SDGs and ESG

Plastic packaging industry: The way forward

Packaging

The widespread problem of plastic waste: Continuous scientific and industrial development have resulted in some path-breaking innovations in the fields of transport, healthcare, education, communication, etc. But this large-scale development has not been without its own share of demerits.  Improper management of waste has been one of the drawbacks of development. Environmental indicators in the last decade paint a gloomy picture. Of all the environmental concerns, plastic pollution remains the most serious one, adversely impacting land, water and biodiversity.

An integral part of our lifestyle: The versatile nature of plastics makes them useful for various purposes, ranging from manufacturing of car parts, electrical components, television sets and insulators to daily-use objects like bottles and furniture. Even if you are using a non-plastic product, the packaging material could still be predominantly plastic based.  Plastic constitutes 60% of the global packaging market[1]  and India’s dependency on plastic is no less than that of other countries. In 2018, the packaging industry was the largest consumer of plastic in India, accounting for 59% of the country’s total plastic consumption. Globally, this is forecasted to grow at an annual rate of 3.5% to 69.8 million tonnes between 2019–24.[2]

Alternatives to plastics: The global scale of plastic usage makes it difficult for users to switch to alternatives. Plastic enjoys the advantages of a well-established manufacturing ecosystem that presents competitively priced packaging options, is waterproof, helps reduce transportation costs and is customisable. None of alternatives to plastics (namely, glass and paper) can comprehensively replace these benefits.  Moreover, paper and glass also come with their own set of environmental challenges such as tree felling or significant increase in Co2 emissions.[3]

Alternatives to plastic also need to be looked at from the point of view of their environmental impact at every stage of their life-cycle. This will enable us to arrive at a fair assessment of their sustainability.

A global priority: In the past few years, plastic usage, especially in the packaging industry, has been a cause of concern for governments and citizens. Public concerns, along with regulatory backing, are amongst the most powerful trends driving major sustainability changes in the packaging industry. Studies have shown that a significant segment of consumers consider environment friendly packaging as the most important factor driving their purchasing decisions.[4]  For instance, as per the Global Buying Green Survey Report, 2020, of the 15,000+ consumers surveyed, 74% of the consumers were willing to pay more for sustainable packaging. This is also reflected in the NYU Stern School of Business study’s findings that products with a sustainability focus grew at an average of 5.6 times more as compared to the conventionally marketed products.[5] With the clear pattern emerging in the form of consumer push towards “green” and “environment friendly” packaging, brands are responding to these consumer preferences by offering environment-friendly packaging options. Companies worldwide are promoting the recycling of their packaging materials, with a majority of the top fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies promoting sustainability in packaging, emphasising full recyclability and reducing the overall usage of plastic.[6],[7]

The Government of India plans to phase out single-use plastic packaging material by 2022,[8] as well as redefine industry standards for recycled plastics, as set by the Bureau of Indian Standards.[9] The Government is also looking to strictly implement the Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016, to ensure that companies using plastic in their packaging and production processes safely dispose the waste produced. This is termed extended producer responsibility (EPR), and is aimed at ensuring that producers and manufacturers of plastic are responsible for the collection, channelisation and treatment of plastic waste. This is in line with several international policies on waste management.

Despite initiatives by organisations and regulatory pushes, the real challenges with managing plastic waste remain widespread in India. Almost 40% of the total plastic waste generated in the country is disposed of unscientifically.[10] India’s current plastic waste management system is heavily dependent on the  informal sector, which has the potential to reduce the amount of waste dumped in landfills in Indian cities by as much as 70%[11]. However, despite the environmental, commercial and social benefits of working with the informal sector, municipalities, brands and other waste management companies struggle to work effectively with the sector. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a further surge in the use of single-use plastic.[12] Other challenges such as lack of waste segregation at source, lack of infrastructure for collection and treatment of waste, viable alternatives to conventional plastic packaging material, monitoring compliance with the relevant regulations, and inventorisation on the total use and disposal of packaging material are all factors that have led to the increased mismanagement of plastic waste.

Way forward: A drastic measure such as banning plastics will have a range of adverse effects. While such a ban has been adopted by several states in India, it is expected to result in losses worth INR 53,000 crore and impact approximately 13 lakh personnel involved in the plastic packaging industry.[13]

A more reasonable way to tackle the problem of the environmental impact of plastic waste would be to improve waste collection and reuse, thereby creating a circular economy. To achieve this, stakeholders can explore options such as including more recycled content in the final finished product and reducing dependency on virgin polymers. Businesses can also explore eco-friendly packaging options to reduce the negative environmental impact of plastic packaging.[14]

Consumers in India need to be more vocal about their expectations related to sustainable packaging and reducing dependencies on plastic. They should also be aware of their role as plastic waste generators and need to segregate plastic waste at the source. Public-private campaigns supported by the Government could help build further awareness on such issues.

Lastly, the Government of India and the regulators can both explore better implementation of existing regulations and provide support in the form of incentives to further reduce the environmental impact of plastic waste. Active participation and a cohesive approach by the Central Government and state governments are absolutely necessary to achieve the intended goal. Effective use of technology can also help in assessing and reducing the environmental impact of plastic waste.

[1] https://www.forbes.com/sites/businessreporter/2020/02/20/how-the-circular-economy-is-revolutionising-the-plastics-packaging-industry/#2dc1c6203d93

[2] https://www.forbes.com/sites/businessreporter/2020/02/20/how-the-circular-economy-is-revolutionising-the-plastics-packaging-industry/#2dc1c6203d93

[3] http://ficci.in/spdocument/20573/Plastic-Packaging-the-sustainable-and-smarter-choice.PDF

[4] https://daneshyari.com/article/preview/1062650.pdf

[5]  https://triviumpackaging.com/sustainability/2020BuyingGreenReport.pdf

 

[6] https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/how-india-is-trying-to-solve-its-plastics-waste-problem/articleshow/64431263.cms

[7] https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/how-india-is-trying-to-solve-its-plastics-waste-problem/articleshow/64431263.cms

[8] https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/is-india-serious-about-phasing-out-all-single-use-plastic-by-2022/articleshow/71409984.cms

[9] https://law.resource.org/pub/in/bis/S11/is.14534.1998.pdf

[10] https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/india-has-a-26000-tonne-plastic-waste-problem/articleshow/67652635.cms

[11] http://journals.openedition.org/factsreports/5143

[12] https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/international/world-news/single-use-plastic-makes-a-comeback-amid-outbreak/covid-induced/slideshow/76459043.cms

[13] http://ficci.in/spdocument/20573/Plastic-Packaging-the-sustainable-and-smarter-choice.PDF

[14] https://ecodesign-packaging.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/ecodesign_core_guidelines_online.pdf

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Lucky

    September 23, 2020 at 10:50 pm

    Insightful article. Plastic waste is a growing concern and we need to manage it efficiently.

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