With no alternatives in sight for single-use plastic in packaging, Lounge takes a look at why plastic remains so pervasive
From using recycled paper to reverse logistics, the likes of Amazon and Flipkart recently announced sustainable packaging measures
It’s a huge market. Even if you walk around for an entire day, you won’t be able to cover it," says Vijay Kumar Sharma, the 75-year-old office secretary at the PVC & Plastic Waste Dealers Association office. The waste hub, Asia’s biggest plastic scrap centre and waste recycling market, is located on the outskirts of Delhi, in Tikri Kalan. Sharma has been working there since 1980.
In the middle of this waste centre—spread across almost 250 acres—where plastic is all-pervasive, the association office building stands out with its slick tile work. Outside, at one end, workers are unloading oversized gunny bags from transport trucks—they are filled with plastic scrap from across the country. In another corner, two ragpickers, both women, are picking and sorting footwear soles from massive piles. The other thing here, apart from fleets of trucks, is tonnes of plastic in different forms and shapes. The plastic waste that enters this market is dismantled and processed into pellets, which are then purchased by manufacturers to make an array of plastic products, everything from tubs to slippers, Sharma tells me.
Work at the PVC and plastic waste market, however, has been slow of late. The association office is empty when I visit, barring a young employee who is finishing his lunch. I wonder if Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s comment about “freeing India" from single-use plastic, made during his Independence Day speech this year, is having an effect—though, by October, the prospective blanket ban had given way to a plan to phase out single-use plastic in the country by 2022.
Pointing to the pen I am using to jot down notes, Sharma says, “The same Chinese plastic pen that is in my pocket and your hand costs ₹100." A plastic pen, like some of the other plastic products we use daily, does not break down easily. “When it’s of no use, it goes into the dustbin. Its value is not even 10 paise after that," explains Sharma, who says there is “uncertainty and no clarity" about what will happen going forward.
While plastic is all around us, one of the most common and widely implemented uses of single-use plastic globally is packaging. Almost every retail product we buy, order or consume today comes packaged in plastic. The numbers are startling. Plastic packaging accounts for nearly half of this waste stream globally: Nearly 50% of the plastic waste generated in the world in 2015 was plastic packaging, according to a 2018 UN Environment Programme (Unep) report (Single-Use Plastics: A Roadmap For Sustainability). Much of it is thrown away within a few minutes.
According to an estimate by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) in 2012, India generates almost 26,000 tonnes of plastic waste daily. That figure would only have increased. A significant chunk of this is plastic packaging. Around 43% of manufactured plastic in the country is used for packaging purposes, most of which is single-use, according to a fact-sheet on plastic waste released by The Energy and Resources Institute (Teri) in 2018.
The quest for alternatives to cut down the use of single-use plastic in the packaging industry seems never-ending. From using bioplastics and going back to traditionally used materials like paper and glass to implementing reverse logistics (returning packaging to the manufacturer for recycling), a number of solutions have been mooted. E-commerce companies are now implementing measures to cut down plastic use from their supply and delivery chains. Some smaller brands are battling technical challenges and cost-related issues as they look at ways to move away from plastic.
But there is a reason plastic remains a go-to material worldwide.
While the origin of plastic can be traced back to 1862, it was in the 1950s that it started gaining on every other packaging material: paper, jute, metal, glass. “Plastic came into prominence because of its inherent properties. It provides a barrier which is impermeable to air, moisture and so on. If you look at bulk packaging in the earlier days, cement used to be packed in jute sacks. But there were a lot of losses because of transportation. If these sacks were exposed to moisture anywhere during transport, the cement would harden. That was the reason plastic woven sacks became important for bulk packaging," says Suneel Pandey, director, environment and waste management division, Teri. “Any typical plastic gives you a shelf life of six months (for products), which was not possible with paper and other (types of) packaging. It doesn’t breathe. Something that is packed inside plastic remains safe for a longer period."
Another reason plastic became so important, Pandey explains, was the immense pressure on forests for wood. “Paper was essentially coming from wood pulp. If all packaging were to be non-plastic, then there would have been a lot more pressure on forests and wood-producing plants," he adds.
The rise of e-commerce in the last few years has added a new dimension to this debate—almost every item sold online comes in a box, packaged in plastic. The phase-out announcement in October was swiftly followed by an advisory from the Union ministry of commerce and industry to e-commerce companies to gradually cut down single-use plastic in packaging. Companies were also advised by the department for promotion of industry and internal trade (DPIIT) to seek out sustainable packaging material.
Flipkart and Amazon India, two of the biggest e-commerce firms in the country, recently announced sustainable packaging measures. Flipkart disclosed in August that it had achieved a 25% reduction in single-use plastic through initiatives across its packaging value chain. The e-commerce marketplace, which was founded in 2007, now uses eco-friendly paper shreds in its product packages. Poly pouches have been replaced by recycled paper bags. For cushioning in its packages, the company is replacing bubble wrap and plastic air-bags with carton-waste shredded material and 2-ply rolls. It is also looking to move towards 100% recycled plastic consumption in its own supply chain by March 2021.
“When you look at packaging, there are multiple elements to it," says Mahesh Pratap Singh, head, sustainability, Flipkart. “We have looked at components like, say, the invoice. Most packages had a poly pouch which had an invoice inside it. We replaced those pouches with recycled paper-based pouches or just put the invoices in the boxes itself," explains Singh. “The objective really is to move away entirely from virgin plastic and use 100% recycled plastic or alternative materials, like paper," he adds.
At Amazon India, there are plans to eliminate single-use plastic from packaging by June 2020. The company announced in September that all plastic dunnage (like air pillows and bubble wrap, used for product protection) across its fulfilment centres in India would be replaced with “paper cushions" by the end of the year.
A packaging-free shipment (PFS) initiative launched in 2018 has also been expanded to 13 cities. “Packaging-free shipments refers to orders shipped in their original packaging without secondary or additional packaging. PFS was introduced to reduce waste generated from secondary packaging of customer orders," says Akhil Saxena, vice-president, customer fulfilment, Amazon India, on email. Last year, the company also doubled instances of customers receiving a box with multiple products in it, reducing the amount of packaging material used overall.
Globally, numerous consumer goods companies are also moving to replace, cut down or eliminate plastic packaging. Last month, Unilever, for instance, committed to halving the amount of “virgin" plastic in its packaging by 2025. According to an official statement, the company aims to deliver this in two ways. First, by removing more than 100,000 tonnes of plastic packaging by “accelerating" multi-use packs—like reusable and refillable formats—and “no plastic" solutions. This includes alternative packaging materials and “naked" products. It will also “accelerate" the use of recycled plastic in its packaging.
The British-Dutch company, the parent organization behind India’s largest consumer goods company Hindustan Unilever Ltd, is also aiming to help collect and process more plastic packaging than it sells within the same time period.
This is a conversation happening across the world. Last week, brewery giant Heineken UK announced plans to scrap plastic rings and shrink wrapping as part of a major packaging overhaul. The company will stop using plastic rings for its multi-pack cans and replace them with eco-friendly cardboard toppers.
In India, smaller brands are trying to follow suit, though this is not without challenges. Shankar Prasad, founder of the Unilever-backed vegan beauty brand Plum in India, believes that if plastic is used “carefully, not mindlessly", then that is not necessarily a bad practice. “Packaging is part and parcel of what we do. Plastic has been on our list of things to watch and control right from the beginning (Plum was launched five years ago). Our view on plastic has been to use it as little as possible—only what is required," says Prasad. “I think if you are thoughtful about using plastic, then it can very much be a sustainable practice. In fact, the technology is also evolving where it is now possible to use post-consumer recycled or PCR plastic in packaging. That is something we are thinking of."
Prasad explains how the company has replaced bubble wrap, used in its boxes to ship products, with corrugated board. Expanded polyethylene, which was used as a form of cushioning for products inside cartons during transit, has now made way for cardboard lining, which works just as well, he says.
Paper or uncoated paper, Prasad says, is not impermeable to water, air, oil and microbes. So plastic is still very much in the picture. “There are advantages (with plastic). It maintains the integrity of a product really well. Which is why I believe that something that makes lots of good things possible should be managed rather than outright ostracized."
Simran Lal, co-founder of the fashion and lifestyle brand Nicobar, says the world today is “swathed in plastic". “It’s a mindset," says Lal. “All our clothes, items were coming in clear, transparent plastic sheets. All our cushions were coming like that. Fragile items were coming in bubble wrap." Almost 85-90% of product packaging product at Nicobar now is plastic-free. The company also uses recycled paper for packaging and shipping products. Clothing items from the brand now come wrapped in newsprint and a brown paper envelope, accompanied with a brown sticker for product description since paper is not transparent. “We spend more for it. The tragedy of all this is that plastic is much cheaper. But if you are looking at cost to the planet, then it is feasible," she adds.
Plastic, a villain?
The biggest issue with plastic is that most of it does not biodegrade completely. As the 2018 Unep report explains, plastic breaks down slowly into smaller fragments called microplastics. Plastic bags and containers that are made of expanded polystyrene foam (commonly known as Styrofoam) can take up to thousands of years to decompose, contaminating soil and water, the report adds. One of the most noticeable uses of Styrofoam, even in regular households, is in the form of takeaway cutlery: single-use cups, bowls, plates and so on.
The report says that items like grocery bags, other kinds of plastic bags, food wrappers, plastic bottles and caps and cigarette butts are some of the most commonly found single-use plastic in the environment. Plastic used for packaging is often not picked up for recycling by the informal sector because it is low-weight and generally has no value.
“The problem with plastic is nothing. It’s only about its non-biodegradability. Otherwise it’s a beautiful material," says Satish Sinha, associate director, Toxics Link, a Delhi-based environmental group that has been working on the policy side of waste and chemical management for more than two decades.
We are meeting at the Toxics Link office in Delhi’s Jangpura Extension area. A poster outside Sinha’s cabin explains the situation all too well: “Why use a plastic bag for just 10 minutes when it won’t go away for 1,000 years?"
“Today, the question and the problem in India is littering of plastic. Only PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles are picked up for recycling. No one picks up the polythene bags or thin plastic. Ragpickers pick up 200 polythene bags of 5-10 micron gauge and get ₹5. Why would someone do that?" asks Sinha.
“Plastic has become so mainstream today because it has a lot of those capabilities, which make it very versatile," says Singh of Flipkart. “When you think of durability, affordability, cost, its ability to withstand moisture, water and so on, it’s a pretty phenomenal material. Our problem today is not plastic. Our problem is that we have got to a stage where, as a country, we have not invested in recycling infrastructure, which is basically making plastic a villain."
Recycling plastic, single-use or otherwise, has always been an issue. According to the Unep report, only 9% of the nine billion tonnes of plastic the world has ever produced has been recycled. Once a plastic product or packaging completes its life cycle, it is either incinerated or ends up in a landfill. “Seventy-nine per cent of the plastic waste ever produced now sits in landfills, dumps or in the environment, while about 12% has been incinerated," the report adds.
Plastic waste can end up causing serious damage. The open burning of single-use plastic not only releases high concentrations of harmful toxins because of the additives and colours added to it, but also contributes to greenhouse emissions.
According to the 2018 Teri fact-sheet on plastic waste in India, plastic accounts for 8% of the total solid waste generated in the country. Around 60% of this total plastic waste is being recycled.
“If you are talking about some 30,000 tonnes of plastic generated every day in India, then where is the capacity to handle all of it? That’s the case with all (forms of) recycling, whether it is e-waste or plastic. Our recycling industry has never been on a par with what we need it to be, in terms of capacity," says Manvel Alur, founder of the Bengaluru-based non-profit EnSYDE India, which has been working with companies and institutions to reduce their environmental footprint.
let’s talk bioplastics
While conventional plastic is made from petroleum and fossil fuel-based raw materials, bioplastics are a class of polymers derived from natural materials such as corn starch, for example. Biodegradable plastics are a class of plastics which, in the right conditions, break down into CO2, water or compost with the help of microorganisms, while compostable plastic biodegrades in a compost environment into biomass, leaving behind no toxic elements.
There are primarily two variants of bioplastics: polylactic acid (PLA), which is made from sugars derived from corn starch, sugar cane and so on, and polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA), which is synthesized with the help of microorganisms in optimum growth conditions.
“We call these bio-derived, biodegradable plastic. As the name suggests, PLA comes from lactic acid, which can be derived from the fermentation route. It is also produced in our body," says Vimal Katiyar, team leader, Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Polymers, Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati. “It is non-toxic—that is why it is quite acceptable. A polymer like PLA can be made into different articles like composite plastic films and after its service life it can just disseminate," he adds.
While bioplastics have been touted as a possible solution for years—they are used globally in healthcare, 3D printing and packaging—Katiyar says Indian industries are yet to develop any faith in this class of biopolymers. “It’s high time Indian companies came forward to produce this material through indigenous technologies. They are not sure yet if they are going to adopt these biodegradable plastics. There are hitches," he adds.
There are doubts about their biodegradability in natural conditions. According to the Unep report, “biodegradable" plastic items (including single-use plastic bags and containers) often break down completely only if exposed to prolonged high temperatures above 50 degrees Celsius. “Such conditions are met in incineration plants, but very rarely in the environment. Therefore, even bioplastics derived from renewable sources (such as corn starch, cassava roots, or sugar cane) or from bacterial fermentation of sugar or lipids (PHA) do not automatically degrade in the environment and especially not in the ocean."
Bioplastics also leave their own carbon footprint. An in-depth post (titled The Truth About Bioplastics) from 2017 on the State of The Planet blog, part of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, cited a 2010 study from the University of Pittsburgh that compared seven traditional plastics, four bioplastics and one made from both fossil fuel and renewable sources. “The researchers determined that bioplastics production resulted in greater amounts of pollutants, due to the fertilizers and pesticides used in growing the crops and the chemical processing needed to turn organic material into plastic," the blog post explains.
“There are other finer issues," says Pandey. “If they are manufactured from materials that have an alternative use as food, would it be possible for a developing country to convert food into plastic where hunger is a bigger challenge?"
After the bioplastics debate, the next stop is mycelium packaging. This is essentially packaging made from dried mushrooms and crop waste. Lal says she has been researching mycelium, which is known to have “wonderful cushioning".
Returning to paper and glass is another option. “Glass is a good substitute to plastic but it cannot be a 100% substitute. Glass has its own issues, in terms of weight, safety, suitability of use. The weight of the glass itself adds to the transit carbon emissions," adds Prasad.
Recycled paper is slowly on the comeback trail as well. “In Bengaluru, stores that used to provide polypropylene bags have now completely switched to paper bags. They have come back in a big way here for items like vegetables. It’s not just because of the ban but because of consumer awareness. I am sure it will make its way elsewhere also," says Alur.
One idea that has found backing elsewhere in the world is a “green tax" or “fee" on plastic manufacturing. According to recent news reports, a survey of California voters found that 71% of them support key policies of a 2020 ballot initiative (a process that allows citizens to propose laws without the support of the governor or legislature) to tax plastic manufacturers. Another recent survey, conducted by packaging company DS Smith, found that 62% of Europeans would be willing to pay for reduced plastic packaging content. “If you increase the cost of plastic and there is a green tax (attached) to it, the cost flows down. I feel that some of this plastic will perhaps get picked up for recycling then," says Sinha.
While the implementation of a circular economy fits in perfectly with the plastic waste narrative, as it does with other waste streams like electronic waste, the concept of reverse logistics could turn out to be a more sound option. Flipkart, for instance, recently started a pilot programme in multiple cities where its delivery executives, or “wishmasters", wait to receive the plastic packaging from a product box once it is delivered to a customer. “When the wishmaster returns to a delivery hub, he drops off the packaging collected. This is accumulated for two-three days and then sent for recycling. We are looking at cities like Dehradun, Ahmedabad, Pune, Bengaluru, Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai. We may do one or two hubs and not the whole city," explains Singh.
Plum is trying something similar through its “Empties4Good" campaign. “It’s not enough to just have recyclable plastic. It is also important to facilitate its recycling. We have a programme in place where we pick “empties" (empty plastic bottles and jars) back from our customers anywhere in India. People can just tell us how many empties they have. As soon it reaches two-three empties, they just mail us and we pick it up," says Prasad. These collected empties are then sent to a recycler near Mumbai for proper recycling.
Prasad says that somewhere along the line, as plastic became cheaper, the economics of plastic recycling also became warped. Sorting that out too could lead to solutions. “I grew up in Chennai and back then there was a market for something like even the polyethene milk packets. I remember, as a kid, carrying a month’s supply of empty milk packets to the raddiwala and actually getting money for it. Why has that stopped?" he asks. “When we were young, plastic wasn’t cheap. I think we need to change that. Unless the economics are sorted, you cannot force people to do something."