Wednesday 14 December 2011

Environment and Packaging

The 'informal' recycling sector in India

The environment discussion in India is in danger of not being a discussion at all. The government’s ban on plastic for gutkha packaging in March 2011 first of all mixed up the distinct health hazards of tobacco with the environmental hazards of the extensive use of plastic packaging without any clarity on its collection, disposal or recycling.

Leave aside packaging the entire issue of waste disposal in India is a huge scandal. In the capital we have sewerage lines that actually do not reach the treatment plants. The collection of garbage and its dumping in overflowing landfills is totally haphazard. Needless to say there is no separation of plastic, glass, metal or organic waste in the municipal waste collection system although this is being done by some of the neighbourhood residential welfare committees. This is actually a shocking state of affairs and many responsible persons blithely make statements about waste recovery by the informal sector — a euphemism for children who are compelled or forced to work as scavengers.

We have become aware that the debate in packaging is not really about plastic versus paper — all waste is an issue and the ecosystem has to deal with all materials and products. For instance in board packaging, MetPet which is board laminated with polyester is gaining in strength for FMCG and other packaging due to its attractiveness and high shelf appeal. When rational and systematic environmental laws and practices come into effect (it will happen eventually) MetPet will also pose severe environmental consequences and regulation. At present MetPet seems almost indispensible as it is difficult to achieve the same attractive packaging in a cost effective manner since the other available alternatives like cold foiling, cast and cure do not seem either viable or widespread options.

Unlike PET, PVC or HDPE, which are comparatively easier to recycle, the biggest hurdle in recycling MetPet lies in the difficulty that one faces in trying to separate the metallised plastic films from the board. In a recent discussion with Saket Kanoria of TCPL, we discovered that paper mills today can use 5% MetPet in the waste recycling process for for paper production, but making paper from 100% MetPet waste is very difficult. Naturally, the biggest chunk of MetPet is either incinerated or ends up in landfills. Proper legislation is required to check the MetPet explosion and alternatives like metallic foils being transferred only on the required surface need to be promoted.

The label industry meanwhile has of late managed to take a green turn with the introduction of siliconised PPE substrate for label facestock, as opposed to the earlier siliconised glassine that has been in use globally for decades. Unlike siliconised glassine which becomes practically useless once the facestock had been removed and has to be incinerated, siliconised PPE is completely recyclable. Also the PPE substrate is much lighter and has helped in reducing the overall weight of labels thereby reducing transportation costs.

Another printing process that is being hailed as being sustainable and environment friendly and is being used for anti-counterfeiting applications as well as to achieve holographic effects is Cast and Cure. In this process UV inks and coatings are used instead of potentially more hazardous VOC based inks. Cast and Cure also seem to have removed the dependability on unrecyclable metalised substrates and foil boards that play an important role in similar processes. The films used in the process to render the designs can also be used more than ten times.

- Avinandan Mukherjee