Is paper really recyclable? Can it replace plastic?

These and more questions were asked and answered during the webinar organised to celebrate Paper Day on 1 August.

19 Oct 2021 | By PrintWeek Team

The Federation of Paper Traders’ Association of India (FPTA), in association with Indian Paper Manufacturers Association (IPMA) and Indian Pulp & Paper Technical Association (IPPTA), organised a webinar to celebrate Paper Day on 1 August. FPTA has been celebrating 1 August as Paper Day for the last five years as an occasion to highlight the importance of paper and to dispel among the masses the misconceptions regarding paper.

This year’s event was all the more important as the last two years have been especially trying for the paper industry due to the ongoing pandemic. The paper industry was especially hit with the closure of the educational institutes, which also resulted in a marked shift towards digitisation.

So, it’s time to shift focus from the traditional uses of paper to newer avenues, such as paper for packaging and paper as an alternative to plastic. Also, a lot more is happening on the regulation front, which can be beneficial to the paper industry.  

Sustainability guidelines
In this context, JP Narain of Century Pulp and Paper spoke on the Business Responsibility and Sustainability Report (BRSR). As per the new SEBI guidelines, the new kind of reporting — Business Responsibility and Sustainability Report (BRSR) — will replace the existing Business Responsibility Report (BRR).

Narain started by asking the question, is paper sustainable, or can it be made sustainable through processes? “Paper is biodegradable, and recyclable, true, but to make anything sustainable, we need the right kind of process and approach,” he said.

Today, the government is serious about sustainability. Now, the ministry of corporate affairs is looking for an approach where corporations should have an intention towards the stakeholders, not just the shareholders, meaning that industries should be more responsible towards society. The government issued voluntary guidelines on this in 2009, and in 2012, these guidelines were implemented among the top 100 companies of the country. In 2015-16, these guidelines were extended to the next 500 top listed companies.

In November 2018, the ministry formed a committee to draft a complete sustainability process for the companies. The committee filed its report in August 2020 with recommendations on sustainability. All the industries and their stakeholders were covered in those recommendations. The committee came out with a format that needed 500 to 600 inputs to be filled, along with the annual report, known as the BRSR report. These will be applicable to the first 1,000 companies that were already following the voluntary guidelines. For the new entrants, there will be a lighter version of the format, and they will have to file a sustainability report along with their
financial report.

JP Narain of Century Pulp and Paper

Thus, Narain said, in future, profit will not be decided based on the share value, but will be based on the company’s sustainability processes, which include environment, social behaviour and governance index. Today, investors are looking at overall, equitable growth,” he said.

The role of the other stakeholders, according to the BRSR report, will be based on nine principles. These include doing business with integrity and transparency, and providing goods and services in a sustainable way. “As the paper industry deals in agro products, this means, if we don’t replenish the source of fibre, the raw material for paper, we would not be a sustainable industry,” he said.

Thus, Narain argued that just starting the fact that paper is sustainable is not enough. The industry has its responsibility to maintain it as a sustainable product, and steps need to be taken at the manufacturing process, at dealer’s, converters and consumer’s place. “If this is not fulfilled at every step of the supply chain, I don’t think we can say that paper is sustainable,” he concluded.

Plastic replacing paper
Speaking on paper replacing plastic, PN Sridharr, DGM, sustainable products and packaging, ITC PSPD, said today various regulations about the use of plastic has been promulgated and these have started putting the onus on the brand owners. Single-use plastic has been banned across the country. Also, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) has started linking ERP commitments to a fee-based on the quantity of plastic waste generated versus collected. Accordingly, companies are required to submit a monthly report on the quantum of plastic being placed in the market and the quantum of plastic being collected back. This has put pressure on the brands to take a hard look at their existing packaging and start revamping whenever possible.

So, the idea is to reduce the intensity of plastic usage by 25-50% by 2015, with a goal to move towards 100% fully reuseable, recyclable, compostable packaging by 2025-30. Another goal is to collect 50-100% plastic waste by 2025.

According to Sridharr, the strategy now is to shift from non-recyclable multi-layer plastic to mono-layer and replace plastic with paper + barrier, keeping the environmental impact in mind. Other measures taken by the packaging industry include using reusable, refillable packaging, forming partnerships with waste collection agencies, and investing in funds like closed loop funds.

In an attempt to define recycling, the Ellen McArthur Foundation has formed questions — does a system of recycling exist in practice at scale for packaging category, that is, at least 30% recycling rate is achieved for 40-million inhabitants? Secondly, do the various packaging components fit that system of recycling? Here, ‘in practice and at scale’ means there is an existing (collection, sorting, recycling) system in place that effectively recycles the packaging, and it is not just a theoretical possibility. It should also cover a significant and relevant geographical area as measured by population and size.

“So, the question is whether the packaging material is recyclable and whether it is recyclable at scale,” Sridharr said.

In this, of course, paper or paperboard trumps over plastic. Also, recently the government has banned specific categories of plastic products. This has opened new opportunities for paper and paperboards in these categories.

Sridharr argued that today sustainability has become embedded in many companies for packaging selection. For example, between 2015-2020, most packaging shifted to renewables, with secondary packaging in paper/board. There has also been light-weighting or substance reduction. He gave the example of paper cups. When paper cups were first introduced, it used 180 to 200-gsm paper. Now it has been reduced to 40-gsm.

PN Sridharr of ITC PSPD

Again, for print embellishment, the aqueous coating has replaced film. Also, disposables have shifted from plastic to paper.

In the next wave, Sridharr said, there will be the use of certified FSC/PEFC and recycled content material, dispersion and bio-based coating, emerging regulation such as a ban on single-use plastic, view of cost from material to the total ecosystem, and redesigning packaging lines, among other measures.

“The ultimate goal is to set up a waste collection and treatment mechanism, home and industrial composting, barrier coatings designed for recyclability, carbon accounting, and packaging design for circularity,” he concluded.

In this context, what can paper traders do? Sridharr suggested, “Be up to date on all regulations. Understand all the critical parameters and certification. Engage with customers exploring solutions for replacing single-use plastic, and reiterate in every interaction that paper is a sustainable product and every kg of paper supports multiple livelihoods.”

Sanjay K Singh, group of head of paper and packaging, ITC, and president of IPPTA said the industry needs to change the perception of paper as a pollutant and instead focus on the fact that paper is sustainable and it is not harmful to the environment. Even the treated water coming out of a paper mill is of better quality than the other water available, he said.

“Let’s do the right thing, which is good for the environment, and people will start realising the benefits of paper,” Singh added.

Paper Day tweets by @printweekindia