• Materials, Waste, Innovation

The beginning of a new era for sustainable packaging in India

India is poised to become a leading nation on sustainable packaging, says Dr. R. Rangaprasad. Thanks to a longstanding experience in recycling and a flourishing technology sector, the Business Head at the knowledge sharing platform Packaging 360 is convinced that the country’s packaging value chain stakeholders will make major advances in the coming years.

Dr. Rangaprasad sees his mission at Packaging 360 in facilitating dialogue in the Indian packaging industry: “We try to act as a bridge”. He and his employers work with is correspondingly wide array of stakeholders: it includes start-ups trying to develop plastic alternatives, big brands trying to source sustainable materials, and recycling industry players trying to adapt their operations to a new environment. In turn, the service portfolio offered by the “knowledge sharing ecosystem” is equally large, ranging from consultancy services, event organisation and market research to news and information services, and training. Added to the holistic approach of his work comes Dr. Rangaprasad’s in-depth experience of the sector: for more than a quarter of a century, he has followed the development of the Indian packaging value chain

Moving away from plastic is hard to do

Fostering this knowledge and cooperation is vitally significant to Dr. Rangaprasad. For, from his vantage point, there are still a number of challenges that the packaging sector must tackle in order to master the test of circularity – both at a global level and in India. In particular, there are two systemic hurdles that the industry must overcome in his view: “The biggest challenge is the collection and sorting of mixed waste streams. The second challenge is ensuring the quality of recyclates.” The two are in his estimation related and particularly acute for flexible packaging: for one, it is composed of multiple materials and thus much harder to recycle. Secondly, due to the fact that it tends to be used for perishable and sensitive goods such as food and medicines, the quality of the alternative and recycled packaging materials must be very high.

This is where Dr. Rangaprasad sees one of the major problems facing the industry: “The development of plastic alternatives is not as easy as people thought.” While he is encouraged to see novel solutions such as biodegradable packaging emerging, he considers them not yet mature enough to be used at the scale necessary for the industry. Furthermore, Dr. Rangaprasad also underlines that, in India, the packaging materials challenge is not just one of innovation, but a social issue: if using a more sustainable material raised the cost of packaging, it is likely price out vulnerable consumers. In this context, he cites recent market research underlining just how delicate a balance the industry has to strike: “Sachets for shampoo cost two rupees. If you raise the price by fifty paise or one rupee, brand owners will lose fifteen percent of their customers.” For all of these reasons, he believes that plastic will continue to remain essential for certain parts of the industry: “When we talk about food, pharmaceuticals, and FMCG [Fast Moving Consumer Goods], you cannot do without polymers. That will take another decade.”

India: the start of a recycling boom

However, Dr. Rangaprasad is confident that many of the other obstacles on the path to a circular economy can be overcome – and that India is in a prime position to be a leading light in this endeavour. For one, as he stresses, the mentality of politicians and industry players in approaching waste management has changed:

“Plastic waste is no longer seen as waste but a resource that should be efficiently utilized – there is a paradigm shift in thinking.”

More practically speaking, Dr. Rangaprasad argues that the country is already able to act on this understanding thanks to its well-established and thriving recycling sector that is presently undergoing a major transformation: “Twenty to twenty-five years back, the recycling industry was mainly driven by the informal sector.” In his experience, this is rapidly changing, as the sector is increasingly embracing new high-tech solutions developed by a plethora of new start-ups: “What we find today is that, as more and more engineers come in, AI and sorting systems are brought forward.” The preeminent status of the recycling industry in India and its new “technology-driven” approach will, in Dr. Rangaprasad’s view, also enable the sector as a whole to improve the quality of recyclates by building on existing recycling solutions: “The question is: what is available in conventional packaging and how can it be made sustainable?” This progress will, according to him, also benefit more challenging sectors. “On food and FMCG, we are seeing advancements towards easily recyclable materials,” he stresses.

Beyond technology and innovation, Dr. Rangaprasad believes that other forces will be of increasing significance: regulation and consumer behaviour. From a legal standpoint, Dr. Rangaprasad emphasises that India is on the brink of another fundamental change in the coming months that will also greatly facilitate the transition towards a more circular packing value chain: a prohibition of single-use plastics. In his view, this new policy will bring greater certainty and predictability to the sector: “There will be a total ban on manufacturing. That framework is now very clear and there is no ambiguity.” At the same time, he also underlines that for the circular economy transition to succeed, it needs grassroots support. Here again, Dr. Rangaprasad believes that India has a head start, pointing out that reusing and repurposing everyday items is already a highly popular practice in India. Similar efforts are now also being undertaken for recycling, he states, as local initiatives for collecting and sorting waste are growing in significance: “There is a community-driven aspect now.” At the same time, with clear regulation set and increasing popular support for circular initiatives, he is very clear as to who the driving force of India’s recycling boom will be: “The onus is now on the industry.”

This article is part of a series where different stakeholders discuss ways to redefine recycling systems through value chain innovation. The articles are published following of our virtual roundtable.

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