If necessity is the mother of invention, now is the time for lots of inventions. There is such a lot of plastic in most things we use that without those inventions and innovations, we may end up (barely) surviving on a planet that is more landfill (spilling over with plastic) than inhabited, and a planet where many species of marine creatures will go out of existence.
The fact is that we all use plastic—when it’s about plastic, there is nothing like too much or too little. It’s there in many of our everyday items; juice bottles, water bottles, takeaway food containers, shampoo bottles, toys, household appliances, car parts, TVs, computers, disposable shopping bags, furniture – you name it, and it’s there, mostly. Sectors where plastic-waste generation is among the highest include packaging, textiles, consumer and institutional products, building and construction, electric and electronic goods, industrial machinery, and transportation.
So, yes, plastics is one of the biggest challenges the world is facing right now. The talk around and about plastic is getting intense too. So much so that for some of us the word ‘plastic’ may feel like it’s coming out of our ears. We may even wonder why is there so much discussion about something that we already know so much about? But do we? Know so much about it? As in where all, how and how much it is used. And as much as we may think that everybody knows as much as there is to know about it, that notion should be dispelled immediately.
Fact is that some of us may only peripherally have registered the disastrous effects of plastic on the environment (including the impact on marine life, and eventually on our own health). At a shop the other day, I refused the plastic bag that the shopkeeper was going to put the purchased things in, and when I told him that he should not offer these bags to anyone else either, he looked at me curiously enough and asked why shouldn’t he. Yours truly tried explaining marine pollution to him – he looked completely blank and unbothered, but I am thinking I should keep going there and keep saying the same things. Someday he will get it.
The life cycle of plastic is such that it starts harming the environment from the moment the raw material for its making is extracted. Many consumer products are made using some type of plastic polymer (derived from fossil fuel) and made available in plastic packaging.
And the alarming thing is that most kinds of plastic are non-degradable, meaning they don’t decompose but instead break down into smaller and smaller pieces. Most plastics take hundreds of years to break down. We can recycle some types of plastics, though in most cases plastic can only be recycled a few times before it becomes less usable. Basically, plastics are not infinitely recyclable.
Everyone is talking about recycling but that is not the ultimate solution, like some would have us believe. Centering the conversation on recycling may actually be a red herring, since plastic cannot be recycled beyond a point, as mentioned above. While recycling is better than not recycling and cuts out that much virgin plastic from the system—it is admittedly one of the needs of the hour, but we do need to look beyond. Moreover, there is no basis for the assumption that ultimately all plastic packaging will be collected and recycled into new packaging or products.
We may be eating that plastic
The versatility and low cost of plastic explains its ubiquitous application in packaging solutions. Packaging constitutes a significant portion of global plastics use, and consumer brands are the most visible user here, contributing a great deal to the high levels of disposal of single-use plastics.
At the same time, there is no doubt that businesses that successfully reduce their plastics footprint will gain a competitive advantage and will be sustainable into the long term, absolutely in tandem with consumer expectations and regulatory requirements. So, what are they doing about their current plastic footprint?
These and other relevant aspects formed the crux of Conversation Round 6 – ‘Plastic is not going away anytime soon. Let’s talk alternatives and solutions’ – of Coffee for Cause, Edition 6.
Taking us straight to the heart of the problem, Dr Sumit Sharma, programme officer, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), informs that on a year-on-year basis, almost 10 million tons of plastic are reaching our oceans. Almost 80 per cent of marine litter is plastics, and almost all of it comes from land. This plastic reaches oceans and rivers in different forms. We tend to think of big polythene bags or plastic cups when we talk plastic. However, fact is that microplastics – tiny plastic particles that result from both commercial product development and the breakdown of larger plastics, and are almost invisible to the eye – are also reaching there and these can be ingested by animals and eventually enter our food chain.
Oceans are interconnected and therefore working on tackling the pollution cannot stay at the individual country level. One country may be the source of the pollution but the consequences will be for the whole world to bear. Actions will be required at local, national and international levels.
Currently, the recycling rate of plastic is extremely low. While overall plastic consumption in India is less compared to the global average, it is bound to go up as we move ahead – the economy is growing, the population is increasing, and so are aspiration levels. The situation in terms of overall (mis)management of plastic waste can become way worse. As per estimates, India is the 12th biggest contributor to the mismanaged plastic space, and if we grow at the same rate, we can hit the 5th rank by the year 2025.
The aesthetics of plastic – littering of our common spaces – is a small part of the problem. The problem really begins when it starts to impact the ecological system. There are PhD theses that tell us that dung samples of elephants in protected areas have been found to be contaminated with plastic particles. Various reports warn that almost everyone is ingesting 5 grams of microplastic on a weekly basis.
The FMCG people
Initiatives and perspectives
Sanjay Khajuria, senior vice-president – corporate affairs, Nestle India
At Nestle, we are aiming at ‘100% recyclable or reusable packaging’ by 2025. Meanwhile, we remain committed to using the minimum amount of plastic required for product packaging, and reducing virgin-plastic usage.
Since 2020, Nestle has been a plastic-neutral company in India. This means that with reference to the quantity of post-consumer-use plastic waste generated, we manage a similar, if not greater, quantity.
Here two aspects are critical:
a) Making sure that the packaging that is used is easily recyclable
b) Wherever possible, take the plastic out of the packaging – replace it with glass or metal. For our ready-to-drink products like Milo and Nescafe, we replaced the plastic straws with paper straws. We are talking about 30 million of these.
I believe that when all stakeholders get together, magic can happen!
Geetanjali Vats, senior plastic sustainability manager – Asia & ANZ, Unilever
By 2025, all of Unilever’s plastic will be recyclable, reusable and compostable. We believe that along with working towards circularity, it’s critical to control and curb the problem at source, which essentially means reducing virgin-plastic footprint. There is a need to increase recyclable content in our packaging, and at Unilever we have been targeting to reach a minimum 25% for that across all our packaging, to begin with.
One realisation is that when we set targets like that, the entire ecosystem realigns itself accordingly – the infrastructure develops accordingly. There are so many recyclers now who are finding value in waste, converting it into recycled content, putting it back in our packaging, and thus creating a circular model.
In the least, whatever amount of plastic we generate, it’s important that we are able to manage an equivalent amount. That’s a target that HUL achieved in 2021.
Tejashree Joshi, head – environmental sustainability, Godrej & Boyce
At Godrej & Boyce, we have always looked at reducing generation of waste – which also implies optimising material use at our end and being watchful of what goes out of the system. In this regard, plastic is one of the areas that we have been working on.
We have had this focus on being zero waste and maximising the recycled content, beyond what the compliances require us to do. It started with identifying and eliminating wasteful plastic use – for example, bringing down plastic content in our packaging, or using biodegradable or compostable substitutes for the plastic used. We have also been phasing out non-recyclable plastic.
In terms of how much we are offsetting against the plastic that we have been putting in the market, we have been plastic-negative since FY 2019–20, which means we are recycling more plastic than we are putting out.
At the same time, we have been trying to develop and boost the entire plastic ecosystem in the country – including identifying all types of plastic we have been using, and achieving recyclability for all these different types. One of the approaches we have taken for this is to set a target for equitable geographical spread – which means looking at all the states where we do business, instead of focusing on regions where it’s easier to find recyclers and other partners. We have worked with our partners to make that impact across the country. At present, we are working with local municipality bodies and waste-aggregation partners in 13 states and UTs.
The India Plastic Pact, of which Godrej & Boyce is a founding member, defines unnecessary or problematic plastic packaging, which aligns with what we are trying to do. So we take up these items and take measures to address the issues, through redesigning, through innovation, and so on. Another focus area in the Pact is making plastic packaging 100% reusable or recyclable. This calls for eliminating plastic that is not reusable or recyclable.
An example of a Godrej product that had plastic that needed to be eliminated and was done as well?
Godrej & Boyce has 14 business units with a vast array of products, from locks to furniture and consumer electronics. Every product goes out with a different kind of packaging. To give an example of the kind of packaging innovation we are doing, for our locks we have switched over completely to biodegradable, recycled cardboard boxes. In our refrigerators and furniture, the packaging used to consist of a lot of thermocol sheets – now the cardboard that is used is made from recycled cardboard, and the foam has been replaced with recycled panels recycled from multilayered plastic packaging.
Tusar Pattnaik, corporate head – environment, health & safety (EHS), Dabur India
Dabur is a plastic-neutral company. What is plastic neutrality? Let’s look at it from the extended producer responsibility (EPR) perspective. Whatever plastic is procured from the market, or whatever one is selling to the market, they are collecting 100% of that from the market.
At Dabur, we are going beyond the requirements of compliance. During FY 2021–22, we collected, processed and recycled around 27,000 metric tonnes of post-consumer plastic waste. Across states and ITs, we are collecting plastic through 10 waste-management agencies.
The other aspect is the 3Rs approach – reduce, reuse, recycle. It’s time to adopt a more sustainable approach – how to reduce/recycle/eliminate plastic. Government policy and mechanism is one part of it. We also need data on how many companies are operating in India, and how much plastic is going out into the environment.
There are primary, secondary and tertiary packaging. Touching the primary packaging is relatively difficult and challenging. At Dabur, we are focusing on reducing tertiary packaging (used for the protection and shipping of a product), to begin with. In the next phase, we will move to secondary and then primary packaging.
Apart from EPR, another target set by the government – which will be applicable from 2025–26 – is recycling of plastic content under three categories of plastic: 30% for rigid plastic, 10% for flexible plastic, and 5% for multi-layered plastic (MLP). All very challenging, but this also means that a lot of opportunities will be there.
Suraj Nandakumar, co-founder and director, Recity
I think it’s an exciting time to be working in plastics in India. Back in 2016, everyone was trying to figure out ways to make this change. Today, people have measured what matters. There is a change in the thought process. Brands are investing in research, in collaboration, and in efforts.
That there is a government mandate has helped too. For instance, if you speak to a chai-wala and mention ‘swachh Bharat’, he recognises it. If you interact with administrators, you will see that there is an awareness, there are targets, and there is a willingness to participate in activities. If you go and speak to a waste worker, you will see that there is an awareness that there is a value to participating in this conversation, in this process.
Overall, the environment is ripe for all of us to be able to bring about tangible change. It is important for stakeholders to believe and invest in initiatives that are trying to drive this change.
Back in 2017, Sanjay Khajuria of Nestle was the first to believe in us, and that’s how Project Hilldaari came to happen. The idea was to bring waste workers, the commissioner, and the parliamentary representative of a particular jurisdiction to the same table. Change happens when a subject becomes a priority. So, when the waste worker and the commissioner started talking about waste, the subject and the conversation started to become relevant.
Collectivism has to be supported by a theory of change. There has to be a measured impact to what you do. That formed the basis of the structure of Hilldaari. Alongside, there has to be a systemic change. You can withdraw material from a city, but that doesn’t mean it will continue to be withdrawn. Somebody has to enable that.
The only important relationship in waste management is between the consumer and the waste worker. That is the first point of interaction. If at that point the waste is mixed, it has no value. If it is segregated, it has tremendous value.
While brands and others in the eco system are trying to put together a robust infrastructure for recycling—even for food-grade recycling, the major challenge is still at the collection level.
Cities are where consumption levels are maximum. There is waste everywhere but there is no land for waste. At Recity, we bring in a city-planning approach. We are helping urban local bodies identify and create waste-management land which can serve as an aggregation facility. Another vital aspect is creating a governance model. The conversation has to happen at the ward level too. If the conversation stays confined among us, how will it work or last?
At the same time, a cookie-cutter approach cannot be applied. Take any city – you will find that there are hundreds and thousands of waste workers who are part of a fully operational fleet, and there are aggregation centres where waste is being sorted and then sent to recyclers. So, a good 60% of the major hard work happens here. Now take this information and extrapolate it on a hill; imagine the distance needed to be covered by, say, Sumitra – about five flight of stairs. Or a beach city for example, where one will have to go deep into the waters to collect waste. The challenges are different and this is a unique complexity that India faces. Only a combination of collective and systemic change will work.
Data is power
How much plastic is out there and where all is this plastic? How much of it is being recycled?
Do we have data on these, and how much of this data can be relied upon?
Emphasising that data is the starting point, Dr Sharma says that unless we collect the data on a regular basis, we won’t be able to find adequate solutions or adequate business models to manage this problem. He explains: ‘I can say that the situation in terms of data was very similar for air pollution about a decade back. The data on air quality was very limited. Today, we all talk in terms of AQI, how much is what, how it impacts our health, and so on. It changes the entire dynamics, and creates the demand for action to be taken on the ground. A similar curve is needed in plastic-waste management, backed up by data.’
As for the total plastic waste generated in India, the reported figure is 3.3 million metric tonnes. If you take everything into account, all geographical regions in India, does this number reflect the reality?
At present, we don’t have enough data points to make large decisions or specific decisions. We can only take broad decisions. For example, we know that single-use plastics are extremely harmful for the environment and hence we can ban their use, think of alternatives, and so on. On the other hand, we haven’t developed a business model for a specific polymer to be eliminated or recycled in the system – for this, we will need to know how much of it is there and what is the market we are trying to develop in a certain region. Clearly, such data points will be required.
Let’s look at air pollution again to understand how awareness levels play an important role is shifting the dynamics. Earlier we didn’t know anything about concentration levels of air pollutants – in any case we couldn’t correlate these with human health. Now, the moment these touch 400 or more, we put our masks on.
So, data is extremely important for both management of the problem and sensitisation.
Adding his points to the discussion, Pattnaik of Dabur says: ‘All these big corporations – whether it’s Hindustan Unilever, Nestle, Pepsi or Dabur – are doing various activities to manage plastic waste. Yet, if you go to a state pollution control board or any other government body, they say that there isn’t much improvement in the situation despite so-and-so company fulfilling their EPR. This is happening because there is not sufficient clarity, especially about how much plastic is going to a particular state. How many industries are operating in a state and how many are registered with CPCB for EPR, how much plastic they are generating – these are points on which absolute clarity is required. We will then know how much plastic is being recovered, and how much is lying in the environment. Once data clarity is there, most things will be taken care of.’
Where should my dahi ka dabba (curd container) go?
If you clean it and dry it, put it in the dry-waste bin, otherwise in the wet-waste bin, says Nestle’s Sanjay. The former is the better option, he adds.
Sanjay believes that as consumers most of us want to do the right thing. How to do the right thing, though? On this, he says: ‘As brands, we have to create that awareness. We chose Dehradun in Uttarakhand to do a pilot. We ran an exchange offer where we asked consumers to give 10 empty packets of Maggi noodles and get one new packet of Maggi free. For this, we got all stakeholders together. We went to schools and colleges, to local authorities; we collaborated with newspapers for advertorials – essentially telling everyone that it’s good for them, for us, for the planet. It all worked out quite well.’
He shares insights from Project Hilldaari to bring clarity to the subject: ‘Let’s say the consumer is segregating the waste at his end. Yet, if the person collecting the waste mixes it all, then the consumer’s efforts go waste. In Mussoorie, where we started our pilot project with Suraj and his team, we looked at creating a process right from when the individual segregates waste. We had volunteers going from house to house, explaining and demonstrating the segregation process – in fact, instead of two-way segregation, we encouraged people to do four-way segregation. Later we put QR codes to demarcate which households were segregating waste.
‘In the course of the training that we conducted with waste workers, we realised just how much hard work they did. The rest of us are so caught up in our daily lives that we forget that one of the most difficult jobs is being done by them. The point is: are they recognised for what they are doing? We decided early on that a key priority of our programme would be securing respect and recognition for waste workers.
‘From the beginning, one thing we did was that every time we visited them, we would have lunch together. We would sit with them and other stakeholders including the local authorities, and take inputs. One waste worker said it was very difficult to lift the heavy bags. (I can tell you that if you were to work with a waste worker one day, you will need two days of rest thereafter, because you go down and up, down and up.) We immediately started looking at options that would ease some of the heavy lifting they did. Someone suggested tyres and after considering various kinds, we found that skate tyres worked best in that terrain. This learning we replicated in other places as well.
‘Today, if you ask me about what the biggest achievement of Project Hilldaari is, I will say it’s recognition of waste workers. They speak in a very different language today. At one of our leadership conferences, we had one of them address the group – and she said a very relevant thing. She said: “I hope you all understand Hindi. Sab hume kachrewale bulaate hain, lekin kachra toh aap log phekte ho. Hum toh safai karte hain. (Everyone refers to us as waste people, but this waste is actually thrown by you. We are actually the ones who clean up.)”
‘After that we stopped calling them waste workers – essentially they are cleaning workers.
‘I am not saying that all our initiatives have been equally successful; some worked better in a particular geography but not so much when replicated elsewhere. In my view, if we as consumers take the first step, and if our cleaning workforce makes sure that the waste materials do not get mixed, about 5o% of the problem is taken care of.
‘I think many people are really concerned about air pollution, water pollution and plastic pollution. More awareness among people will make a lot of difference, and that’s an area that we at Nestle have been working on. We work closely within our company as well, encouraging employees to participate actively in various volunteering initiatives.’
Is it possible to track?
Taking the example of Maggi, is there a way to track how many packets are going out and how many are we being able to collect/recycle? This will also tell us that this much percentage of packets is not coming back…
Sanjay Khajuria admits that collecting back plastic from the system cannot be product-specific at the moment – for example, every single packet of Maggi cannot be tracked. He says there are three aspects to it which need to be considered: one, that the packaging is fit for purpose and designed for recycling; two, create awareness around the whole thing including waste segregation; and three, if every company takes back more post-consumer plastic waste than it generates, the problem of plastic is over.
In agreement with Sanjay, Geetanjali from Unilever says: ‘We as brands or brand owners need not look at what is the waste that is ours, or has our name on it. Waste is waste. What is important is how together we can be brand-agnostic in solving this problem. This obviously calls for systemic changes including change in consumer behaviour.
‘ “Where does my dahi ka dabba go” is a real problem in every household. At Unilever, we have initiatives where our change partners go to every house in select wards and educate residents about segregation, explaining not only what waste goes where but also the value that the waste contains.
‘Another aspect that we work at is the waste-to-value process, for which we partner closely with our safai saathis. They are trained to identify different types of waste and understand the value that each type brings. Knowing the value is an important factor in motivating them to do their job well.’
At this point in time, there is no knowing how much difference such initiatives are making, or what the precise outcomes are in terms of behaviour change. As Geetanjali points out, it’s a journey and as yet nobody can claim that their interventions are wholly successful; the point is to believe in the efforts and that change will happen. Children and young people are going to be the main drivers of this change, which also explains why many initiatives are focused on them.
Tejashree talks about her experience in the zero-waste-to-landfill journey that was charted for Godrej’s Vikhroli complex in Mumbai, said to be housing about 50,000 people. The plan, set in motion in 2014, was a daunting one, as she puts it, and understandably so. In the first stage, inventorisation of the waste generated was undertaken to understand the overall footprint – it took the greater part of two years to stabilise the system, setting up collection points, and getting the collected waste to a central location for processing.
‘When we started going to houses to ask families to segregate the waste, they were sceptical about the process. Their contention was that the segregated waste all got mixed up after it left their houses. We realised that we had to first address the waste handling and then the segregation aspect of it,’ Tejashree recounts.
One thing that emerged was that not all waste could be recycled – some were certain to end up at the landfill. Just in plastic, around 18 to 20 kinds of waste get generated from households. For the plastic that would otherwise end up at a landfill, eventually a system was set up whereby these went for end-of-life treatment, for co-processing at a cement plant.
Here, it may also be noted that earlier there was no system to the handling of the waste; in fact the waste workers did not even have Aadhar cards. The company made sure that they were given work IDs as well as all benefits that industrial workers were entitled to.
Change will happen
Suraj sums up the grounds for such optimism:
‘I believe that by 2030 our collection systems will become robust. What is the motivation for somebody to litter, or to put things in the ocean, or to burn it? It’s when they are unserviced. The job of servicing is of the urban local bodies. We understand that the system needs a little bit of care, attention and capacity building. With continued efforts over the next few years, we will start seeing a very pronounced change – we will get accustomed to living in clean cities. Because for every material there will be a value for it to be picked up.
‘I see a three-way process here. One is that policy advocacy will be crystal-clear and roles will be aligned. Second, there will be a huge demand for recyclable material. There will be a pull factor in which every material type will get the value it deserves and the viability gap will, in principle, go away. Third is the collection system – urban local bodies will get the right capabilities, machinery and people.’