There was a prominent picture of our Hon’ble Minister of Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh in the newspaper the other day. He was seen removing a discarded empty packet of potato chips from the street. This is not an isolated item. Almost every day the media covers stories about waste management, pollution and the environment. Among the chief culprits named in such stories is ‘packaging litter’. These are the ‘litter things’ all of us encounter in our daily lives, says Deepak Manchanda.
It seems hard to believe that there was a time, less than a hundred years ago, when city garbage was mostly organic and unpolluted. There was little need for environment protection laws in British India. Municipal waste management mostly involved the removal of night soil from dry latrines and burying it by rotation in trenches, in large ‘grass farms’. Waste was thus purified in a natural manner by ‘land application’ and in turn served to enrich the soil with micro-nutrients. It appears remarkable, in fact, that Free India could wait till the late eighties to feel the need to amend its originally British environment protection laws. The Environment Protection Act of 1986 was followed by a flurry of rules, including the rules for re-cycled plastics in 1999 and rules for the management of municipal solid waste in 2000. The arrival of the Age of Plastics somewhat earlier had led to the birth of ‘convenience packaging’ allowing products to be packaged in small, affordable, single-use disposable packaging. Hundreds of products in millions of these disposable sachets started ‘improving our daily lives’ but ended up as rubbish littering the streets and landscape. Ironically, the ‘developing world’ with its lower income markets which had more need for affordable, single use packaging received more of this litter. The anti-litter campaigns that have been gathering momentum can hardly be blamed for calling packaging the chief culprit for ruining our lives, instead of improving them.
Is more availability of packaging really the cause of more litter?
“Packaging makes more products available wherever and whenever they are needed,” goes the typical narrative of environmental campaigners, “and that leads to irresponsible littering caused by packaging.” The argument here is that the availability of packaging (especially in single use, throw-away sachets) is a worthless and avoidable cause of litter that could easily be controlled by:
- Ban of single-use, disposable packaging.
- Replacement of non-biodegradable plastic-based packaging by eco-friendly biodegradable packaging.
The courts in India have tended to see it that way. The Central as well as State Governments have issued notifications to the effect. The anti-litter campaigns of Say No to Plastics have been crying wolf about it. (See: ‘No Saying No to Plastics’; PSA March-April; Issue No. 2/2011)
We are not alone in this battle of balancing the good that packaging does with the harm its irresponsible use causes to our environment. Countries around the world have been struggling to find a sustainable business model for handling waste sachet streams that would make:
- Packaging producers more accountable and force them to come up with innovative designs that would help to cut down levels of rubbish on the streets.
- Packaging users equally responsible by incentivising them to dispose the waste neatly or offer sufficient value to encourage its recycling.
The 17 November 2009 Plastics (Manufacture, Usage and Waste Management) Rules 2009 that came into force were essentially aimed at the above outcomes, that is extended producer’s responsibility. This is a principle of waste management that seeks to make the product producer responsible for the minimisation of waste resulting from its products. It is a principle which has been effectively developed and applied in the US, UK and other European nations on the principle of ‘name and shame’. For example, programmes such as UK’s, ‘Keep Britain Tidy’ are quoted in The Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2009/jan/13/fast-food-littermcdonalds-greggs) as follows:
‘McDonald’s, Greggs, KFC and Subway are today named as the most littered brands in England as Keep Britain Tidy called on fast-food companies to do more to tackle customers who drop their wrappers and drinks cartons in the streets. The government also said the industry must take greater responsibility for the mess after surveys in a dozen cities and towns found branded products were often causing a problem. McDonald’s material accounted for 29% of litter, Greggs 18%, KFC 8% and Subway 5%, according to Keep Britain Tidy’s survey. Unbranded litter from fish and chip or kebab shops made up 21% of the fast food total, while other branded coffee rubbish totalled 5%.
Efforts made by McDonald’s were recognised and acknowledged, including logos on its packaging, litter bins and litter patrols, but its litter remained ‘all too prevalent’. All fast food chains should reduce unnecessary packaging. Companies could also reduce prices for those who stayed to eat food on their premises, offer moneyoff vouchers or other incentives for those who returned packaging and put more bins at strategic points in local streets, not just outside their premises. A spokesman for McDonald’s said, “We do our best. Obviously we ask all our customers to dispose of litter responsibly.” Subway said that it worked hard to minimise the impact of litter on communities, but it was “still down to the individual customer to dispose of their litter responsibly”. Greggs said it recognised the “continuing challenge for us all”, despite having already taken measures to help tackle the issue.”
The environment department, Defra, said, “Litter is everyone’s problem — we all need to do our bit — and the fast food industry must shoulder more responsibility to put a stop to litter on our streets.
There were 12 checks over two days in city centre zones and in surrounding areas, some of which were regularly cleaned, others not. Nearly 1,700 fast food items were counted at 20 sites.’
Whether it is fast-food rubbish or post consumer use sachets, the challenges for environment managers are primarily two-fold:
- The pack format should possess sufficient economic value to allow for collec-tion and recycling.
- The waste management infrastructure should be adequate and capable of con-verting the collected material into recycled goods, harmless landfill or recovered energy.
Global companies have already recognised the potential need to meet such challenges if packaging is to be allowed to proliferate. For example, Unilever claims to have “set our engineers the task of designing and making sachets that use less material and wherever possible, material with the least possible environmental impact.”
Unilever further goes on to describe having identified a potential technological approach termed: Pyrolysis. This process seeks to convert collected sachet litter into fuel and recover upto 60% of its embedded energy. (http://bit.ly/iPKVBx)
However, as Unilever goes on to say, the problem with sachets is often not what they are made of but how they are disposed. The sachets contain very small amounts of material and there is currently little economic incentive for their collection. So we are working with others both to raise awareness of litter issues and explore economic models which create incentives for the collection and reuse of our sachet packaging. Results from one of the pyrolysis pilot projects are reported to be providing an encouraging example. The Hindustan Unilever factory in Pondicherry, India, has successfully used fuel extracted from post-industrial sachet waste to power its plant. The fuel has also been burnt in cement kilns in Western India. Although the project is in its early days, there are plans to extend its scope to include post-consumer sachet waste in order to create a viable market for a steady supply of used sachets.
Unilever goes on to emphasise: “We have created a team focused specifically on this area and by the end of 2011 we will have a roadmap in place to drive this initiative into the next phase.”
Packaging waste management thus is obviously not a mono-tracked issue and must require the coming together of several strands of community development to be effectively tackled. It is instructive to note, in this context how Unilever goes on to define its ‘Sustainable Living Plan target’ as below:
- Develop and implement a sustainable business model for handling our waste sachet streams by 2015.
- Implement design improvements to create sachets that use less material or material with less environmental impact.
- Support litter awareness programmes.
- Work with others to explore economic models which create incentives for collection and reuse of our packaging.In this context while several brands have adopted the ‘Going Green’ concept and in turn replaced earlier non-biodegradable, environmentally toxic packaging with earth-friendly packaging it would be premature to assume that this is a conclusive solution to the problem of littering. Littering, after all is a human act and the only ultimate solution for that would be to try and change public attitudes and behaviour such that littering becomes socially unacceptable. In fact it has been observed that the introduction of eco-friendly packaging has resulted in a “boom in guilt-free littering” along highways, coastal areas and mountainsides. Littering behaviour is clearly unpredictable and while several organisations and agencies must work together to create meaningful anti-litter projects, the entire process could be underpinned by the packaging designer. Efforts must be made to research littering behaviour and develop designs based on such insights which appeal to the user’s sense of responsibility towards the community.
As I look around the neighbourhood park and take in the children happily playing on the swings in the same glance as the several empty packets of chips, candy, cigarettes, etc littered around, a signboard placed near the exit catches my attention. The signboard poignantly, though a bit un-grammatically articulates: ‘Do Not Leave Littering’.
This above article was originally published in May 2011 issue of the Packaging South Asia.