Firms turn off the plastic tap; activists say more work needs to be done

Plastic packaging was introduced as it is a cost-effective option to glass
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call last month to lower consumption of single-use plastic has put the spotlight firmly on the issue. Companies across the board — from packaged food to bottled water and personal care — say they are recycling, reusing and reducing plastic in plants, offices and at retail outlets. Areas that most companies are targeting include packaging, manufacturing and waste management. 

However, activists from the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) argue that more work needs to be done. 

Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general, CSE, says, “What is needed is an alternative to plastic packaging. I don’t think firms have worked that out yet. Some options that could be considered include glass, paper, wood and cardboard.”

But companies in the bottled water space, for instance, say glass is an expensive alternative. Other companies say that paper, wood and cardboard packs are not feasible. 

“Plastic packaging was introduced because it is a cost-effective option to glass. Plastic is also easy to transport and there is a strong ecosystem of formal and informal recyclers who are ready to pick up plastic waste. Glass, on the other, is not only expensive, but cumbersome to transport. Yes, glass bottles can be returned and reused, but there is always a danger of breakage,” says Ramesh Chauhan, chairman, Bisleri International.

A spokesperson for Nestlé India says, “There are certain challenges in serving hot beverages in 100 per cent paper-based options. We are trying to address it.” But activists argue there is no way out with India generating close to 9.5 million tonnes of plastic waste annually, according to a new study by UN-Plastic Collective, an initiative launched by the Confederation of Indian Industry, UN-Environment Programme and the World Wide Fund for Nature.

The study says, “Of the plastic waste generated yearly in India, 40 per cent remains uncollected and 43 per cent is used for packaging, most of which is single use.”

Companies say they are putting in place an action plan to address the issue. A spokesperson for Hindustan Unilever (HUL) says, “In 2018, we arranged for collection and disposal of more than 20,000 tonnes of plastic laminate waste in partnership with NGOs and start-ups in more than 30 cities across India. We plan to scale it up further. We’re also working with the government and UNDP on end-to-end pilot projects for plastic waste management. We’ve committed to moving to 100 per cent reusable plastic packaging by 2025. About 25 per cent of all the plastic we use will come from recycled sources by then.”

A Coca-Cola India spokesperson says the company’s primary packaging is completely recyclable. “We are also redesigning and light-weighting our packs to reduce consumption of plastic,” he says.

Spokespersons for PepsiCo India, Dabur and Britannia say reduction, recycling and reinvention are the backbone of their plastic framework. “We are deploying a charge compaction technology that allows us to pack snacks in smaller bags. We are also using less plastic in our PET bottles,” the PepsiCo spokesperson says. 

The Britannia spokesperson says the firm will make 100 per cent of its packaging recyclable in five years. While Dabur says it wishes to be plastic-waste-free by 2021 and Wipro Consumer Care & Lighting says it is working on reduction of plastic waste by mapping material flow and identifying waste-generation hotspots at its factories.  “We are also enabling collection of plastic from consumers for responsible recycling,” says Suresh Kaushal, head, mission quality, Wipro Consumer Care, adding companies will have to work on every front to tackle the issue.

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