The Elite Conference in Mumbai – resuming the conversations

Resilience, growth, people, profit and planet

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Elite 9 keynote
Keynote speakers of the 9th Elite Conference in Mumbai – L to R – Sudhir Satpathy of Godrej Consumer Products, RS Sodhi of Amul, Ashok Chaturvedi of Uflex, and Peter Steinbeck of Windmoller & Holscher. Photo Packaging South Asia

The 9th Elite Conference in Mumbai on the 5th and 6th of September 2022 was another significant step in the evolutionary progress of our society and industry. For those among the 1,400 film producers, converters, recyclers, suppliers, and experts that were privileged to attend, it will be a challenge to get more from any two days of their working life. The confluence of the leading Indian manufacturers, converters, and the leading technology, consumable, and solutions suppliers globally has taken the issues of industry sustainability in terms of profit and viability and the environmental sustainability of flexible packaging further along the road from the general to the specific.

That there is no consensus on every issue is a testament to our political and industrial democracy. However, this do-as-you-please (ultra-democratic) environment presents a greater burden on the industry leaders to push its solutions and influence the government in the right direction. Every speaker and most of the participants in the discussions were responsible business leaders and did not agree on everything.

Sanjay Gupta of the DS Group (both a brand owner and a converter) said the enactment of the single-use plastic ordinance on 1 July 2022 was hasty and not well thought out. The implication is that it might be self-defeating. This was coming from a company that is keen to be green and already uses rPET in some of its containers.

Nevertheless, for many of the other speakers, the ban on single-use plastics is a milestone in the progress of the Plastic Waste Management rules in the country – a signal that the Indian government is aware of its responsibility to its citizens, the environment, and its global commitments on climate change. The supporters of the ban on single-use plastics acknowledge that it is not a perfect solution, but they are encouraged and hopeful that government is ready to make unpalatable regulations and that it will understand the complexity of the solutions sooner or later.

There is an overwhelming feeling in the industry that only government regulation can push both industry and society into the appropriate behaviors needed for there to be any future at all. Yet, the conference session after session presented positive actions and solutions by the brand owners, flexible film and packaging manufacturers, and suppliers to reduce energy and waste and enable the collection, sorting, and recycling of plastic materials.

Collection and sorting must precede recycling

On the first morning of the 9th Elite Conference, there were five keynotes, and each was interesting; we will circle back to these in subsequent articles. But in this first overview article, one must discuss the elephant in the room, especially the word ‘sustainability’ which was likened to the elephant, suggesting that its meaning or the required actions are as varied to its numerous proponents as the descriptions of the blind men in the fable. The multiplicity of the keynotes and discussions refined the meaning of sustainability because it presented the perspectives of brand owners, converters, and suppliers.

However, another elephant in the room or the deliberations is the argument of monopolymer versus mixed polymer laminates – as less or more recyclable. Ashok Chaturvedi, the chairman of Uflex, is a frank and assertive proponent of the recyclability of mixed polymer laminates. In his keynote, he was clear that the answer to environmental problems is not monomers but the collection, sorting, and recycling of waste plastic.

Ashok Chaturvedi Elite
Ashok Chaturvedi, chairman and managing director of UFlex, delivering his keynote at the 9th Elite Conference in Mumbai on 5 September 20222
Photo PSA

His company Uflex has been an acknowledged user of pyrolysis for a long time, although in his talk, he admitted that for several reasons, including the unavailability of plastic waste feedstock, the project has been a failure and economically unviable. Moreover, what he brought to the table was his continuous investigation of waste collection, sorting, and recycling. With a close look at a waste collection and sorting plant in Poland, he described the universal problem of the unavailability of plastic feedstock. He has backed his views with an investment in a waste sorting plant in Poland to be commissioned in October-November and another in Mexico to be established by the end of 2022. He said, “The plant in Mexico will have a positive EBITDA.” These are both countries in which UFlex produces packaging films.

Chaturvedi’s argument seems to be that the talk of monomer materials is not the answer but that the priority is the collection, sorting, and recycling – whether mechanical or chemical of plastic waste, including mixed laminates. This important discussion arose repeatedly in a conference that, to some extent, championed monopolymer materials and especially PE, BOPE, or MOPE films as the most easily recyclable solutions for sustainable flexible packaging.

Sustainability and collaboration

We will attempt to cover many important discussions of strategy and technology at the 9th Elite Conference in subsequent articles. In this first article, I will merely mention two other points that we will come back to later – the viability and lack of margins among Indian flexible packaging converters, highlighted by both Mohamed Nadeem of Paharpur3P and Sanjay Gupta of the DS Group, and also discussed by RS Sodhi of Amul. They questioned what is the priority of sustainability. Sodhi asked, “What is sustainability for a nation? Is it not full stomachs and full employment? Sustainability starts when stomachs are full!”

This is by no means a comprehensive discussion of the conference, but we will attempt to reiterate some of the discussions and solutions, including the technical insights. One had to be there to experience the evolution of ideas and actions that have taken place over the last few conferences in the past six or seven years. There is an existential change, motion, and development in the Indian flexible packaging industry, perhaps one of the fastest growing in the world. And as several speakers and participants said, “It has to happen, it’s up to us, and we will have to collaborate because the solutions are complex and require it.”

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As we present our 2024 publishing plan, India’s real GDP growth for the financial year ending 31 March 2024 will exceed 6%. The packaging industry growth will match the GDP growth in volume terms and surpass it by at least 3% in terms of nominal growth allowing for price inflation in energy, raw materials, consumables, and capital equipment.

The capacity for flexible film manufacturing in India increased by 45% over the past four years. With orders in place, we expect another 20% capacity addition in 2024 and 2025. Capacities in monocartons, corrugation, aseptic liquid packaging, and labels are grown similarly. As the consumption story returns over the next six months, we expect demand to return and exceed the growth trajectory of previous years. The numbers are positive for most of the economies in the region – and as shown by our analytics, our platform increasingly reaches and influences these.

For responsible and sustainable packaging, with its attendant regulations and compliances, there is significant headroom to grow in India and the region. Our coverage includes the entire packaging supply chain – from concept to shelf and to waste collection, sorting, and recycling.

We target brand owners, product managers, raw material suppliers, packaging designers and converters, and recyclers. This is a large and complex canvas – the only thing that can work is your agile thinking and innovation together with our continuous learning and persistence.

The coming year looks to be an up year in this region, and this is the right time to plan your participation and marketing communication – in our rich and highly targeted business platform with human resources on the ground. Share your thoughts and plans to inspire and mobilize our editorial and advertising teams!

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– Naresh Khanna (25 October 2023)

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Editor of Indian Printer and Publisher since 1979 and Packaging South Asia since 2007. Trained as an offset printer and IBM 360 computer programmer. Active in the movement to implement Indian scripts for computer-aided typesetting. Worked as a consultant and trainer to the Indian print and newspaper industry. Visiting faculty of IDC at IIT Powai in the 1990s. Also founder of IPP Services, Training and Research and has worked as its principal industry researcher since 1999. Author of book: Miracle of Indian Democracy. Elected vice-president of the International Packaging Press Organization in May 2023.

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