Why we must ask brands to look beyond plastic
India alone generates more than 25,000 tonnes of plastic waste, daily.
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In the last week of May, a post I had shared on Facebook, regarding the three biggest plastic polluters in the hill station of Mussoorie in Uttarakhand, went viral. It stirred quite a furore.
Most responses were positive, some not. Some, however, were downright offensive. A few offered glimpses of hope on a burning issue. Whichever way you choose to respond, as they say, engagement is always productive.
It was good to converse with people who shared common concerns. It is always good to study varying perspectives to get ideas to chew on before taking a call on what to do next.
The big takeaway was that the issue of plastic pollution had struck a chord with hundreds of thousands of ordinary folks. It has become abundantly clear that this hitherto largely unknown issue has now begun to demand that we dedicate our energies and attention to resolving it.
What set the ball rolling?
As many might know, "Beat Plastic Pollution" was the theme of the recently concluded United Nations' World Environment Day 2018, complete with a catchy tagline - "If you can't reuse it, refuse it." India was righty chosen to host this global campaign. With 500 billion plastic bags used annually across the world, and a million plastic bottles bought every minute, the topic and the timing could not have been more apt.
India alone generates more than 25,000 tonnes of plastic waste, daily. Plastic constitutes 10 per cent of the waste generated nationally, estimates indicate. Shockingly, half of this waste is single-use plastic. The plastic scenario is truly scary and bodes ill for our lives, and our planet's future. Single-use plastics are out-and-out ticking time bombs. Therefore, the clarion call issued by the United Nations deserved not only our rapt attention, but also a promise of follow-up action.
In the context of this grim reality, the question that arises today is of sustainability and responsibility. Where does the buck stop? Are consumers who buy products and throw packaging in the garbage bin the real villains who we need to fight? Or does one place blame at the doorstep of industries — large and small — which package their products in cheap, mass produced single-use, multi-layer plastic? Perhaps, the question to ask, and answer, is one of shared responsibility.
To those who only wish to focus on the growing heaps of garbage, I have few words of hope. I say this because I see many around me opting to minimise the use of single-use disposable plastic in their lives. Whether you choose to carry a shopping bag with you to the market place, or a reusable bottle for water, or opt to use your own coffee mug instead of taking your drink in a disposable cup, you are making small but steady contributions. However, it is time to take this effort to the next level. It is time to encourage changes upstream. The type and manner of packaging must change. It is not as if manufacturers do not understand this just that a greater, stronger initiative from consumers will finally ensure it happens.
Green packaging initiatives
A search for green packaging solutions in India reveals an interesting and diverse group of businesses that offer non-plastic, environment friendly options. This essentially means that there are plenty of solutions out there if you are willing to look and consider alternatives beyond the single-use disposable plastic. Areca, banana and bamboo are just some of the materials that are being used to develop tableware, paper and packaging.
On the occasion of World Environment Day, the Indian Railways announced the introduction of eco-friendly bagasse-based food packaging on its premium trains. This green initiative will also support the sugar cane industry while saying no to conventional single-use plastic items.
India stands on an interesting threshold, with one foot in its rich past, and another moving into the future. Our solutions for plastic alternatives also need to maintain this fine balance. With better design and technology, the leaf plates and bowls of the past have found a place in the modern world. They are safe to use, biodegradable and do not pose a threat to the environment when they are disposed. Interestingly, businesses abroad are also taking a leaf, literally and figuratively, from ancient Indian practices.
Empowered consumer empowers the planet
If consumers encourage a change, it is inevitable. One of the largest FMCG conglomerates in the country, Unilever, has committed to making its packaging fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.
The 2016 Coca Cola Sustainability Report indicated that 60 per cent bottles and cans introduced into the market by the company were recovered and recycled, or refilled. In 2013, the company had set a target for the year 2020 to reduce the carbon footprint of "the drink in your hand" by 25 per cent. In 2016, it reported that the "drink in your hand" now had a carbon footprint that had been reduced by 14 per cent. Quite clearly, when industry leaders pay attention to the demands of consumers and of the environment, they can set trends for others in the global community.
Many businesses are working towards developing naked products that do not need any packaging. Lush, a cosmetic brand, is one such company. It has developed unique shampoo bars so that shampoo bottles need not be thrown away. Some of its products come packaged in BPA-free 100 per cent recycled plastic pots and jars. And customers are encouraged to return these pots and jars to Lush stores, in return for complimentary products. This brand believes in promoting sustainability at every stage of the product's life cycle.
These are just a few instances of businesses that chose to make a commitment to the environment and to their consumers, and are striding ahead to fulfil them. Sustainable packaging is the need of the hour and must be developed after careful thought and consideration. Certain brands such as Frito-Lay and PepsiCo need to start making some changes to their packaging. A packet of chips offered by these brands contains up to seven layers of non-biodegradable, non-recyclable foil and plastic. One must also mention here, that PesiCo developed the world's first 100 per cent plant-based plastic bottle made with fully renewable resources. So, obviously these brands are open to developing better packaging solutions.
Colgate-Palmolive has until recently offered non-recyclable packaging for its toothpastes. But, after As You Sow, a shareholder advocacy group, filed a shareholder resolution with the company, it has committed that by 2020 it will make 100 per cent packaging in three of its four product categories recyclable.
With regard to the use of single-use plastics, the need for a change is clear and obvious. There are of course businesses that are stubborn about changing their packaging, and ultimately it comes down to consumers. It is important that as consumers we empower ourselves and the environment by making the right choices. It is time to engage with your favourite brands and encourage a change.