Sustainable packaging – no spot-fix solution yet

Packaging companies are doing their bit but it's an uphill task ahead

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Paper-based packaging as it is claimed to be water-intensive, expensive, and puts pressure on trees. To make it durable, especially for food and liquid products, paper packaging needs a plastic lining.

Amid concerns over plastic pollution, climate change, and other environmental issues, industries across sectors are looking at sustainable and environmental-friendly alternatives. The packaging segment, too, seems to be its bit by exploring eco-friendly materials and trying to reduce their carbon footprint. But is it enough?

Sustainable packaging plays a crucial role in addressing eco concerns by minimizing the impact of packaging waste on the environment. Choosing sustainable packaging materials and practices helps protect biodiversity by reducing deforestation, habitat destruction, and pollution.

Sustainable packaging practices contribute to climate change adaptation by promoting resilient materials and packaging systems, involving the use of materials with a lower carbon footprint.

Sustainable packaging not only helps move the industry toward more responsible and eco-friendly practices but is also an essential component of broader efforts to create a more sustainable and resilient global economy.

Nestle, in the year 2021, released a document that mentioned their rule of sustainable packaging, which was defined by two key sets of rules, the golden rule and the negative list. Unser the golden rules, the MNC mentioned dos and don’ts for the usage of plastics, paper, and paperboard. It mentioned the usage of mono-material structures for plastic packaging, the usage of bio-based plastics when technically possible, responsibly sourced, and compliant, and the non-usage of PVC, PVDC, polystyrene (PS), or expanded PS. 

In the paper and paperboard section, they formulated the rule to avoid the usage of chlorine-containing coatings such as PVDC and the non-usage of fluorine-containing compounds (PFAS).

The negative list had a list of materials, additives, packaging concepts, and items that are or will be considered obsolete based on the evolution of recycling technologies and infrastructure and legal/regulatory framework.

According to Satish Chamyvelumani, business head of Chuk, a 100% compostable tableware brand, amid growing environmental concerns, businesses from all sectors are realising the value of sustainable packaging. Environmentally conscious consumers are looking at eco-friendly products. “Not being sustainable will come back at a much higher price,” he said.

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EVOH Barrier Plastic Sheet. Photo- Desu Plastic

At a recent conference in Delhi, global specialty chemicals company Kuraray highlighted the importance of EVOH (ethylene vinyl alcohol copolymer) as a barrier in packaging to make it sustainable without compromising on the packed product. Highlighting the characteristics of EVOH, Sripad A Amante, manager of EVAL sales, Kuraray India stated, “1mm of EVAL has the same gas barrier as a 10-meter thick wall of LDPE. With such performance, very thin layers of EVAL add valuable barrier function to efficient multilayer structures. This barrier function works in both directions, keeping harmful oxygen and contamination away from sensitive products while locking the aroma and value inside.”

Last year Canpac, a leading Indian packaging material supplier headquartered in Ahmedabad, set up a sustainable packaging arm called Altpac, to address the growing demand for omnichannel environment-friendly packaging globally. Raag Todi, junior director of Canpac, believes paper packaging to be a major trend in the industry and one of the efficient ways of sustainable packaging. He said brands must play a vital role in convincing customers to go for paper instead of another form of packaging.

There is, however, an argument against paper-based packaging as it is claimed to be water-intensive, expensive, and puts pressure on trees. To make it durable, especially for food and liquid products, paper packaging needs a plastic lining.

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Eco-friendly paper packaging. Photo Freepik

Shedding light on the economics behind sustainable packaging, Todi said, “A certain segment of the Indian population is willing to embrace sustainable choices, understanding the long-term benefits for the environment, but a significant portion remains hesitant due to financial constraints. Here a brand’s role comes into play in spreading awareness. They need to bridge the knowledge gap and inspire more consumers to prioritize eco-friendly options.”

Aligning with the same thought process, Sumit Gupta, the founder of a recently launched men’s grooming startup brand, Bravado, said sustainable packaging materials and processes are more expensive than traditional options but believe the long-term benefits will outweigh the initial costs. He said, “We view these investments as essential for long-term success in a market where environmental responsibility is increasingly valued by consumers.” He also emphasized the significant challenge that the companies are going to face because of various regulations that are going to be imposed in the future, alongside maintaining the functionality and safety of packaging, obviously referring to the EPR norms.

The packaging industry, it may be mentioned, is one of the biggest generators of waste in India. Another school of thought says even though companies are trying to find sustainable alternatives, these aren’t enough to alleviate the problems. Many environmental activists are also calling out companies over greenwashing. In the Ottawa global plastic treaty meet, activists called for a cut in primary polymer production. This was staunchly opposed by plastic-producing nations, who say it is more of a waste management issue. India’s per capita plastic and packaging use is far lower than many developed countries but the volumes are high. As such only concerted and sincere efforts will help the industry find a real solution.

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