elected to switch to PET for their product packaging in Brazil, he may decide it is time to bring them to task.

    So stay tuned!

    * Cicca was created to pool resources and coordinate the environmental enforcement efforts of the State Environmental Engineering Foundation (FEEMA, the main environmental licensing and inspection body), the Superindency for Rivers and Lakes (SERLA), the State Forestry Institute (IEF), the Environmental Protection Delegation (DPMA) of the state civil police, and the Environment and Forestry Battalion (Batalhão de Polícia do Meio Ambiente e Florestal – BPFMA) of the state military police, and the Federal Police.

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