Ramu Ramanathan (RR): You helmed ops in May 2021. Tell us about your appointment at ITC. You were onboarded during the toughest time that the industry has seen. Tough?
Dhananjay Salunkhe (DS): After working with various multinational companies for more than two decades, I took over operations of ITC’s packaging business in early 2019. Overall transition from heading operations to chief executive of packaging business has been very smooth due to ITC’s well planned succession planning, its institutional strengths and robust foundation of systems and processes.
RR: How did you cope with the pandemic and working with your team members in a virtual world?
DS: The business has been responding with agility and grit to the challenge posed by pandemic. For instance, we were operational from the second day of the first lockdown announcement.
We formed focused task forces with the key objective of ensuring health and safety of our employees along with addressing the requirements of continuous supplies of packaging for essential goods. Technology has leveraged effectively during this period.
RR: Kudos on the 13 wins at the Star Awards.
DS: Thank you.
RR: One of your creations that caught my eye was a recyclable laminate manufactured with green energy. It is a three-ply pack, which aims to maintain product freshness and aroma for the entire shelf life. ...
DS: We are delighted to be recognised for our contribution to the innovative work in the packaging industry. The recyclable laminate that you are referring to is for a coffee packaging. Traditionally, coffee packaging needs a high level of moisture vapour and oxygen barrier, which is achieved through aluminium foil. However, the presence of foil in such multi layer laminate makes it difficult to recycle. We solved this problem by using an ultra-high barrier polyolefin material with high heat resistance, replacing foil. This recyclable laminate provides good barrier, retaining aroma and freshness of the product.
RR: Where did you manufacture it?
DS: It is manufactured at our Chennai facility, which operates with 100% renewable energy powered by our wind mills.
RR: I am sure there are many more innovative packaging solutions. What are your favourite creations in recent times? Please share with us.
DS: In line with our vision and mission to help reduce usage of plastics and provide safe, hygienic and sustainable packaging options, we have innovated many solutions.
RR: Such as?
DS: Such as along with a brand operating in the southern part of India, we have helped introduce a recyclable solution to replace multilayer packaging for pulses. The brand is creating greater awareness among kids at the school level about the impact it creates on the environment and highlights the overall importance of sustainability. Also, the supply chain of the food service industry has a high human touch point. There was a need to solve the problem of microbial contamination of the surface of packaging. Our in-house innovative product in this space is germ-free coating which can inhibit the spread of harmful bacteria and viruses providing safety.
RR: The product development team based in your Chennai innovation facility is a feather in the ITC cap. What type of design and formulation options have they been working on? Also, how can local brands and start-ups benefit from the work in this centre?
DS: Our Chennai innovation facility houses world-class design and experience studio and in-house pre-press equipped with the latest technology, contemporary platemaking and cylinder making facilities for offset and gravure proofing, assisting brand teams with prototyping and packaging development for new launches.We also offer design consultancy and a wide range of anti-counterfeit solutions, integrating overt and covert security elements into printed packaging for brand protection. It is pertinent to note that some of our processes and designs have been patented and many of our innovations have won World Star, Asia Star and India Star awards, thereby reinforcing the excellence in product development.
RR: Anything in the R&D innovation department?
DS: Our patented in-house R&D innovation BioSeal is able to help create compostable packaging options with high grease and oil resistance, and excellent sealability. Using this innovative coating, we have successfully replaced polyethylene in board and paper from the packaging of soap cartons, tea bags, and others.
RR: What about plastic waste? Any alternative?
DS: In the Indian context, the problem of discarded plastic waste is largely due to huge consumption of multilayered flexible packages, which are difficult to recycle. We have made a meaningful contribution in this area by using a solution christened OxyBlock to develop polyolefin recyclable packaging solutions for oil, detergents, coffee and tea packaging solutions. Also, we have worked with key customers such as Diageo and have converted their entire mono carton packaging portfolio free of plastic film. Our design team has worked on the brand requirements leveraging the rich experience that we have in gravure printing and replaced the metallic effects that are originally delivered on metallised PET film. Such innovative interventions help us stay ahead of the curve and develop enduring partnerships with our valued customers
RR: ITC has also introduced several sustainable alternatives to plastic packaging, leveraging the cutting-edge R&D capabilities of ITC Life Sciences and Technology Centre, Bengaluru. Please share with us what is transpiring in this centre?
DS: ITC’s Life Sciences and Technology Centre (LSTC), equipped with highly knowledgeable R&D experts, has been focussed on the development of sustainable solutions. Our objective is to develop solutions in the circular economy through innovation in recycling and reuse as well as in design and chemistry. Together, we have made significant progress in the areas of plastic free, recyclable and compostable solutions using our unique products such as OxyBlock and BioSeal.
RR: The 2021 EPR guidelines are pretty stringent. In this sense, what are ITC's sustainability efforts going forward?
DS: As you are aware, ITC Group is carbon positive for 16 years, water positive for 19 years and solid waste recycled positive for 14 years. We are working towards our packaging solutions to be reusable, recyclable or compostable/biodegradable. Under the Wealth out of Waste (WoW) campaign, we are also reaching out to our customers to extend our support on sustainability and EPR related compliances.
RR: In India’s case, packaging is the fifth largest sector in its economy and is one of the highest growth sectors in the country. According to the Packaging Industry Association of India (PIAI), the sector is growing at a healthy rate. What sort of dialogue is required between brands, OEM’s and production managers to reap the benefits of this growth?
DS: The growth of the packaging industry in India is driven by increased consumption, change in consumer behaviour from unpacked to packed, unbranded to branded, surge in eCommerce and convenience driven channels. However, the future will be largely driven by environment friendly, sustainable and connected packaging solutions. However, these packaging solutions are at the early stages of adoption. In order to accelerate adoption of these solutions, brand owners, packaging industry, OEMs, and raw material suppliers need to collaborate with each other to create fit for purpose, technically viable, user friendly options.
RR: What are the key packaging trends and changes in consumer behaviour over the past two years? What type of conversations are you having with your brand partners?
DS: The packaging industry continues to be influenced by evolving trends such as heightened consumer consciousness towards health, safety, hygiene and convenience, which has led to emergence of several new brands including D2C format leading to shift from unpacked to packed; and unbranded to branded packaging. Increased adaptation of eCommerce platforms has resulted in the amalgamation of layers of packaging and enhanced requirements of transit worthy, unpack friendly and tamper proof packaging.Going forward, sustainable packaging will continue to be the key trend along with gradual shift towards digital plus interactive and connected packaging solutions for consumer engagement, personalisation and brand validation.