The life cycle of plastic is strewn with contradictions which have enormous repercussions on the health of the planet. Plastic as a material is designed to last forever but a staggering 43% (70Lakh MT/year) of products are in fact single use and throw. Of this packaging alone contributes 80% to the total quantum of plastics coming into the system. Over the last 50 years, just 9% of this plastic has been recycled.
We need a disruptive shift to a cradle- to- cradle concept
Managing plastic waste consists of an upstream supply chain of collection, sorting, aggregation and logistics to a recycler. Processing at the downstream includes recycling, manufacturing and sale of products. Cheap and convenient are characteristics that make plastic packaging popular. It’s now pay up time and we are all in this together which is why we need to critically access the emerging solutions. It’s important that our learning’s are integrated into solutions which are holistic instead of a mere half measure. Cheap and convenient can no longer be attractive parameters. Instead we look to choose options only after the entire life cycle is closely analysed and the environment and social impact measured. Undoubtedly, a cradle to cradle approach would be a good beginning.
Refill, reuse and paying for the environment cost of packaging are all options that are there before us and included in the cradle to cradle approach. These options will reduce the dependence on single use packaging and also address the excessive consumption behaviours which also need to make a shift.
We are therefore at this point calling out industry for not getting diverted and focus more on a holistic and long-term solutions. We refer specifically to paper based bottles which are now being introduced as a solution to the plastic pollution problem.
A closer look at what’s on offer
Reports in the media show that 2 years of R&D have gone into creating paper bottles that are claimed to be “recyclable and 100% bio-based”. Here are some facts revealed through a Q & A which we conducted with the bottle designers through social media.
Q) Is this 100% paper based and is it recyclable?
A) The target is to be fully recyclable in the regular paper stream. For Gen 1.0, the bottles have abarrier which needs to be separated by either the consumer or the recycler!
Q) Are you using a barrier coating inside the bottles?
A) We are currently using a thin plastic (rPET) liner but are also testing new integrated bio-based barriers, including bio-plastics.
Q) Will the bottles use plastic closures?
A) Yes it is currently plastic and a paper-based closure is in development. Everything will not be simultaneously addressed. We need to learn along the way, so you will probably see different generations and closure solutions and, step by step, improved recyclability levels.
Q) How does the Life Cycle Analysis of paper based bottles look against the regular plastic bottle?
A) We work with LCA and industry experts to verify that our approach is delivering a sustainable choice to the market. We do know that our first-generation bottle with the thin rPET liner has a 58% smaller CO2 footprint than a conventional PET used for the same product.
Q) Is there a need for alternatives? Can we not focus on achieving maximum recovery and closed loop recycling of existing plastic grades?
A) We also think alternatives are needed, such as PET, because we can’t entirely depend on one stream.
Our Analysis and comments
- We believe that it will be difficult to retrieve and recycle the plastic barrier and the closures from this packaging
- When it comes to single- use products, paper in its production has a large environmental footprint. Also the recycling of paper is not closed loop. The designers need to provide more technical evidences of a holistic life cycle analysis of alternative packaging which are aligned to the SDGs and the Cradle to Cradle concept.
Written by Arun Murugesh, Regional Director, Saahas Zero Waste