Plastic Pollution: Packaging technocrats discuss circular economy, EPR and the way forward

Plastic Pollution
The packaging industry congregated at the two-day Speciality Films and Flexible Packaging Global Summit on 4-5 September 2018 to confabulate on the pressing issue of plastic pollution, plastic ban, and challenges in waste collection, segregation and recycling.

It was Tuesday morning; by 8.50am the ballroom at Grand Hyatt was chock-a-block with more than 1,270 plastics and packaging technocrats from 26 countries. Everyone was intensely on the lookout for a solution to the severe issue of plastic pollution or rather seeking the clarification on government’s push for the plastic ban and ways one can comply with the regulations that are being contemplated.

Three things were clear.

One, there’s a need for the plastics industry in general and the plastics packaging industry, in particular, to improve its brand image in the imagination of the middle-class consumer who regards packaging as a culprit.

Two, the linear model of produce-use-dispose is no longer viable. The need of the hour is to adopt a circular economy – produce-use-collect-sort-recycle-produce. However, in the Indian context, the real challenge lies in collection and segregation of plastic waste. This is because as sophisticated as the plastic packaging industry is, the plastic waste is left to the informal sector of estimated 15-lakh rag pickers at the bottom of the pyramid to scavenge and collect recyclables.

For the circular economy to work segregation-at-source is critical plus it is pertinent to co-opt the waste pickers into the process, or as Malati Gadgil, CEO, SWaCH, points out, “meaningfully integrate” into the process in such a way that their contribution to the value chain is acknowledged and respected. For this integration, value has to be created for the plastic waste so that waste pickers find it economically beneficial to collect the waste.

Malati Gadgil, CEO, SWaCH

Three, therefore, the solution, that was unanimously advocated was extended producers’ responsibility (EPR).

What’s EPR?
Vipul Shah, COO, petrochemicals at Reliance says, “With EPR, brand owners and importers are responsible to recover the material placed in the market for safe disposal at their cost. It also means signing long-term agreements with transparent pricing mechanisms to bring about certainty in revenues for recyclers.”

Vipul Shah of Reliance

Shah points out that pilot EPR schemes have been implemented, but obligations are largely met on a sporadic and scattered basis under CSR. There’s a need to clearly define roles and accountabilities along with associated liabilities.

Shah highlights the untapped opportunities to reuse waste plastic as fuel – use in cement kilns and road construction. However, Shah says, to leverage this potential, we need sustained funding so as to minimise the revenue versus cost viability gap.

Pradeep Banerjee, executive director, supply chain at Hindustan Unilever, says, “EPR is the only way we can earn our right to grow when it comes to plastic packaging.”

He explains extended producers responsibility and talks about learning lessons from 26 European countries that have implemented EPR.

Talking about the principles of an ideal EPR model, Banerjee, says, “EPR model has to be environmentally effective and economically efficient. Plus it should be a shared responsibility, and hence needs an integrated approach to sustainable waste management. At the same time, the model must not create barriers to the trade, rather it should stimulate competition. Finally, it should make available market for the collected material.”

Pradeep Banerjee of HUL

This first step, according to Banerjee, is to create an authority comprising of regulators and subject matter experts need to create a centralised and transparent digital platform for registration of all stakeholders in the value chain. “This platform will track the liability of all players who are waste generators. It will also connect waste generators and waste processors. And finally, the platform has to create a real-time marketplace of the recovered plastic material of various grades,” he adds.

Bernd Reifenhauser, CEO at Reifenhauser, shares his insights from Germany’s waste management systems. He says, Germany collects and segregates 100% of its plastic waste. Of the 5.92MT of the total plastic waste, 53% goes for energy recovery, 46% is recycled.

Elaborating on how this works, Reifenhauser highlights two models: Bottle Deposit for single-use bottles, which ensures that 93.5% of disposable PET bottles are recycled and Duales System Deutschland.

“The industry has set up a “dual system” of waste collection, which picks up household packaging in parallel to the existing municipal waste-collection systems. The system collects packaging material from manufacturers who pay a license fee. These manufacturers can then add the Green Dot logo to their package labelling to indicate that this package should be placed into the separate bags or bins that will then be collected and emptied by waste collection vehicles and sorted (and where possible recycled) in the systems’ facilities,” explained Reifenhauser.

Multi-layer plastic packaging: Recyclable or not?
It is imperative to understand whether or not multi-layer plastic packaging is recyclable and the reasons behind it.

K Manohar of Max Speciality Films explains well.

K Manohar of Max Speciality Films

If the polymers in the multi-layer structure have similar melting points, then it can be converted into granules. Now, if polymers in the layers are miscible, these can be converted into granules; if not, these need to made compatible and extruded.

Now, if the polymers in the multi-layer structure do not have similar melting points, then it needs to be separated into individual layers using solvent, strong acid or alkali and the precipitated from solution to make granules of high quality.

But this layer separation is a complex process and printed and metallised laminates add to the complexity. And the yield output may not be economically lucrative.

Therefore, the solution most industry experts suggest is using a mono-family structure for multi-layer laminates using specialised BOPP films like the ones Max has developed or use advanced water-based coatings like the ones in Michelman’s portfolio. Max Speciality Films has developed flexible films for PET replacement, high barrier, sealing reliability, and aluminium foil replacement.

However, Uflex’s chairman, Ashok Chaturvedi announced multi-layer plastic packaging is 100% recyclable and Uflex has been recycling laminated, printed and metallised plastic packaging for over two decades.

He has urged all flexible packaging converters to set up recycling plants and agreed to provide technological know-how.

EPR looks imminent and only forthcoming government regulations will reveal the way forward. While the industry players are gearing up collaboratively to take up the sustainability challenge, it is heartening to see firms like Palghar’s Riddhi Siddhi Polymers already talking about EPR and Rs 15 per kilogram buyback schemes on their plastic pouches.

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