“I was on a flight last week, and a leading airline was serving all food trays with single-use plastic spoons and forks. So much for the plastic ban,” says a top official of a foods and beverages company. Ironically, the brand is also among the ones which has announced ‘significant’ investments on eliminating single-use plastic (items that are used one time and discarded).
India’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has banned the use of all single-use plastic from being manufactured, imported, stocked, distributed or sold, starting July 1, 2022. Ideally, spoons, plates, glasses, trays, earbuds, balloon sticks, candy and ice-cream sticks, carry bags that are less than 75 micron in thickness, and certain types of packaging material, should have disappeared immediately. But plastic still seems to be quite ubiquitous, wherever one looks.
Making the effort
According to industry estimates, single-use plastic comprises the highest share of daily-use categories such as straws, shampoo and cosmetics bottles, frozen foods, coffee cups, cling films and food packs.
Most companies, however, claim to be reducing plastic even before the ban — some as part of their global mandates — as the concern by stakeholders across the world to preserve the planet takes centre stage. While almost all key companies including ITC, McDonald’s, Nestlé, Dabur, Parle Agro, Colgate and Unilever say they are pulling all the stops to steer clear of plastic usage, key stakeholders claim that executing and implementing the ban is a very long haul.
“We have transitioned away from plastic bags, straws, cutlery and cups across our restaurants. Paper packaging accounts for more than 80% of all packaging,” says Rajeev Ranjan, COO, McDonald’s North & East.
Plastic found a prominent mention in ITC chairman Sanjiv Puri’s speech too, at the company’s 2022 Annual General Meeting this year. “Given the heightened consumer and regulatory pressures to substitute single-use plastics, this [sustainable packaging] offers immense potential,” Puri said. He said that this year, ITC has exceeded its commitment on plastic neutrality, collecting and managing more than 54,000 tonnes of plastic waste.
Plastic straws for beverages in cartons are among the categories where companies and consumers are being impacted the most. Portion-sized cartons constitute about `5,000-6,000 crore of the food and beverage industry, according to Action Alliance for Recycling Beverage Cartons (AARC). The initiative represents over 15 companies, including Parle Agro, Coca-Cola, Dabur, CavinKare, Schreiber Dynamix and Tetra Pak.
While companies are switching to paper straws, they say it’s an additional cost which they can’t afford to pass on to consumers; they fear an impact on the fastest-growing price points of `10 and `20 for juices and milk-based drinks.
The big players — Parle Agro’s Frooti and Appy, Dabur’s Real, Coca-Cola’s Maaza, PepsiCo’s Tropicana, Paperboat’s juices, and the vast number of products in Amul and Mother Dairy’s portfolios — constitute the majority of the paper-based beverage cartons market. And considering this market is estimated at six billion small packs ranging from 75 ml to 250 ml, it’s a lot of plastic straws to replace.
As far as paper straws are concerned, there are also other factors at play. One is the limited availability of imported paper straws. And secondly, the fact that imports cost five to seven times higher than locally-made plastic straws.
Dabur India’s CEO Mohit Malhotra says the company is now producing its Real juice packs only with integrated paper straws. “While there is a cost implication with imported paper straws, we have not revised the final price for consumers,” he adds.
The execution game
While the government’s ambitious ban is crucial to curb the non-biodegradable plastic pollution menace, the challenges to implement and execute it are taking longer than expected.
AARC chief executive Praveen Agarwal says, “The industry is facing challenges in implementing the straw ban as capacity is limited and the cost of importing is higher. We have requested the government for some transition time. Retailers are in a dilemma over what to do with existing stocks.”
Implementation and enforcement is far from adequate, say retailers, companies and environmentalists.
Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) director general Sunita Narain has recently returned from Tanzania.
There, she observed that the blanket ban on plastic bags has been a resounding success. “If they can, why can’t India also implement the plastic ban effectively? If the government has issued a comprehensive list of banned products, they also need to put in place measures to execute the ban,” says Narain.
Non-compliant traders and retailers, or the ones who are still clearing old stocks, could face penalties. In fact, enforcement squads are being set up by different states to crack down on the rampant use of single-use plastic. As per the 1986 Environment Protection Act, offenders are liable to penalties of up to `1 lakh or even jail time. While the environment ministry has stated earlier that it is conducting surprise inspections and heavy fines on defaulters, executives within the trade say the inspections have been sporadic so far.
“Our trade teams in tier-2 and tier-3 markets are not even aware if the ban is serious, and that not adhering to it can make them defaulters,” says an executive at a large grocery retail chain with a significant presence in small markets.
Opportunities and challenges
The ban has thrown up a slew of opportunities for companies making eco-friendly paper bags, paper straws, moulded fibre and other sustainable packaging materials.
One of these is Climate Angels, a network that invests in startups working in clean energy, mobility and water and food, which has launched a ZeSUP challenge (Zero Single-Use Plastic challenge). The network looks to support startups working towards reducing single-use plastic straws, such as Sunbird Straws, for instance. “Through ZeSUP, we will try to be a key factor in connecting innovative startups with food and beverage partners. This will further strengthen the single-use plastic ban as we eventually adopt alternatives to it,” says Shailesh Vikram Singh, founder, Climate Angels.
Sunbird Straws makes eco-friendly and long-lasting straws from naturally dried and fallen coconut leaves. According to the company, their technology can produce close to two hundred straws from a single coconut leaf.
Yet, the lack of workable alternatives is massive — from plates and cutlery made in a specific thickness to make them reusable and recyclable, to straws and bottles.
According to Plastindia Foundation president Jigish Doshi, the plastic industry is not only labour intensive but also involves capital expenditure in terms of plant, machinery and employment. “The ban, particularly for business units which make single-use plastic, could adversely impact both, the business as well as livelihoods.”
He adds that 99% of plastics are recyclables; it’s the absence of technology or incentive to collect small plastic waste like straws that is the single largest bottleneck. The need of the hour is waste management and recycling technology, he adds.