As the large mass of the Indian and global plastic and flexible packaging community gathered again in Mumbai on the first day of the tenth Elite Global Summit on Specialty Films and Flexible Packaging on 31 August, the keynote speakers began the day extolling the current and projected strength of the Indian economy, and with technical insights that addressed the inevitably increasing use of plastic and the imperative of its recyclability. The keynotes and discussions encompassed both mechanical and chemical recycling that generally lean on solutions based on single polymer structures and multi-layer plastics, respectively.
While the discussion has become both complex and more urgent, there are two outstanding takeaways from the first day. The first is that the solutions are beyond any singularity and require collaboration between brand owners, converters, and suppliers of equipment, technology and consumables. Secondly, as the retired Ministry of Environment and Forests secretary CK Mishra forthrightly said, it is largely up to the packaging community, and specifically those participating in this conference to solve the problem.
The time for finger-pointing and whataboutry is over, he suggested, and the time for action is the immediate now. The knowledge, talent, and resources are present at the conference – while no amount of wishful thinking of improving municipal waste collection is likely to happen anytime soon. His call to action suggested that not only must the industry lead in the entire and holistic solution of plastic waste handling and recycling but that it stands to profit immensely from the investments it will have to make to do this. Mishra ended his forceful presentation by saying that he was talking about return on investment or ROI in the hope that this would arouse and motivate the entrepreneurial instincts of the participants more than any other of their well-meaning interests.
Ashok Chaturvedi, the chairman of UFlex is always a forceful speaker and industry advocate. Moreover, apart from championing the use of mixed polymer laminates or multi layer plastics – and the imminent viability of chemical recyclability, he too in his keynote, issued the call for structured action and collaboration. He openly decried the self-congratulatory reliance of the industry on destitute rag-pickers for plastic waste collection. Questioning this misguided reliance on unorganized resources as if it was some kind of charitable activity, he forcefully stated, “This is not the way to create jobs.” The industry must go deeper into the science of polymers using artificial intelligence and enzymes for devising new structures and for the collection and sorting of plastic waste on an industrial scale.
Chaturvedi spoke of his company’s success in separating the paper from aseptic liquid packaging carton waste laminates where the resulting pulp can be used for making paper for other applications. He spoke of the need to up the scale and effort in producing biodegradable films and laminates. “By adding enzyme-based masterbatches the resulting structures can be made biodegradable, and even if not collected and recycled, these would turn into bio-mass,” he explained, adding, “Of course, the first choice is recycling but biodegradable plastics address the problem of uncollected packaging waste which is a reality that has to be acknowledged.”
The brand owners were equally knowledgeable, forceful, and action-oriented in their presentations. Prabha Narasimhan the chairman and managing director of Colgate-Palmolive India cited the increase in wealth of Indian households and the inevitable rise in consumption including plastic packaging. “Packaging needs to evolve,” she said, suggesting that packaging needs to create engagement and excitement. It needs to do more and drive access by coming up with sustainable small packs at nominal price points. “Sustainability is expensive,” she said. Citing her own company’s partnership in the Accelerator +100 program, she asked, “How can we catalyze partnerships and collaborations?”
In a way, Harsh Mariwala substantially answered the questions that both Mishra and Narasimhan raised. Speaking of the Marico Innovation Foundation and its successful actions in just the past two years since it was initiated, he outlined both the groundwork that the foundation has already done by investing in scientifically quantifying the problem published and widely available several months ago and then in finding, encouraging and investing in Indian startups who have come up with solutions.
By the beginning of 2023, the Marico Innovation Foundation had already found and recognized 15 startups or small companies with practical and viable solutions. Mariwala cited three of these including Ishitva Robotic Systems’ automated system that is able to sort 6 tons of plastic waste an hour at half the price of imported systems. He spoke of Lucro which has developed post-consumer resins and Zero Circle a company that has developed bio-compostable and water-dissolving plastics from seaweed. He spoke of the foundation’s intent to adopt a non-metro city and help it sort waste at source and become a zero-landfill pilot example and case study.
There were several presentations throughout the first day of the Elite conference that continued to address the challenges of plastic waste in packaging, and the actions undertaken in India and other parts of Asia. Some of the pilot programs are being duplicated with efficiencies that are exponential. While Mishra exhorted the industry to act together for its own profit, Mariwala openly invited investment and collaboration in any of the startups already unearthed and others, proving that indeed the solutions are already right there in the same room and that there are really no excuses for either delay or inaction.