Are we prepared to stop the plastic menace?

Past efforts to ban single-use plastic items have not gone very well. Each time the main challenges have been alternatives, enforcement and awareness. Will the single-use plastics ban in July 2022 suffer the same fate or are we ready to deal with it this time around?

Are we really ready to deal with the single-use plastic menace this time around?

Plastics don’t really break down. They just break up into micro pieces.

That’s why, only 9 per cent of single-use plastics get recycled, while the remaining float in the air, go into landfills or pollute our water bodies. Which is extremely dangerous for the environment.

And if the growth in single-use plastic production continues to surge, they could account for five to 10 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Another report says that soon there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean, if we don’t do anything.

However, with common consensus, the government wants us to stop using single-use plastic products, which it has been planning to ban, albeit unsuccessfully for years.

India is now banning 20 single-use plastic products. So, come July, you might not get straws with your packaged juices anymore.

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Panic over ban

Interestingly, India Inc was aware of the decision because it was made a long time ago. However, reportedly, CXOs in the packaged food industry are urging the government to defer this ban, while asking for more time because they do not have any alternatives to single-use plastic products yet.

For instance, in April, Amul’s Managing Director RS Sodhi told the media that they haven’t worked out any practical solution to straws.

Companies like Amul, PepsiCo, Dabur, Parle Agro, Coca-Cola and many more use significant plastic packaging such as straws in their products. When the ban will kick in, it will be a huge disruption for the packaged food players in the form of input costs.

And it’s not just only the large enterprises who will get impacted, think of the thousands of street vendors or juice sellers, who use single-use plastics prolifically.

“I didn’t even know about the ban until you told me,” says a juice vendor in the market in Noida. “What is going to happen?” he wonders. Like him many vendors are clueless, and the ban is going to impact this industry badly, as it comes during the sweltering summer when the demand for beverages surges.

However, just on this basis, this decision cannot be reversed. If we look at the pattern, India has been failing in the compliance to the plastic ban due to several reasons. The first being failed enforcement and the second being the lack of alternatives to single-use plastics.

Now the question arises that are we ready to skip single-use plastics, at a time when the pandemic has caused a surge in consumption? Do we have the right alternatives yet?

Are we ready?

There’s no definite answer to this question, rather it depends on the availability of alternatives, the processes to manage plastic and the prevailing mindset.

“There exist several challenges in terms of alternate material availability or demonstration of the use of alternative material for packaging as a replacement for single use packaging,”

says Shashi Kumar, founder and CEO of Akshayakalpa Organic.

Despite using sustainable packaging solutions for his own company products, Kumar feels that India Inc is not ready.

Moglix a B2B industrial e-commerce space is in favour of the ban but Partha Dash, its Managing Director- New Business and Growth feels that single use plastic elimination is a gradual process.

“At large, for manufacturers and brands to succeed in the adherence of this ban, they need to make a gradual, yet informed shift to implement sustainable packaging practices in the coming months,” he says.

However, AGI Glaspac, one of the giants in glass manufacturing has been observing a substantial increase in demand due to the plastic being phased out. It’s more due to the companies abiding with their sustainability goals.

Its CEO, Rajesh Khosla tells us, “Rising consumer demand for safer and healthier packaging which was accelerated by COVID-19 is helping glass packaging grow in different categories. We are witnessing demand from the F&B, pharmaceutical and beauty sectors and even the end consumers have started indicating a preference for glass.”

“We are expecting the demand to grow exponentially in the coming years,” he adds.

But he also feels that it will take a lot of other efforts to deal with the plastic menace. “This ban is not sufficient on its own. It has to be supported by other initiatives and government regulations,” he points out.

Is India devoid of alternatives?

Here is the list of the plastic products that the government doesn’t want us to use.

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These are also the things that we as consumers often use. However, due to the trending sustainability quotient, most people are choosing reusable, repurposed and recyclable products.

Reportedly industry players such as the Action Alliance for Recycling Beverage Cartons (AARC) claim that there is no viable alternative at the moment. “The industry is looking to import paper straws, even though there is not enough availability globally,” says the body. FMCG giants like Dabur are insisting on the need to extend the deadline by 2-3 years for a smooth transition.

According to them, the industry has been working on biodegradable PLA straws as alternatives, but these are still 9-12 months away from validation. This was mainly about the failures of paper straws, which despite being biodegradable don’t work out well with beverages, as they get soggy. But there are other similar cons as well with paper packaging.

Organic milk start-up owner Kumar says, “Yes, it is absolutely justified to say that India is devoid of good quality alternatives.”

“Unless we have an alternative to single-use plastic, we still need to pack materials, still need to give bags, and still, require it for a lot more purposes. Unless there are economically viable alternatives, people will find loopholes in the single-use plastic campaigns that we have. That however is a very unfortunate scenario, and a lot of innovation needs to take place to replace the single-use plastics,” he adds.

There are alternatives

AGI Glaspac’s Khosla says that there are various other good quality options that can replace single-use plastics. “There are several sustainable alternatives made out of glass, sugarcane waste, seaweed, bamboo, vegetable waste, etc, that are available in the market that people can opt for instead of plastic,” he claims.

And our old traditional cloth bags always come in handy, he adds.

“In the market too, they are gaining pace. I can also see that lot of places have started using paper bags. Just like how every change takes time to sink in, this will take its time too. But we, as a country, are taking baby steps towards being a plastic-free society,” Khosla says.

Akshayakalpa Organic is selling tender coconuts with an opener attached to them. They are also delivering bananas wrapped in coir pith from coconut husks, and the local plant material. They have also launched paper board packaging for milk and have received an exceptional response from their consumers.

In fact, there are a multitude of innovations taking place to develop products that can replace plastics. For instance, an IIT Roorkee professor Kirtiraj K Gaikwad along with his MTech student Lokesh Kumar, came up with a plant based synthetic plastic. The product can be leveraged as packaging material and is made from pine needle waste. “We looked for the major component in the plastic, that can also be found in plant. After extracting it from that plant, we started researching on it, and found it suitable for developing sustainable, biodegradable, and synthetic packaging material,” Prof Gaikwad tells us.

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Professor Kirtiraj K Gaikwad and his M Tech (Packaging Tech) student Lokesh Kumar with plant based plastic packaging

He says that it took them one and half years to develop the product. “A few companies have already approached IIT to manufacture the product on a large scale. However, we are in the middle of the patent process, so there is a delay in considering the offers. But, in future if we get a good deal, we will definitely launch it on a large scale to benefit India,” asserts Prof Gaikwad.

Another professor and founder of Bengaluru based Sunbird Straws Saji Verghese, developed eco-friendly coconut leaves-based straws, that are performing well in the market. According to their website, he got the idea in 2017, and it took him two years to develop the patented multi-layered, chemical free, viable, and fully functional straw. Today they sell a variety of straws online.

Dash of Moglix’s comments that it’s not like that we don’t have products. In fact, they as an e-commerce platform are trying to inculcate sustainable packaging habits. He says that the company has several strategic tie-ups and provides end-to-end paper products, to replace single-use plastics.

“We offer several sustainable solutions such as compostable bags, Rotto cotton bags, jute carry bags, paper tape, Hexa papers, air paper cushions, Bagasse food tray, pulp molded bags, among others. Most of the packaging products that Moglix uses are locally manufactured,” he says.

Then why is there so much hesitancy towards the alternatives?

The answer lies in the three challenges– enforcement, money and time.

A money draining process

According to the packaged food manufacturers, it will be a herculean task to ditch out and replace the plastics–loose or otherwise that come with the packaging.

Millions of packaged food companies or small vendors that depend on single-use plastics products, would have to halt their plastics supply chain. Then re-invest in the new packaging products, which will affect their cost cycles in a huge way.

According to AARC, production and sales will stop to a large extent if the government does not extend the deadline for the industry, which is estimated to be around Rs 6,000 crores.

Amul says that the alternatives to plastic straws are 3-4 times costlier, and not effective. Adding that straws are not even 0.1 per cent of the total plastic consumption. And it’s not just about straws, every sort of new packaging will bring large cost implications for the companies, that come in the ambit of this ban.

Citing his own experience, Kumar says that the cost implications are higher. Since they have changed the packaging, his company has been burdened by an additional 2.5 Rs/ litre due to the increased cost of packaging material.

“The packaging machine is around Rs. 3 crores of capital investment. Every 1-litre packet costs us around Rs 7.5 in a paper board. These are the kinds of investments we’ve done. We pack around 35,000 litres of liquid milk in Bangalore. Now imagine if we convert all this milk into a Rs 7.5 paper board package, it’s a huge investment that we are making both operationally as well as in capital expenditure,” he tells us.

As for ROI, company wants to make the packaging sustainable. They wish to collect the discarded packaging material from consumers and recycle it. “We want to see if we can recycle and repurpose and if the revenues can be recouped. It has a long way to go, I believe that it is easily a 10-year journey,” he adds.

Needs time and enforcement measures

Despite agencies working actively to curb the plastic menace, most of their past efforts have been in vain, due to them not being implemented with a better plan.

In 2012, the government banned the sale, storage and manufacturing of all sorts of plastics, but this order was contested in the high court. In 2016, NGT again banned plastic bags of less than 50 microns in Delhi-NCR with effect from 2017, in a phased manner. But that also fizzled out. The government even came out with the Solid Waste Management Rules in 2016 to put off production and sale of plastic carry bags of less than 50 microns. The Maharashtra government also came out with a similar order in 2018, but due to poor enforcement strategies, the plan failed, and it had to back down.

The government had amended the plastic waste management rules 2021 in August last year. And July is the D-day. Clearly, its success depends on right enforcement measures or strategies, awareness in the consumers and most importantly on time.

“So, despite the industry wanting to fast-track, it will take some time,” said AARC. While, Dabur stated, “We have spoken to the government to give us transition time. We need at least two to three years for every plastic straw to be replaced by either bio-compostable or paper straws.”

With less than one month in hand, it seems to be a tough task.

“The ban will help, but other supporting policies are needed by the government if the ban is going to be effective. Without any alternatives, users and manufacturers are liable to fall back on plastics,” comments Khosla.

Dash also feels that the nation needs to implement long-term supporting policies for manufacturers and brands to ensure the effectiveness of this ban. In addition, there are several limitations on the scale of production. The alternate solutions available are labour intensive and costly. He suggests that the industries need to invest more in R&D, saying, “It will help in optimising production and consumption. The cost will be a key factor in the adoption of sustainable packaging. An alternative to SUP will create a long-term measure to serve the global vision to fight plastic pollution.”

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Make the consumers aware and give them incentives

Another concern is that of consumer awareness. Lately, there has been a rise in a consumer class, which deeply believes in sustainability. They laud brands that are shifting to sustainable and returnable packaging, but they are too less!

Most people still don’t know about how dangerous single-use plastics can be. This needs to change.

“What the consumers don’t understand is that single-use plastic, as the name suggests, is only single use. It cannot be recycled further, and it goes into landfills. So, they really need to attempt to make them understand the horrors of single-use plastic,” says Kumar.

The government should take aggressive measures to ban single-use plastics and spread awareness about what is happening to the landfills. Once the consumers are aware, they will themselves want to opt for the alternatives to single-use plastic and they will start thinking differently, he adds.

Furthermore, technology upgradation for mechanical recycling is another measure that the industry watchers are suggesting.

Indian small businesses could make a huge difference to these initiatives as well. It is a recognised reality that the recycling sector is mostly controlled with the aid of extraordinarily small players, who use simple waste segregation procedures, without the expert knowledge of waste collection, segregation, and disposal. “The government should help in providing incentives to the companies producing alternate options to accelerate the adoption of integrated waste management in the market,” Khosla recommends.

Lastly, awareness, enforcement, and alternatives are the three supporting policies that will aid in achieving the intended goal of completely phasing out single-use plastics in the country in a timely manner.