Your lipstick in a gold and metallic tube may add more colour and drama to your makeup kit, but do you ever evaluate the amount of plastic used in the packaging to make it look fancy and funky? Once used, it would be chucked in a matter of a minute, adding to the 8 million tonne of plastic waste washed into our oceans every year, wreaking havoc on marine ecosystems. The need of the hour, clearly, is to rapidly scale up packaging innovations and infrastructure across the circular economy value chain.
A quintessential sustainable package provides the brand experience, is robust, easy to handle and efficient to store, and is recyclable as well once its purpose is lived out. It’s no wonder then that when e-commerce giant Amazon announced to eliminate single-use plastic from its supply chain by June 2020, the first step was the introduction of paper cushion, an environment-friendly and fully-recyclable packaging solution, which has replaced plastic dunnage across all its fulfillment centres in India. The brand has also launched packaging-free shipments to reduce waste generated from secondary packaging of customer orders. The plastic currently used in its packaging mailers and bubble bags is made of 20% recycled content as well. Amazon’s box-sizing algorithm calculates the right size of the box for an order, minimising the packaging waste generated.
According to Acumen Research and Consulting, a global provider of market intelligence and consulting services, the global sustainable packaging market is expected to reach around $255 billion by 2026, growing at a CAGR of 7% over the forecast period of 2019-26.
There are several brands today that are working actively to create sustainable packaging solutions by replacing or recycling plastic in their supply chains. For starters, choosing sustainable options is one way to avoid harmful chemicals. Bamboo, glass, metal, recycled plastic and silicone—an eco-friendly material made from silica easily found in sand—are good options, as are recyclable and non-hazardous materials such as cardboard, paper wrap, paper tape, wood, starch, cotton, etc. These also have relatively less energy consumption as compared to plastic.
Bengaluru-based Packmile, a B2B sustainable packaging enterprise, has been working with Amazon for two years and offers products in kraft paper, which is biodegradable and recyclable. Founder and CEO Pawan Maheshwari says most of its products have been rigorously tested by various industries for different packaging applications. “A lot of detailing goes into packaging like lifecycle analysis, shipment, product safety, drop tests, transit timings, product handling, conditions of the container, etc… these aspects help in getting the right packaging. Some products are cheaper than current plastic products. However, most are 10-15% costlier than single-use plastic. For example, CORM (corrugated box recycling machine) is a great replacement for thermocol. BHive is a patented product and replaces traditional plastic bubble wrap. Paper tapes directly replace plastic tapes stuck on boxes,” says Maheshwari, who works with industry bodies like the Confederation of Indian Industry, Industrial Waste Management Association, besides brands such as Amazon, Vilvah, Bare Anatomy, SoulTree, etc.
Natural personal care and beauty label SoulTree has also made a start towards sustainable packaging. The brand has introduced biodegradable packaging, which can be decomposed naturally with the help of moisture and microorganisms. Once decomposed, the compounds either return to nature or disintegrate, leaving no waste behind. “The Ayurvedic facepacks, for instance, use biodegradable sachets made with natural substances like wood, paper, starch, cotton or waste, created with relatively less energy as compared to plastic,” says founder Vishal Bhandari, who tried his hand at various businesses before conceiving the idea of SoulTree in 2008. He extensively worked with a small group of organic farmers in Uttarakhand to promote organic farming and generate sustainable livelihoods in rural communities. Bhandari has also eliminated plastic packaging material for shipping orders and switched to eco-friendly solutions such as cardboard boxes, paper wraps and tapes, etc. “Sustainability is not only inculcated in the process, it’s also a value. At every stage, from sourcing to manufacturing, our endeavour is to become a reliable choice for Indians seeking natural products,” says Bhandari. The brand has over 60 in-house beauty products made from Ayurvedic extracts, using natural and certified organic raw materials. Bhandari also ensures there is no environmental degradation in the processes through which the ingredients are made. “From making certified ‘natural’ products, setting up water harvesting projects for dry land farmers to using no harmful chemicals and processing every natural ingredient following Ayurvedic traditions for maximum benefit, we ensure good choices for everyone,” he adds.
A slew of brands have understood the need to thrive in the next decade and have put sustainability first in terms of packaging. By 2025, Unilever plans to make all of its plastic packaging fully reusable, recyclable or compostable. L’Oréal Paris’ Seed Phytonutrients, a personal care brand, uses thin plastic shells protected by an outer layer of recycled paper, besides planning to make 100% of its packaging refillable or compostable by 2025. Dior, too, has revealed its new perfume products which are refillable. Forest Essentials has also added recycling as a way of giving back to the environment. “Customers can return used bottles, which are then given to Chintan, a UN award-winning NGO, to recycle… the money generated is used to educate ragpicker children and run a programme called ‘No Child In Trash’. The outer packaging has always been in biodegradable cartons. We have replaced the plastic bubble wraps with recyclable paper inside cartons to transport goods to the consumer,” says Samrath Bedi, CEO, Forest Essentials.
With a goal of responsible retailing and in compliance with the guidelines laid down by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), online beauty store Nykaa, too, has set up a recycling system for packaging. “Customers have three options to recycle packaging: drop it at designated municipal bins, at CPCB-designated collection centres, or send to our warehouses. Shakti Plastics, a pioneer in waste management systems, helps us recycle packaging to be reused or repurposed,” says Manoj Jaiswal, chief supply chain officer, Nykaa.
Dabur India is also taking progressive steps to reduce plastic waste while raising awareness about waste management. Shahrukh Khan, executive director, operations, Dabur India, says the brand is committed to becoming a plastic waste-neutral company by the end of March 2021. “We have already put in place an ecosystem for processing and recycling post-consumer plastic waste with ragpickers and recyclers. We are on course to collect over 20,000 metric tonne of post-consumer plastic waste annually across the country from 2020-21. This covers both recyclables (like PET, HDPE) and non-recyclables (multilayered plastic),” he says. Dabur has also been recycling PET bottles collected under its plastic waste collection drive to make T-shirts that are distributed amongst community members and school children. Between 2018-19 and 2019-20, Dabur has collectively reduced plastic usage in secondary and tertiary packaging by 250 metric tonne.
Procter & Gamble (P&G) India produces 25% of its shampoo and conditioner bottles with ocean plastic, which they’ve collected and recycled from littered coasts. In November 2019, P&G India announced a `200-crore Environmental Sustainability Fund to collaborate with external partners, offering environmentally sustainable business solutions. The announcement was in line with P&G’s global sustainability goals ‘Ambition 2030’ aimed at creating a positive impact on the environment and society. The goal is for all P&G’s leadership brands, including Whisper, Ariel, Ambi Pur, Head & Shoulders, Pantene, Pampers and Tide, to enable responsible consumption through packaging that is 100% recyclable or reusable by 2030. In 2019, P&G also launched the second edition of P&G vGROW External Business Partner Summit, a platform to identify and collaborate with businesses and individuals offering solutions in packaging, renewable sources of energy and reducing carbon footprint. Globally, P&G will source at least 5 billion litre of water by reusing the water used in existing operations.
In 2019, Hindustan Unilever (HUL), too, announced to halve the use of virgin plastic by 2025. The brand has invested in multiple-use packs (such as reusable and refillable formats), no-plastic solutions (alternative packaging materials and naked products) and a reduction in the amount of plastic in existing packs. “We have developed coating technology to replace the polymer coating in our soap bar cartons and migrated to recyclable flexibles across our portfolio, starting with pilots in a few brands like the soap wrapper of Lifebuoy, Sunsilk Shampoo sachets and Pond’s tubes. The use of rPET (80% recycled PET) in our blister packs for personal care brands such as Pepsodent toothbrush, Vaseline lip care and initiated use of rHDPE (25% recycled HDPE) in personal care bottles like TRESemmé ensures there is an application for newly available recycled plastics, driving circular economy,” says the company spokesperson. HUL has also launched Love Beauty & Planet, a personal care brand in India, which offers shampoos, conditioners, bodywashes and body lotions in four unique collections, each infused with natural ingredients and packed in 100% recycled plastic bottles.
It’s not just big brands that are putting in their best efforts to curb the excessive use of plastic, home-grown startups, too, are doing their bit. The Moms Co., for one, uses recyclable plastic material for packaging its products. Founded in 2016 by Malika and Mohit Sadani, the natural, toxin-free baby grooming products company has also associated with rePurpose Global, a social enterprise building plastic credit platform, to reduce its plastic footprint. So everytime a customer shops on The Moms Co.’s website, he/she has an option of donating `1 towards recycling single-use plastic equivalent in the order. The donated amount not only helps in recycling unwanted single-use plastics, but also empowers marginalised women who work in waste management. All the packaging cartons are sourced from factories that use Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) paper, where the paper used is environment-friendly and fully recyclable.
“rePurpose Global is working with leading consumer packaged goods brands in the personal care and beauty segments to make them plastic-neutral. The Moms Co. has tied up with the enterprise and offers options for customers to add just `1 to their order to make their individual purchase plastic-neutral, thereby addressing the problem of unavoidable plastic packaging in the most immediate way possible,” says Aditya Siroya, co-founder, rePurpose Global. For every `35 contributed, the platform guarantees to remove and recycle an additional 1 kg of plastic waste otherwise bound for oceans, landfills or incineration.
Another premium natural baby care brand Maate uses glass or high-grade PET-G plastic. The cartons used for packaging are made from certified paper and high-grade chemical-free ink. “Sometimes a great design may not go well with an environment-friendly material… sometimes better sustainable material is available, but does not support the applicability of the product. Like using glass sounds good, but isn’t safe for a baby or in wet areas. Plastic is more user-friendly for bath products, but does not support sustainability like glass. So brands need to come up with products that are both safe and sustainable,” says Priyanka C Raina, founder, Maate.
Brands such as WOW Skin Science and Plum also use recyclable plastic in packaging. Zlade, an online-first brand, too, uses responsible packaging. “Packaging is the first thing that goes into the hands of the consumer, so it’s important to get it right. The consumer can’t look at and feel the package before making a purchase decision,” says Suraj Chaudhari, co-founder, Zlade. “We focus on not adding unnecessary layers to a package and don’t use any plastic to wrap or fill the package. Recyclable and biodegradable materials such as corrugated boxes, paper, cloth paper bags can be used in packaging instead of plastics, bubble wraps and shrink wraps,” he says, adding, “Like the West, India will gradually see shampoo bars packed in paper once the costs of material come down and consumers become more aware and start demanding sustainable packaging.”
Ohria Ayurveda, which makes environment-friendly and palm oil-free products, uses glass bottles for packaging products. “For brides, we have launched sustainable cotton muslin potlis, an ancient way of packaging, storing and gifting. We have omitted plastic shrink wrap and use paper seal tapes to seal our products to minimise wastage,” says founder Rajni Ohri.
Long road ahead
The replacement of plastic, however, isn’t without its challenges. The biggest is high production cost. “As the cost of the materials increases… it gets more challenging to invest in packaging as there is no profit-making for companies and lack of awareness acts as a barrier,” says Raina of Maate, adding, “Since it’s not cost-effective for buyers when compared to traditional ways of packaging, it’s an added cost for them and so they end up not investing in sustainable products. Most businesses try to achieve it without compromising on the quality of the packaging design.”
Agrees Chaudhari of Zlade: “The cost of sustainable packaging is more than current available packaging options as it is still a new phenomenon and, hence, economies of scale cannot be achieved… The costs are high and the manufacturers need to invest huge upfront amounts to set up new, or replace current, machinery. The switch to sustainable packaging might add up to 25% in added packaging costs. We need more innovation in sustainable packaging alternatives before we start seeing mass market products being offered in environment-friendly packaging,” he says.
Maheshwari of Packmile believes more brands will have to be eco-conscious and make it a part of their company culture. “Eco-friendly products are slightly more expensive and in this current nascent stage, the raw material cost itself is high. Thus, it has a cyclic effect in manufacturing. But our biggest focus is to keep the costs of our products as low as possible. So we’ve gone one step further on recycling: upcycling. In essence, the discarded scrap boxes which are given away to the kabadiwala can be converted into packaging material. Thus, companies don’t have to buy new plastic/styrofoam packaging material. The cost of scrapped boxes is much lesser than new plastic/styrofoam material and eco-friendly too,” he says.
While solutions exist, the waste management sector remains severely underfunded. “We face a $5-billion per year financing gap for effective waste management in five Asian countries alone, and unless we fill that, our world cannot transition to a circular economy. Through rePurpose’s PlasticNeutral certification, individuals and businesses can mobilise financing to help bridge this gap and fight plastic pollution,” says Komal Sinha, head of partnerships, rePurpose Global.