Are Corporates Doing Enough To Make India Plastic-Free?

As India shelves its plan to ban certain kinds of single-use plastic, a look at what corporations have promised to do
Are Corporates Doing Enough To Make India Plastic-Free?
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In what was seen as a setback for combating pollution in India, the Narendra Modi-led government held back from banning the use of certain kinds of single-use plastic last week, Reuters reported, citing officials. The move to ban six such items on the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi was part of a broader campaign to help India get rid of all single-use plastic by 2022.

The ban was seen as too disruptive for industry when it is already coping with economic slowdown and loss of jobs.

Even as India shelved its plan, several companies have taken initiatives to reduce and eventually stop using plastic packaging.

Definitive Targets Set By E-Commerce Giants

Both Walmart-owned Flipkart and Amazon India have been vocal in recent months about their efforts to effectively eliminate the use of single-use plastics within a certain timeframe.

In August, Flipkart said it achieved a 25% reduction in the use of single-use plastic as on August 1, 2019, through several initiatives across its packaging chain. “Our long-term vision is to eliminate the use of plastic and maximise the use of recycled and renewable materials,” Kalyan Krishnamurthy, Flipkart’s group CEO had said in a statement.

The company said it was moving towards complete recycled plastic consumption in its supply chain by 2021. Earlier this year, Flipkart had also introduced electric vehicles in its last-mile delivery network with an aim to replace about 40 per cent of existing fleet with EVs by March next year.

Amazon India had announced similar plans last month, albeit more aggressive in setting a target, stating that it plans to eliminate the use of all single-use plastic in packaging by next year. “A significant step towards this change is the introduction of ‘paper cushions’, which will replace plastic dunnage such as air pillows and bubble wraps across its fulfilment centers in India,” the company said in a statement.

“This investment in protecting the environment ensures a triple win – it is good for our planet, good for our customers and community, and good for the business,” Akhil Saxena, Amazon India’s vice-president for customer fulfillment, had said.

Other Consumer Companies Join the Climate Bandwagon

Late in September, Westlife Development--which operates McDonald’s restaurants in the western and southern parts of India—had said all its outlets replaced single-use customer facing plastic with eco-friendly and biodegradable alternatives. To ensure this transition, the company said it had replaced plastic cutlery with wooden cutlery, plastic cups with paper cups, introduced biodegradable lids for beverages and paper straws.

In a statement to Entrepreneur India, a spokesperson for food delivery provider Zomato said the company has been working with several research-based firms to introduce eco-friendly packaging for the restaurants that it works with. “For a wider use-case, we will soon be launching an online marketplace (akin to an e-commerce portal), employing our network of suppliers for restaurants to easily procure eco-friendly packaging,” the spokesperson said. The packaging offered will include a segment of 100% naturally biodegradable units.

Rivals Swiggy and UberEats did not respond to similar requests for comment.

In a statement issued last month, Parle Agro, India’s largest beverage company, said it would invest INR 50 crore over the next three years to implement a waste management system for polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles. PET is a kind of polyester used in making plastic bottles and containers. The company said it will collect 31 million PET bottles annually, with the help of its waste management partners, resulting in nearly 50,000 tonne of such waste being recycled.

Bizongo, a packaging solutions provider, said it is looking at a gradual elimination of single use plastic by pushing for alternatives which are already available by 2021.

“Wooden cutlery cost almost four times that of plastic six months ago but we have already managed to bring the cost down to 2.5 times by better adaptation. We are utilising materials which can be used multiple times and later be recycled such as metals, glass, higher gauge plastics,” Sachin Agrawal, Bizongo’s co-founder and chief operating officer told Entrepreneur India.  

Among other companies who have taken steps in this regard are beverage behemoths PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and airline operator Air India.

How Other Countries are Combating the Plastic Demon 

India is not the first country to have entered the often-muddied waters of banning plastic. Several nations including developed economies such as Canada and China are taking strides as the noise around pollution and climate change has grown louder.

According to a report titled, ‘Single-use Plastics: Roadmap for Sustainability, by the United Nations published last year, 60 nations had taken steps to ban plastic or imposed heavy taxes on their use. The report said plastic packaging accounts for nearly half of all plastic waste globally.  

Ireland imposed a tax called “PlasTax” in 2002 wherein the levied amount for buying plastic was set six times higher than the estimated willingness to pay €0.15. 

In 2008, the government of Rwanda banned the manufacturing, sale, use and import of plastic. The Rwandan government also announced incentives for companies that would invest in plastic recycling equipment or in the manufacturing of environment-friendly bags.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in June, announced how apart from banning single-use plastic, he supported efforts to create a nationwide strategy for zero plastic waste.

Are the Measures Enough?

Corporates may be speaking volumes about the distance they are willing to travel to contribute to reduce plastic-related pollution, but they aren't doing enough, according to Chennai-based environmental activist Nityanand Jayaraman.

“I don’t think steps taken by businesses are enough. Rules that were notified in 2016 have not been implemented,” he said, adding that the plastic manufacturing machine is nowhere close to slowing down. 

Jayaraman believes the change won’t come from the government but people. When asked about countries leading the change, he said the only name that really came anywhere close to doing something substantial was India’s northeastern neighbor nation Bhutan. “All countries are wedded to modern economy of consumption and exploitation, and they will not be capable of taking any significant steps...because they are addicted to plastics and industries that manufacture (it).”

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