Packaging industry: Low hanging fruit for sustainability

India struggles with phase out of single use plastics

Environment

January 31, 2022

/ By / New Delhi

Packaging industry: Low hanging fruit for sustainability

Landfills like this in Delhi are increasingly filled with plastic wastes (MIG Photos/Varsha Singh)

Despite adequate sustainable options, packaging remains one of the biggest polluters in the world. Though government of India has announced ban on single use plastics with effect from July 1, 2022, the market seems to be far from ready for it.

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July 1, 2022 will be a make-or-break day for Indian packaging industry as it would be the first day that a total ban on single use plastics will be enforced by the government.

After years of nudging the industry towards phase out of these plastics, the government has gone ahead and imposed clear deadlines as use of all kinds of plastics has continued to rise sharply over the past few years. In 2020, India produced 5.58 million tonnes of plastic waste, accounting for about 4.3 pc of the total global plastic waste production. Though India’s share of per capita waste generation is amongst the lowest in the world, it is still a huge challenge as landfills as well water bodies are rapidly getting crammed with plastic waste. In the three-stage ban, the first category of SUP items which were already phased out are plastic sticks used in balloons, flags, candy, ice-cream and ear buds, and thermocol that is used in decorations.

The second category, which is meant to be banned from July 1, includes items such as plates, cups, glasses and cutlery such as forks, spoons, knives, straws, trays; wrapping and packing films used in sweet boxes; invitation cards; cigarette packets; stirrers and plastic banners that are less than 100 microns in thickness. A third category of prohibition is for non-woven bags below 240 microns in thickness. This is proposed to start from September 30, 2022.

The ban defines for the first time non-woven plastic bags–widely used as shopping bags–and brought brand owners (selling single use plastics under a registered brand name) as well as plastic waste processors under its ambit. It has also, for the first time, defined thermoset plastic–which are irreversibly rigid and cannot be remoulded–and thermoplastics, which soften on heating. Thermoset plastics are used in electrical fittings and tableware whereas thermoplastics are used in items such as toys, combs and mugs.

But getting rid of plastics from everyday life is a lot tougher than imposing a ban as the packaging industry has cited job losses and the pandemic as excuses for seeking additional time for a total phase out.

One of the biggest users of single use plastics is the e-commerce industry which has over the years come to dominate retail businesses in India as well as around the world.

Unsurprisingly, the largest e-commerce firm in the world, Amazon, is amongst the top users and generators of single use plastics in the world. Last month, Amazon was again involved in a very public spat with environmental group, Oceana, that tracks the health of world’s oceans and said that Amazon’s plastic packaging waste had risen by a hefty 29 pc in 2020.

It said that according to its estimates Amazon produced 270,000 tonnes of plastic packaging waste and more than 10,700 tonnes of this waste is likely to end up in the sea. Amazon hotly contested the estimates, calling them overblown, but refused to share any data.

Whatever may be the exact amount of plastic waste generated by Amazon, there is no question that it has risen and even if Amazon says it has begun using more of recycled material and there is certainly a degree of truth in this, it still does not take away from the fact that not all of the recycled material can be recycled endlessly, looking at the sharply rising volumes of goods that Amazon is pushing through our doorways – at homes or offices.

Amazon’s is not the only business that has flourished during the pandemic. Food and grocery delivery firms, too, have boomed thanks to lockdowns and restrictions on moving about. Both of these businesses also rely heavily on packaging and as most of players players in this domain are national or regional, there are no estimates on the amount of waste produced by their packaging. But it is certain that the waste has boomed alongside business, which grew from $160 bn in 2019 to $270 bn in 2021, just for food deliveries. Grocery deliveries would add something similar to the overall figure.

In all these businesses and even beyond, there already exist, on industrial scale or definitely on pilot basis or prototypes of completely sustainable and biodegradable options that would not only entirely remove the need for plastics, but also ensure that there is little or no consumption of primary materials like wood. For instance, food containers made of rice husk or other by-products of farms have been made and are being used, but on extremely limited scale.

Sustainable packaging within easy reach

It is not a huge challenge for the companies to wholeheartedly adopt these products and at least start their journey towards sustainability in a visible manner and which would go a long way in cutting down waste that ends up in the landfills, incinerators or worse at the bottom of the oceans. Indeed, it calls for minor recalibrations in the assembly lines for large players like Amazon and simply change of supplier for most of the smaller outfits, say a restaurant or the local grocery store.

But the big companies, instead of leading the path, have adopted sustainability as tokenism instead of going the whole distance in it, or at least begin the journey in a sincere manner. Most of them stay away as it may involve a slight increase in their costs. But for companies that are churning out record profits and in tens of billions of dollars every year, these costs would be small change. Amazon saw its net profits soar by 84 pc in 2020 and a similarly hefty growth is expected when it releases results for 2021.

Despite sitting on such mounds of cash, Amazon has been loth to move to sustainability. Perhaps, what is needed is pressure, both from the consumers as well as the government. The governments can easily bring in laws mandating use of sustainable packaging, by taxing use of plastic and other material that is derived from sources other than by-products. Despite years of campaigning by organisations like Oceana and a much higher awareness of the dangers of plastics, they continued account for nearly half the total of the hundreds of millions of tonnes of waste produced around the world each year.

The packaging waste has been rising around the world each year and in 2019, an average European generated 178 kg of packaging waste, making a total of almost 80 million tonnes for the entire European Union. In the United States, packaging accounts for 63 pc of 292 million tonnes of waste generated in 2019. The figures are big and scary for most other large countries.

In face of this flood of largely avoidable waste, the consumers, on their part, can play an important role by naming and shaming companies that continue to obfuscate their move towards sustainable packaging. Just as consumer pressure has forced at least some of the fast-food outlets and some airlines to move to sustainable cutlery and straws, they could also lobby on favouring those businesses that forsake plastics totally and adopted sustainable packaging.

Beyond e-commerce and online delivery firms, the shift to sustainable packaging needs to become a must for other companies, too. Be it a Coca Cola or Unilever, the foods and FMCG companies use and produce millions of tonnes of waste every year and in every part of the world. For them, too, there exist options to be applied immediately in moving to plastic-free packaging.

The companies are often quick to point that there do not exist viable options for them to adopt biodegradable or sustainable packaging, but this is mainly because companies have not really put their hearts and minds into it. After all, so far most of biodegradable solutions have also come from small, out of garage operations rather than any Fortune 500 company.

One way to propel 100 pc biodegradable packaging materials like those made from agricultural or food waste is for the governments to force companies to invest heavily in developing these options and give them a reasonably short timeline to stop using plastic and other non-biodegradable material. After all, it is not for nothing that they say ‘necessity is mother of invention.

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