How packaging can be sustainable - and innovate better - The Noel D'Cunha Sunday Column

There is a boom in packaging. Prof NC Saha talks about how the packaging industry has been trying to navigate an increasingly complex ecosystem.

The Sunday Column introduces his Foundation which looks to help the industry needs to help tackle packaging challenges

21 Mar 2021 | By Noel D'Cunha

Let's begin at the beginning. How did the Foundation for Innovative Packaging and Sustainability get started?
I have known Prof Anup Ghosh of IIT Delhi and MK Banerjee for the past 30 years. We decided it’s time we did something for the country that’s worthwhile, particularly in the field of packaging and sustainability by initiating a platform by way of disseminating our knowledge and experience for different sections of the society.  We discarded the idea of starting a company, since we are academicians, and running a commercial venture may not be our cup of tea. Hence, we decided to start this platform as a foundation.

How did you get involved in the movement?
We decided on starting an NGO. Please note our NGO is not registered under the Societies Act. We are registered under the Companies Act under a new Section 8.(1) of the Companies Act, 2013 where the NGO is a non-profit, non-commercial body. So, with Prof Ghosh, MK Banerjee, the director for innovation at EPL, who retired in December 2020, and academics, the platform boasts of 16 members.

What are the new grounds you intend to break when it comes to green packaging? How does the Foundation plan to address these challenges?
I joined the Indian Institute of Packaging in 1987 and it was a 32-year journey in packaging. I have travelled the length and breadth of the country. Plus I visited more than 45 countries around the globe. I have seen packaging units and interacted with many of them. I have observed that there is a disconnect in terms of basic research in the field of packaging. In fact, even at IIP, the basic research in packaging was missing. However, there are innovations in materials structure, design in packaging.

But this is transpiring at the industry level ...
True. Wherever the industry is involved, it is happening. Since these activities boost their commercial interests. At the same time, basic research for the development of innovative materials transpires in the IITs, NITs. But this research is limited to academic requirements. These are not being commercialised. My objective was to connect a number of reputed institutes and universities. The plan is to ensure basic research will have commercial value. The Foundation will act as a bridge or linkage between academia and industry. I believe such activities are not carried out by any organisations. This would enhance the level of innovations in packaging to a great extent and thus, Indian consumers / customers. It would benefit the industry in terms of having access to many more innovative technologies and packaging options.

How so?
There are about 22,000 to 23,000 packaging companies. Almost 85% of these firms are in the MSME sector. The MSME sector has its own limitations. It’s mostly a one-man company, which has to oversee the production, procurement and purchase, marketing, planning inventory and delivery.  There’s no time to concentrate on innovation.

Shouldn't this be the responsibility of our training institutes?
True. One can blame this design and innovation deficiency on lack of skilled manpower, the amount of research, pure research done on packaging innovation was negligible. So, the main objective of the Foundation is to focus on packaging innovation. We will collaborate with IIT, NIDs and agricultural universities to find out where all packaging is required and do research on that.

Members of FIPS: Abhijit Choudhury, Anil Wali, Anup Ghosh and Deepak Manchanda

For example?
We use a material like paperboard, plastic, laminate for packaging. But there is very little change in substrate science. So why not develop a new kind of material that could be sustainable friendly or biodegradable?

Our idea was how can we strengthen the research area in packaging, which is missing in the country. This is one of the gaps in the development of packaging innovation.

What are the other gaps?
We will look at skill development. At IIP, we have a two-year degree programme and also short-term diploma programmes. These are courses for freshers. It’s job-oriented, no doubt about that. So, the students join, finish the course, and they get a job. That’s the good part. But I am thinking about the other side, the industry.

Such as?
As I said, there are 22,000 to 23,000 units, who are looking for skilled manpower. There’s a dearth of skilled manpower in the subject of packaging. To date, there’s no incubation centre for packaging education. Right now, it’s like someone’s family started the packaging business eons ago, and then, the next generation got his training while managing the family business. If a newcomer wants to start a business, there’s no institute he can approach for training.

Among the objectives of the Foundation are R&D, skill development, policy advocacy for innovative packaging and a sustainable approach towards a circular economy. What is the blueprint to achieve this?
We are planning the skill development, mostly in association with industry leaders as well as colleges who need to upgrade their knowledge in the field of packaging and sustainability. What we are planning with the help of educational institutions is at a different level.

Members of FIPS: Deepak Mehta, Lakshmi Raghupathy, Mrinal Banerjee and NC Saha

What is that?
If you see, in the fifth standard, students learn about environmental science. Between the sixth to standard XII, the students learn next to nothing about the environment or material science. When the students enter college and take up polymer technology, there are subjects about plastic or those who study cellulose technology, they learn about paper, or those who study metallurgy learn about metal. From there the student goes on to learn packaging in a two-year master’s programme or a diploma course. My point is, there is a huge gap in our education system as far as material science is concerned.

So, why can’t we incorporate subjects like material science in our education system?
Exactly my point. The kind of negativity about packaging, such as, plastic is bad and printing leads to waste, arises due to a lack of knowledge about material science. That’s why, if you see our tagline – Foundation is a Knowledge Platform. It is all about disseminating this message. Our intention is to take this message to the schools and colleges. The idea is, to train the students about materials like plastic, paper and metal. Also, to engage with the executives working in packaging development through the syllabus and public awareness material.

What are the key elements of green or sustainable packaging, according to you?
Many talk about sustainability, green packaging or circular economy, but unfortunately, they do not know the definition. For example, for many, to buy, to use and to dispose is a circular economy. This is not true. These days, when they talk about circular economy, they say, ban plastics. It’s not about banning plastics. Hence awareness is important.

Please define circular economy.
Circular economy means, whatever resources you take from the earth is to be returned to the earth in a usable form. For example, I was involved with an international project where we have used Parali, a natural resource, converted it to pulp, made it into paper cups, used it, collected it and reconverted it back to pulp.

What about the anti-plastic buzz?
Well, circular economy is not just about plastic, it could be any material, it could be gas, it could be energy. Oxygen levels are reducing. In 2050, it’s predicted that the world will have a 10-billion population, and staring at drinking water scarcity. The effort is in how best and how soon we make the planet sustainable.

There are policy decisions like the ban on single-use plastic as well as certain inks. Although these are easy and quick ways to reduce use. My question is, could behavioural changes yield better results?
It boils down to lack of knowledge. That’s what we will be addressing. Even with the government and policymakers, we see lots of confusion. Take, for example, the clamour for ban on single-use plastic. Banning everything is not a solution. If you hurt your hand or leg, you apply ointment on it, treat it, not simply cut the hurt body part. You ban plastic and use glass. Broken glass will be thrown in the nullah, which will clog the gutters, and create floods. What next? Ban glass?

Members of FIPS: Pradyumna Vyas, Rahul Bhargava, Rajani Ranjan Rashmi and Safi Ullah Chowdhury

The answer?
The answer lies in educating the public, which will be more beneficial and derive better results. We have to change our behaviour. We are civilised people. There’s a dust-bin screaming and saying, use me, but we find waste strewn around it. This is the last thing we need.

There are environmental watchdogs who advocate ban on plastic, and the government plays along?
I come back to my favourite subject: skill development. We need skill development at the school, social and industry level. We need to know who is the victim – the glass, plastic or human?

What's the solution?
We want to get an independent party and provide the government with some sort of direction from a legal and scientific point of view. I am not saying, don’t ban plastic. I am saying, please give a strong reason for banning it. Also, find an alternative before you ban it. Today, do we have an alternative to plastic? Here policy advocacy becomes very important.

And your Foundation will play a part in this?
Who other than an expert can guide? This is where we will play a role. The Foundation is a platform where we will promote skill development, research and development, and advocate proper policy-making. We will be publishing reports and white papers. We have released a white paper on innovative packaging and sustainability. 16 experts have written articles. The report is available for free.

How are you going to achieve all this?
Initially, we thought we will have a list of all the government institutions that are dealing with applied research. To begin with we have aligned with an organisation in the North East.

Why North East?
Everybody is talking about biodegradability, which I think is important but is secondary. First is, natural resources. There’s plenty of ethnic food (Nolen Gur, which was featured in PrintWeek and WhatPackaging?) available in the North East states, which we call the Seven Sisters. There are these natural resources and ethnic products but have we done anything in terms of innovative packaging to help transport these natural resources and products to reach other states or countries?

What is the modality?
We have initiated dialogue with one organisation North East Centre for Technology Application and Reach, and signed an MoU on starting an incubation centre at Shillong in Meghalaya. The producers of ethnic food in the region can learn about packaging, provide them with packaging solutions so that they can market their products beyond their states.
What more?
We have signed an MoU with a central university in Arunachal Pradesh – the North East Regional Institute of Science and Technology (NERIST), which has a food science department. They did not include packaging, because they did not have faculty in the subject. The Foundation will provide faculty support to NERIST, University of Science and Technology, Meghalaya, National Institute for micro, small and medium enterprises, Hyderabad, FITT, IIT, Delhi

Members of FIPS: Shailendra Singh, Subhas Bhattacharjee, Tamilmanian Nagalingam and U Venkateswarlu

What will be the impact of technology on packaging? We have manufacturers making use of IoT based energy management systems, sensors, and RFID enabled warehousing management systems...
In South India, we are aligned with Mahatma Gandhi University in Kottayam. Prof Sabu Thomas is the Vice-chancellor and a polymer scientist.

You have reached out to Prof Thomas?
Yes, he was looking to set up a centre of excellence in food packaging, where he could develop a smart packaging technology. For example, post-Covid there is a concern about the food being pathogen-free. Our Foundation will be supporting the centre through research and developing natural resources-based polymeric materials and then embedded with sensors for smart packaging application. We will be involving various flexible packaging manufacturers for plant trials which they can scale up. This is based on the success of laboratory trials.

Oh yes. There are many other technologies related projects that we hope to take up.

A good packaging product has to be based on its disposable character, both inside and outside. Can you give some examples of resource conservation and material recycling and selection such that there’s a proper balance between using the material and producing packaging products. There’s a need to enter that kind of sustainable equilibrium... isn’t it?
People say packaging material is degradable, biodegradable, etc. These are all confusing terms. There is bacteria that can eat away plastics under certain environmental conditions. For laboratory testing purposes, we can create a standard environmental condition and inoculate with certain kinds of bacteria and allow the bacteria to eat away the plastics. But it does not mean that the same bacteria will be available in the soil of different places. Moreover, the environmental condition in terms of temperature and relative humidity would vary from place to place. Similarly, there is research on enzymes, but it is a very slow process. There’s another thing called oxo-degradable, where the oxygen will degrade plastic under certain specific conditions. Again, this is a myth.

And there is a need to educate the manufacturers, processors and consumers about these myths?
Today, the biggest problem is people not knowing how to dispose of waste.

All too often, the economic equation for environmental issues revolve around cost – cost to build or produce, why are health risks and consequences not factored in, in any meaningful fashion?
Very true. Polyester (PET) is a material that is 100% recyclable provided we collect it. Our problem is collection and segregation before it can be recycled.
Quite true.
Again, we do not have proper data. Some say 16% is collected some say 80% PET bottles are collected, which is converted into yarn and then into garments. There was a request to one of the committees of the Bureau of Indian Standards where I am the Chairman, why can't we produce bottles out of the waste bottles and use them. This is called the bottle-to-bottle concept. I think that’s a very good idea. India should do it. But, we need a good recycling system, which at the present time is a very poor condition. You can collect the clean post-consumer packaging wastes and then, subject to recycling, maintain the quality of virgin material. The plant has to be maintained under FDA regulation. The recycled material should be properly cleaned so that it complies to all the statutory requirements.

The Indian packaging industry which was valued at USD 50.5 billion in 2019, is expected to reach 204.81 billion by 2025 (This is a CAGR of 26.7% from 2020-25). Which packaging segment shall benefit in the next five years in India?

AlcoBev will not grow. Covid-19 has made people more health-conscious, so the consumption of alcohol and cigarette smoking will see a decline for at least the next five years. FMCG is a segment that combines both food and pharma. This will be the fastest-growing segment. If you go to the superstores, 60% is food, the rest are consumer products like detergent, toiletries are 10%, medicine is 15%. The rest is your miscellaneous items like sports material, garment. So, around 70% of the products in the stores need packaging material. If you draw a pie-chart, food is the highest. After Covid-19 it will become more dominant because people are more concerned about nutritious food, which will also drive the need for smart and intelligent packaging.

FIPS: Board of directors

Prof (Dr) NC Saha, founder chairman and director (packaging technology, industry relationship and publication)
Prof (Dr) Anup Ghosh, director (research & development, training and promotion)
Mrinal Banerjee, director (innovations, sustainability and finance)

Chief consultants
Rahul Bhargava, packaging innovation
Shailendra Singh, sustainability
Subhas Bhattacharjee, training
Deepak Manchanda, packaging design

Rajani Ranjan Rashmi, retired IAS
Dr U Venkateswarlu, retired IAS

Advisory board
Dr Lakshmi Raghupathy
Prof. Pradyumna Vyas
Dr Anil Wali
Safi Ullah Chowdhury

Thought leaders
Abhijit Choudhury
Tamilmanian Nagalingam
Deepak Mehta