Ananya Pathak
Points of View

The single-use plastic ban will choke which industry?

The Indian government has shelved the country-wide ban on single-use plastic (SUP), as of now, considering it disruptive for the industry at a time when it is coping with an economic slowdown and job losses. The news, however, has created a buzz in the market.

SUPs or disposable plastics is defined as plastics that are used only once before they are thrown away or recycled. These items include multilayered plastic (MLP) packaging (used for chips, biscuits, chocolates, etc), grocery bags, straws, cups, glasses and cotton buds and most ready-to-eat food packaging, among others.

In June 2018, the government had announced that India would eliminate SUPs by 2022. The announcement on October 2 this year, of withholding the ban, contrasted with the earlier announcement made by the Prime Minister during his Independence Day speech this year expressing concerns over the use of SUP.

According to the All India Plastic Manufacturers’ Association (AIPMA), the 2.25 lakh crore worth plastic-processing industry in India employs about four million people and comprises of more than 30,000 processing units, 85-90 per cent of which are small and medium-sized enterprises.

Intuitively, one could guess that an immediate ban on it would upset the FMCG industry the most. But the pharma, airlines, automobile, food delivery firms, electronics and e-commerce industries are going to bear the brunt too.

On one hand, shopkeepers have started encouraging customers to carry their own paper or jute bags. On the other hand, the packaging industry is visibly concerned over lack of clear proof that a feasible alternative is available.

While some may agree that glass and paper/cardboard are the most suited replacements, their recycling rate, safety, weight, transportability and affordability bring them under scrutiny too.

To understand this better, we asked industry experts about the businesses that will be affected the most if and when the ban is imposed and what are the possible alternatives of SUP. Here's what they have to say:

Edited excerpts.

Ankur Bisen, senior vice-president, Technopak Advisor and author of, 'WASTED - The messy story of India’s sanitation challenge and manifesto for change’

Any plastic packaging that loses its purpose after the merchandise in it is unpacked and consumed qualifies for single-use plastic. It includes water bottles, food wrappers, grocery bags, plastic cans used for edible oil and engine oil, etc. Plastic packaging solutions have emerged as portable and convenient options over the years. This has allowed the merchandise to move to the consumers with ease and reduced the cost of logistics. Food and non-food FMCG and the auto sector are among the biggest sectors dependent on such packaging solutions.

Ankur Bisen, senior vice-president, Technopak Advisor.
Ankur Bisen, senior vice-president, Technopak Advisor.

Any immediate and abrupt ban on single-use plastic threatens to disrupt the business economics of the value chain of these sectors. For instance, the INR 10000 crore packaged water bottle business will immediately stare at a shut down if such a ban gets implemented causing livelihood and employment losses. The intent behind the ban is certainly noble but the ban per se is a case of missing the point. It penalises consumption. The real issue is the management of plastic waste that is generated as an outcome of this consumption and not the consumption of plastic per se. It is like saying, we as Indians are unable to treat most of the sewage that we generate. For this reason, does that mean we stop generating sewage? Is it possible?

Gradual transition towards non-plastic packaging solutions that are equally cheap, convenient or that reduce the reliance on plastic packaging solutions in consumer behaviour can be a good start. But it will always remain a complementary solution. The longer lasting solution is to improve waste segregation at sources in cities and towns. This can allow segregated plastic waste to be treated through targeted wasted disposal methods, such as pyrolysis and recycling.

Also Read: How is the Plastic Ban affecting businesses?

I think the government has recognised these intricacies around the ban and therefore decided to take a gradual approach towards the same.

Ashwini Deshpande, co-founder, director, Elephant Design

The way we look at packaged foods and personal care will have to change completely.

We may have to change our consumption habits and start relying on local and fresh produce instead of long shelf-life packaged stuff that sometimes comes to us at the cost of huge carbon footprint besides the use of unsustainable packaging materials and inks.

Ashwini Deshpande, co-founder, director, Elephant Design.
Ashwini Deshpande, co-founder, director, Elephant Design.

So, I believe, the most impact will be on businesses that use unsustainable packaging, which basically includes all FMCG industries.

There are no easy solutions. We cannot expect FMCG to shift overnight to materials that recycle well and also provide excellent barrier properties despite good intentions. Because there aren't enough materials or converters at this point. The supply is not sufficient, and neither are the costs viable. But that is the general direction we need to move towards.

1. Reduce: Rationalise dimensions and weights to avoid over-engineering to consume least amount of material.

2. Remove: Remove unnecessary layers to make the packaging efficient.

3. Replace: Look for alternative processes and materials one-by-one to replace unsustainable practices and materials.

4. Refuse: Overdesign.

Priyanka Agrawal, co-founder, chief operation officer and chief strategy officer, Fractal Ink Design Studio - Linked by Isobar

We all are culprits to using plastic water bottles in conferences and events. It takes a plastic bottle nearly 450 years to decompose and yet, nobody wants to lose time waiting in line at water coolers in public spaces. The truth is, we can’t get over the hygiene issues of re-using common glasses, either.

Priyanka Agrawal, co-founder, COO and CSO, Fractal Ink Design Studio - Linked by Isobar.
Priyanka Agrawal, co-founder, COO and CSO, Fractal Ink Design Studio - Linked by Isobar.

The solution can be to get water in cans made of aluminium with an openable lid that allows the users to carry them around and use it till they have finished it. Yes, the cost might be slightly higher but that’s a life choice we need to make in order to leave a better planet for our kind.