In a significant decision in Tamil Nadu And Puducherry Paper Cup Manufactures Association , the Supreme Court of India refused to interfere with the order of the Madras High Court that upheld the ban on reinforced paper cups introduced in the state of Tamil Nadu in 2019. However, the Apex Court directed the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) to re-consider the ban on non-woven bags afresh, taking into account the amended Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016, where the Centre regulated its use instead of imposing a complete ban.
The Plastic Waste Management Rules of 2016 were amended in 2021 by the Centre, allowing the manufacturing of non-woven bags weighing above 60 Grams Per Square Meter. The bench, consisting of Justice Ravindra Bhat and Justice PS Narasimha, passed this order in response to an appeal by an association of manufacturing units involved in the production of ‘reinforced’ paper cups and a manufacturer of non-woven plastic bags. They contested the State Government’s decision to ban their respective products.
The ma’n argument presented by the paper cup association was that the use of plastic in their products was minimal, constituting only 6% of the cup, with the remaining 94% being paper. They contended that the blanket ban on their products was unreasonable, arbitrary, and disproportionate.
However, the Court observed that these paper cups were indiscriminately used and discarded after a single use. Furthermore, they were non-biodegradable and posed challenges for recycling.
Given the scientific basis for the ban and the state government’s policy decision to ban various categories of single-use plastic products in the public interest, the Supreme Court concluded that there was no valid reason to interfere with the merits of the ban. It was noted that although the ban restricted the appellants’ Fundamental Right under Article 19(1)(g) (right to practice any profession or to carry on any occupation, trade, or business), this restriction was deemed reasonable and in the larger interest of a pollution-free environment. Therefore, it was upheld.
The paper cup association also argued that the mandatory consultative mechanism provided in Rule 4 of the Environment (Protection) Rules, 1986, which involves publishing a draft notification, inviting objections, and passing a final notification after considering objections from stakeholders, was not followed in this case.
The Court acknowledged that a pre-decisional hearing was not granted to the appellants, as mandated, before the ban was notified in 2018. However, it concluded that the ban needed to be upheld in light of the larger public interest involved. The Court also observed that the appellants were given an opportunity for a hearing before the ban came into effect in 2019, and their representation was considered on its merits.
In the present case, although the rule mandates a pre-decisional hearing, given the passage of time and the potential harm to the public if the notification were to be interfered with, the Court held that such an infraction should not invalidate the notification.
In the case of non-woven bags, the Court noted that they had some level of reusability, recyclability, and biodegradability depending on their composition. The appellants argued that a complete ban on them was disproportionate, while the state government defended the ban by pointing out issues such as improper biodegradation and littering that damages the environment.
The Court found that the ban on non-woven bags may require closer scrutiny, as they are reusable and recyclable to some extent and can biodegrade based on their composition. The Court also noted that no committee had been formed to examine the environmental impact of these products more closely.
In light of the amendments to the 2016 Rules, which now permit the manufacturing and use of non-woven bags weighing over 60 GSM, the Court felt that the appellants’ claim of disproportionality had some merit. The Court directed that the question of including non-woven bags within the ban on single-use plastic products be remanded back to the TNPCB for reconsideration.
This decision by the Supreme Court provides valuable guidance on the regulation of plastic products, balancing environmental concerns with the interests of manufacturers and the public. It underscores the need for comprehensive policies to address environmental challenges and highlights the importance of examining such bans in the context of larger public interests. The Court’s approach to these cases signifies its commitment to upholding public welfare while ensuring fairness and justice for all stakeholders involved.