How Ban on SUP is Turning a Boon for Food Packaging Innovators

  • Dr Satyanarayana Kandukuri, Food Processing Practice Lead, Sathguru Management Consultants

India produced approximately 3.47 million tonnes of plastic waste in 2019-20 with the per capita waste growing from 700 gms to 2500 gms over the last five years. Only 60 per cent of plastic waste gets collected for recycling and recovery in India. The balance 40 per cent plastic waste remains uncollected and enters the environment directly as waste. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC), notified the Plastic Waste Management Amendment Rules on August 12, 2021, which prohibited the use of identified single-use plastic (SUP) items with low utility and high littering potential w.e.f. from July 1, 2022. The banned SUPs include several items used by the food industry like candy sticks, ice-cream sticks, wrapping or packaging films around sweet boxes of less than 100-micron thickness, plastic plates, cups, glasses, cutlery such as forks, spoons, knives, straws and trays. The banned items form only a miniscule part of the SUP industry, with Fast-Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) packaging having the largest share, but this ban could pave the way for more directives in future, to manage SUP waste in the country. 

For the ban to be effective however, there is a need for sustainable and viable alternatives to SUPs. Currently, there’s a gap in ways and means of replacing SUPs in India, with several players resorting to imports of SUP alternatives, as the ban comes into effect. The industry has not been able to carry out R&D to develop affordable solutions within the time frame for phasing out SUPs. There are over 30,000 units that produce plastic materials in India and nearly 90 per cent of these units are Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs), that need technical and financial support in transitioning to alternatives. Moreover, the time frame for analysis of biodegradable plastics, as per the latest Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) deadline released close to the ban date, is  two and a half years. Moreover, there is a gap in manufacturing capacities of alternatives to the SUPs and the supply chains for their raw materials also need to be streamlined. Currently, commercially produced biodegradable polymers and bioplastics include Polylactic acid (PLA), Polybutylene adipate terephthalate (PBAT), Polybutylene succinate (PBS) and Poly hydroxy alkanoates (PHA). Presently, there are no significant manufacturers of biodegradable plastics in India and there is an immediate need for commercial manufacturing of resin as well as monomers to cater to the demand for biodegradable plastics as an alternative to resin for SUP applications. 

Available SUP alternatives

Paper, wood, fibre & pulp-based products as well as  bioplastics have emerged as a popular and environment-friendly alternative for the banned SUPs. The usage of SUP alternatives can reduce plastic use, but some of them may have challenges/ limitations in use, recyclability or may have higher environmental impact. In one of the life cycle assessment studies, the single use plastic straw had nearly half the energy demand of PLA straws (made of material derived from plant sugars) and paper straws; and the Global Warming Potential of PLA straws and paper straws was nearly three times more than the plastic straw. 

There is also some confusion created by using the names bioplastics, biodegradable plastics and compostable plastics interchangeably. Bioplastics include materials that are either bio-sourced or biodegradable or both, and are made from renewable biomass resources. Biodegradable plastics (E.g. polylactic acid) are plastics, other than compostable plastics, which undergo complete degradation by biological processes under ambient environmental conditions, without creating negative environmental impacts. Biodegradable plastics are recyclable and both aerobic as well as anaerobic biodegradable plastics are available. Whereas, compostable plastics (E.g. BASF’s Ecoflex) are plastics that undergo degradation by biological processes to produce carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds and biomass that can be beneficial to the environment. Many of these materials may require industrial compost facilities, where temperatures can be maintained at 60°C for composting. Oxo-degradable/ oxydegradable plastics are conventional plastics with an additive included to help them break down into smaller fragments, but these could lead to release of microplastics in the environment. 

Requirements and standards 

While developing SUP alternatives to be used in food packaging and other applications, the key requirements include:

  • Biodegradability/ compostability without negative environmental impact (like release of microplastics). 
  • Stability & durability during use 
  • Non-toxic and safe for food
  • Biodegradability testing and waste management

In the draft Plastic Waste Management (PWM) Rules 2022 and the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) guidelines, it has been mentioned that Biodegradable Plastics should be certified as per the standards published by the BIS. The determination of the degree of degradability and degree of disintegration of materials shall be as per the protocols and appropriate standards developed by BIS and certified by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). The compostable plastic materials developed shall conform to the Indian Standard: IS 17088:2008 titled Specifications for Compostable Plastics. Recently the BIS has released its provisional standard for assessment of biodegradability of plastics under varied conditions.

SUP alternatives in food industry

Paper straws are commonly used as an alternative to plastic straws due to their availability and relatively lower cost. Most Indian beverage players had started production of juice packs with integrated paper straws to meet the SUP ban deadline and plan to move to PLA-based straws. Paper straws have several drawbacks leading to poor consumer experience. These include softening/ becoming soggy in beverages and releasing the flavour of damp paper. Any attempts to coat the paper can affect the taste of drinks and the degradability of paper straws. There is a pressing need to address the limitations with paper straws and in response, several innovative straws have been launched in the market. German company H.B. Fuller has created a high-performance food grade adhesive Swifttak 5730 that is designed to last more than three hours of submergence in various beverages, without becoming soggy and interfering with the taste of the beverage. Matrix Pack, Germany, reduces the plastics with paper straws for use in beverage cartons, wrapped in paper material. 

Edible straws or environmentally friendly material drinking straws are trending globally. Sweden-based Ooble Innovations has developed 100 per cent plant-based, edible straws that are available in different flavours and nutrition profiles. Made of flours and fibres, these straws last for three days once opened and for 30 minutes in liquid. The company plans to provide customisation of straws intended for certain demographics like children or the elderly. Loliware, a US company focused on replacing SUPs with seaweed-derived technologies ‘Designed to Disappear’, has developed seaweed-based edible straws that can be soaked in drinks for more than 24 hours. South Korea-based Yeonjigonji has developed drinking straws made from rice and cassava that can remain in hot drinks for two hours. Similarly, Italian company Stroodles has developed a pasta straw made from wheat. Paper straws can be used as a temporary solution, but better alternatives need to be developed in the long run, as increased usage of paper-based straws can lead to increased resource (like forests) consumption and emission of pollutants during paper processing. PLA straws are a superior alternative to paper straws, as they can withstand temperatures from -10°C to 80°C and have better consumer experience, resource conservation, and are cheaper than paper straws. Australia-based Greenpack provides corn starch PLA packaging, suitable for food and beverages.

Some players have developed innovative products as alternatives to plastic cutlery and utensils using the agri-residue waste or by-products. Yash Pakka, an Indian venture, manufactures 100 per cent compostable and biodegradable tableware Chuk (bowls, plates, food trays, containers) sourced from waste sugarcane fibre. Stroodles, Italy, has created plates and bowls from 100 per cent wheat bran and several players have launched cups and bowls made from seaweeds. Utopia Plastix has developed a plant-based resin that imitates plastics, but  is durable, biodegradable, compostable, and recyclable. The company supplies resin to manufacturers producing straws, cutlery, and food packaging. DRDO & Hyderabad-based Ecolastic Products, have jointly developed technology to make compostable plastics that can produce starch-based compostable bags/films. Ecolastic also manufactures biodegradable pellets (raw materials for making end products) in India. CPCB has certified over 150 compostable plastic manufacturers, making a wide range of products, including films, bags, cutlery items, straws, gloves, etc. The installed capacity of the compostable plastics in India is estimated to be 300,000 TPA. 

Supporting innovations  

The MSMEs need to be supported in transitioning towards alternatives, R&D, as well as manufacturing of sustainable substitutes. SUP manufacturers need financial support through grants, loans and tax benefits to incentivise investments in R&D and to promote adoption of alternatives. Capacity building workshops for MSME units are being organised to provide them technical assistance for manufacturing SUP alternatives with the involvement of CPCB/SPCBs along with the Ministry of Small, Micro and Medium Enterprises and Central Institute of Petrochemicals Engineering (CIPET). The Government of India is taking steps to promote innovation and to develop an ecosystem for accelerated adoption and availability of SUP alternatives across the country. The ​​MoEF&CC, had conducted the “India Plastic Challenge – Hackathon 2021” inviting startups, entrepreneurs, and students to develop innovative solutions to mitigate plastic pollution and to develop alternatives to SUPs. Zero Circle Plastic Alternatives, which provides seaweed-based packaging solutions and Dharaksha Eco Solutions, which specialises in packaging material made from crop stubble waste, were the winners in identifying solutions that eliminate SUPs. The Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Polymers has been established at the IIT Guwahati, through the support of Department of Chemicals and Petrochemicals (DCPC), with the mandate to develop biodegradable plastics and related products, for use in Indian industry. ITC has partnered with Invest India to crowdsource innovative ideas for SUP substitution through compostable food delivery solutions, using molded fibre packaging based on wood fibre, agri-waste, recyclable and/ or compostable barrier coatings for the papers and paperboards category. They also sought ideas on automated waste segregation processes with smart technology-based solutions. 

Private sector investment in research for eco-friendly SUP alternatives can be leveraged through public-private partnerships. Indian plastic manufacturers can collaborate with leading research institutions and centres of excellence for R&D, to develop technologies for biodegradable  materials for a wide range of applications. There is a greater need for a wider partnership platform uniting various stakeholders including developers, manufacturers, recyclers, trade associations, municipalities, policymakers, and NGOs to develop and support scalable innovations. An example of one such initiative is ‘Composting Consortium’ launched in the USA by the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners. More consumer awareness should be created to sensitise them about the need and benefits in shifting to biodegradable plastics and the importance of segregating various kinds of waste for effective waste management. 

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