India sets global example for a compostable future

Ian Beresford, head of marketing and development at Essentra Tapes, explains how the government’s decision to ban single-use plastic is step towards right direction in promoting compostable plastics to replace polymer-based ones

19 Aug 2022 | By PrintWeek Team

Many brands are basing their packaging choices on environmental implications by shifting away from single-use packaging

The need to do something about our plastic excesses is undisputed.

Change often emerges gradually and then accelerates suddenly. And that certainly rings true in India, the second most populated country on earth and the fourth largest plastic waste generator.

Manufacture, import, stocking, distribution, sale, and use of problematic single-use plastics, which have low utility and high littering potential will not be allowed anymore, according to the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change. Instead, they aspire to promote compostable plastics to replace polymer-based ones. 

While some say it is too drastic and that more time should be given to people to get used to the idea, others were more accepting. But one thing they can agree on is the size, scale and complexities involved with switching to alternatives.

According to UNDP (United Nations Development Programme), India produces 15-million tonnes of plastic annually. At most, only 25% of them are recycled. The current rate of waste collection and processing, a new landfill site of the size of Eden Gardens cricket ground would be required every seven years just to landfill all the waste.

Good legislature in a time of dramatic change can be a powerful thing, but of fundamental importance is scrutiny in the form of testing and approval infrastructure.

Healing a major polluter

Since July 2022, the Centre has prohibited the production, import, storage, sale, and use of 19 more single-use plastic products, bringing the total to 21. Items include straws, flags, cups, eating utensils, wrapping films, candy sticks, earbuds, bags with less than 75 microns, PVC banners with less than 100 microns, and others.

Special teams and control rooms have been set up to enforce this regulation, with violation resulting in a five-year jail sentence or a fine of 100,000 rupees — or both — with variations depending on state governments.

Suddenly the country is questioning the dominant assumption that there can be continual plastic growth on a finite planet. They have realised that cleaning up the vast swathes of waste should be a shared responsibility, with an emphasis on transparency, having recycling systems in place, incentivising companies to innovate for alternative packaging solutions, and sensitising the consumer about their plastic footprint.

But whilst the recent ban on low utility and high littering potential of single-use plastics has its heart in the right place, it does little to address the massive problem of waste management. Much of that work will be tackled by Extended Producer Responsibility rules (EPR) that hold the producer responsible for collecting and recycling the plastic packaging waste they generate, ensuring a system is in place so that the plastic left after usage does not end up in landfills or water bodies.

A solution to stick with

As India finally takes the plunge into the war against plastic, the confusion, panic, and uncertainty mirror the global struggle to transition away from plastic dependence.

The measure is forcing the packaging industry to adapt by integrating more sustainable alternatives to oil-derived plastics such as post-consumer recycled plastic or paper-based materials.

Given the market’s rapid trend toward easy-open packaging, particularly in sectors that rely on film wraps such as the tobacco industry, easy-open tape manufacturers must also innovate in line with these requirements.

There is an array of promising alternatives to plastic that will help the industry progress towards the goal of fully circular solutions. While plastic reduction laws are beneficial in the long term, they do pose some short-term challenges for the whole packaging industry. They demand innovative thinking from sectors that rely on plastic film overwraps such as the tobacco and food and beverage industries.

We know first-hand that while consumers want more eco-friendly packaging, it must also be desirable and functional, or its impact will be limited. Converters and brands must ensure their packaging is enhanced with easy-open technology while balancing that with their environmental obligations. Sustainable easy-open tapes are absolutely at the heart of the Net Zero future.

Essentra Tapes has already developed SupaStrip PCR, a 70% post-consumer recycled plastic tape for flexible packaging. And we are seeing promising results on compostable alternatives. We have received a lot of interest in these products from our Indian colleagues and customers. So, where there are challenges, there are also great opportunities.

It is only a matter of time before the Central government toughens up these laws, and any company that has advanced its packaging sustainability agenda now — including easy-open solutions — will already be one step ahead of the competition when that time arrives.

Testing times

Many brands are basing their packaging choices on environmental implications by shifting away from single-use packaging and towards using compostable, recyclable, and reusable materials.

Supermarkets, in particular, are hoping to put an end to criticism over excess packaging with the introduction of compostable packaging. 

Compostable packaging has the benefit that its end-of-life disposal is environmentally friendly, providing the earth with nutrients once it is fully broken down. However, regardless of its benefits, all compostable packaging is required to be tested for disintegration, biodegradation, and non-toxic impact, and disposed of correctly. Packaging must be certified by independent third parties and a compostable logo added on.

Biodegradable and compostable packaging are not synonymous. One way to understand the difference between the two is that the materials used for compostable packaging do not produce toxins as it decomposes. In addition to this, certified compostable packaging is guaranteed to decompose under specific conditions, whereas biodegradable packaging has no fixed timeframe to break down.

All buyers seem to be looking for the same thing — a way out of plastics — and this is in response to public demand, pressure to change the way they package food — something they just can’t ignore.

The policies also prohibit selected SUPs and provide a legal basis for sustainable alternatives. Thus, certified compostable products are allowed to be manufactured and sold in the Indian market with the Centre investing in composting infrastructure all over the country especially in major cities with an installed capacity to produce 1-million tonnes of compost.

Manufacturers need to undergo a comprehensive certification and registration process. It includes product testing as per Indian Standards IS/ISO 17088 and ISO 17899 (June 2022). Currently, there are around 160 registered manufacturers, and the registration of more companies is in progress.   

To gain certification for the packaging, comprehensive documentary evidence and product test results are essential. A product, for example, an organic waste collection bag may consist of material (including intermediates), additives, such as colourants and printing inks and it is imperative that the final combination/product, not just its constituent parts, passes all the tests. 

Cigarette makers have already begun the shift from regular plastic wrapping to biodegradable wrapping for cigarette packs, with the biodegradable material being used compliant with international standards. However, the films can have coatings, tapes, and labels attached therefore all these systems should be biodegradable not just component parts

The ban is the latest sign of progress in tackling the scourge of plastic waste. It is a great step but bolted to it is the need for on-ground uniformity and clarity. An era of transformational change for the packaging industry is upon us.

These regulatory changes will have very significant implications and taking a reactive wait-and-see approach can put large volumes at risk. With the evolving regulatory landscape opening the door for a pantheon of eco-friendly alternatives, being proactive, developing an early alternative and acting based on a clear masterplan should lead resilient and successful companies to the next level of value creation.