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Replacing Single-Use Plastics with Paper

Just about every piece of the plastic that was produced in the 1950s is still here! It’s either sitting in landfills or floating in the ocean. Or still in use. According to a study conducted recently, while uncollected plastic waste poses a huge threat to species on land and in water, single-use plastic bags and styrofoam containers can take up to 1,000 years to decompose. Over the past 70 years, more than 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic has been produced and 8 million tons have been dumped in the ocean annually. Plastic is all around us: It’s in the water we drink; it is in much of the food we eat; it is even in the air we breathe. According to Global Citizen, the amount of plastic in the world’s oceans could increase by a factor of ten in the next decade.

India generated 26,000 tonnes per day of plastic waste during 2017-18. Only 60 per cent of that volume was recycled, and the rest ended up as litter on roads, in landfills or in streams. The single-use plastic industry is currently close to Rs 80,000 crore and growing.

The Need of the Hour

One way to reduce the amount of plastic pollution we create is to stop using single-use plastics. The European Union member states are now bidding goodbye to plastic straws, cutlery, cups, drink stirrers, and sticks for balloons. The EU states are required to implement incentives like deposit refund schemes with the goal of getting a 90 percent return rate on plastic bottles by 2025. In addition, companies that produce single-use food containers, wrappers, cups, balloons, wet wipes, flimsy plastic bags and “tobacco products with filters” like cigarette butts will also be required to pay for their cleanup. According to a European Commission press release, “The industry will also be given incentives to develop less polluting alternatives for these products.”

India is also taking bold steps to reduce its plastic pollution by banning six different types of single-use plastics: plastic bags, cups, plates, small bottles, straws, and certain types of sachets. The ban is expected to reduce the country’s annual plastic consumption, an estimated 14 million tonnes, by about 5 percent.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants India to eliminate single-use plastics by 2022, following on the footsteps of major nations around the world who are striving hard to eliminate the use of single-use plastics. Chips and confectionery packets account for the largest share of plastic waste in India – 12 per cent of total plastic waste is bottle caps and lids, 19 per cent are chips and confectionery packets, 10 per cent are pet bottles, 8 per cent garbage bags and 8 per cent is packaging. The Indian government has drawn up legislation against single-use plastics.

Paper: A Sustainable Alternative for Plastic

Packaging accounts for a third of India’s plastic consumption, and 70 per cent of plastic packaging is turned into waste in a short span. According to a new study, paper offers a sustainable alternative for plastic and can capture a fourth of the Rs 80,000 crore single-use plastics market by 2025, if its use is banned by the government. Unlike plastics, paper is eco-friendly and bio-degradable.

More importantly, the average cost of recycling of paper is Rs 32 per kg – Rs 20 for the cost of collecting paper trash and Rs 12 is conversion cost. In comparison, the cost of the collection of plastic waste is Rs 30 to 36 per kg and recycling is Rs 22 to Rs 35 per kg; transporting 1 tonne of paper costs Rs 4.5 per kilometer as compared to Rs 6.2 in case of plastic. Energy consumption for paper production is 0.59 to 1.19 tonne of oil equivalent per tonne as opposed to 1.48 to 2.58 a tonne in plastic. Surely, 55-60 per cent energy can be saved if paper is used in place of plastic.

The paper industry is going through the transformation phase and now uses less power and water due to technological changes. The cost of production of recycled paper is at least 30 to 40 per cent cheaper, depending upon the location, than recycled plastic.

The ban on plastics offers the paper industry a tremendous opportunity; however, the real opportunity in this area can be seized only if the industry comes up with solutions that are not only cost-effective but also as functionally effective as plastics. Is the Indian paper industry in a position to seize this opportunity?

Creative Alternatives

Many countries and companies see the ban on plastics as an opportunity to develop creative alternatives. A number of companies across the globe are trying innovative ideas to replace plastic bags and straws. For example, Nestlé Japan recently released new packaging for its miniature KitKat chocolate bars, which will now be wrapped in paper instead of plastic. The packaging comes with instructions on how to turn the paper into origami cranes, which are regarded as a symbol of happiness. According to Nestlé, the new packaging will save around 380 tonnes of plastic waste a year. Nestlé wants 100 percent of its packaging to be recyclable or reusable by 2025. In Europe, Coca-Cola is replacing its plastic wrapping with a new paper board technology. Beer brand Carlsberg has launched the world’s first “paper” beer bottle made from wood fiber.

A Promising Start

It is a promising start, but companies need to ensure that these alternatives are not of poor quality. For example, paper straws, like other alternative single-use substitutes, have been severely criticized for being cheap, poorly designed and flimsy. A well designed and built paper straw that can hold up for 2 hours is more likely to be widely adopted by consumers than a straw that can barely hold up for half an hour. Companies, especially paper companies, have to focus on quality.

Consumer preferences also need to change. This change can be brought about through education. Consumers might acknowledge that plastics harm the environment, but are unlikely to change behaviors. Companies offering alternative products can increase awareness and improve revenue by looking to education as a form of marketing.

Also, paper companies must not pass the additional cost incurred in “going green” entirely onto consumers. They should keep in mind that the new alternatives need to be affordable for consumers in India, who are so very price-sensitive. World corporations and governments must share the “going green” responsibility with the consumers, but they should accept a greater responsibility.

“As most of the inputs or raw materials used for making these products [new alternatives] are indigenous, these products are affordable for Indian consumers.”

– Mr. Saurabh Bangur, Vice Chairman, West Coast Paper Mills Limited
Mr. Saurabh Bangur

“West Coast Paper Mills Limited has launched the following products as alternative to plastics: Wesco Dura Print for Paper Bag, Wesco Straw Base and Straw Fold for Paper Straw and Wesco Prime Super Green coated cup stock paper as a substitute for PE- coated paper cups. These products are made from cellulosic fiber. Hence, they are 100 percent recyclable, reusable, plastic-free, biodegradable and environment friendly. Dura Print is developed for paper bag so it has better bursting strength and stretch parameters to hold the things. Its good surface finish provides a multicolor print feature for promotion and branding purposes. Wesco Straw Base and Straw Fold have distinguishing features like tough size, better wet strength and strength in general. Wesco Prime Super Green is the right solution for replacing PE-coated paper cups. It is re-pulpable, food-grade and plastic-free. Wesco Prime Super Green does not contain any plastic and has been certified by CIPET Laboratory. These products are the result of our innovative ideas.

“Our R&D team has played a major role in designing and developing these products. It has focused on areas such as making paper straw on crude machines of crackers to understand the product capability in the initial phase, planning and execution of trials at the plant and consumers ends, upgradation of product recipes based on trials and end user inputs and freezing of product specification. These products were developed in our plant at Dandeli. As most of the inputs or raw materials used for making these products are indigenous, these products are affordable for Indian consumers.”

“The big opportunity for replacing single-use plastics is in flexible paper packaging as in bags and pouches and in the food disposables segment.”

– Mr. S. N. Venkataraman, Divisional Head-Marketing, ITC-PSPD

Paper Mart: What alternatives to plastics does your company offer?

Mr. S. N. Venkataraman

S. N. Venkataraman: We have a long history of developing innovative products, services and business models – liquid packaging boards, virgin fiber-based boards, antifungal coated boards, barrier treated boards for food service and packaging applications and downstream into extrusion coating.

The big opportunity for replacing single-use plastics (SUP) is in flexible paper packaging as in bags and pouches and in the food disposables segment. Our approach to providing solutions depends on the application and can involve developing the right packaging paper/board, imparting some barrier properties as in grease, moisture and water resistance and in ensuring appropriate end-of-life disposal characteristics.

The basepaper/board for all the grades is made from sustainably grown virgin fibers. We started with boards extrusion coated with a thin layer of LDPE as replacement to plastic cups and bowls followed by bio-based barrier coated boards which will biodegrade in a composting atmosphere to our latest offering based on emulsion coated boards that can be recycled in conventional recycling mechanisms.

The key grades and their properties are as follows:

• Indobev/Indobowl/Indobarr: Typical applications – disposable cups, bowls and deep freeze packaging. These grades have a thin coating of LDPE and on disposal can be recycled with special recycling equipment.

Omegabev / Omegbowl / Omegabarr: Typical Applications – disposable cups, bowls and deep freeze packaging. The barrier in these grades is bio-based and on disposal in a composting atmosphere, the paperboard with the barrier coating will biodegrade completely. The omega series also has a CIPET certification for biodegradability.

• FiloServe (8 kit & 11 kit) / FiloPack (14kit) and Filobev: The Filo series – our latest addition to our range of plastic substitution grades is made up of an emulsion coated barrier that imparts resistance to oil and grease. The higher the “kit“number, the greater is the resistance to highly oily and greasy foods. These grades on disposal can be recycled in existing recycling mechanisms.

Wrapwell (5 kit & 7 kit)/ Wrapwell Premium: Typical Applications – disposable cups, bowls and deep freeze packaging. Virgin fiber-based wrapping papers with a special coating imparting oil and grease resistance and slip easy properties.

PM: What are the distinguishing features of these products?

SNV: All these products have been designed to meet specific customer requirements conforming to food contact and hygiene standards, enabling safe consumption. These grades also offer the brand and consumer the convenience of easy dispensing and disposal. Let’s take a look at the main features. They can easily replace single-use plastics, offering similar protection levels and higher convenience. They conform to all the important food contact regulations and are recyclable or compostable. The smooth white print side of these paper boards offers the best space for branding and identity – a feature that is not served well by plastics.

PM: Can we regard these products as innovative products?

SNV: Yes, as there are challenges associated with adding functional barriers to a porous material like paper or board. The innovations are not only in the material structure but also in designing them for specific end-use applications. For example, IndoBowl is the ideal replacement for plastic bowls and can also be quickly filled and sealed with a lidding material. It is also convenient for holding, pouring or eating small portions.

PM: What has been the role of R&D in developing these products?

SNV: The demand for these grades did emerge from our customers, but it was our product development team that gave shape and substance to these grades. Focused trials were conducted by the team before arriving at the right barrier and a suitable base paper/board was also chosen. For developing new forms and structures, the product development team consists of specialists in polymer chemistry, printing technologists, application specialists and many times vendors, who are deeply involved in the process.

PM: Are these products affordable for Indian consumers?

SNV: Any new technology product goes through multiple stages viz. introduction, market trials, adoption and growth. The cost-competitiveness of the product also undergoes a change over a period of time, and our focus is on making these grades affordable for the market. In this process, it has been our experience that the eco-responsible consumer/brand is willing to reward/invest newer packaging formats which reduce the environmental burden. Given this fact, the price of these grades may start at a small premium but get normalized over as adoption increases and technologies mature.

“The paper and board industry in India is considering this transition phase as a great opportunity coupled with the challenge of providing affordable alternatives. Paper mills are conducting various trials to make paper and paperboard for the intended use, like carrying, wrapping, protecting, packing and holding as a container.”

– Mr. SVR Krishnan, Executive Director (Operations), Tamil Nadu Newsprint and Papers Limited
Mr. SVR Krishnan

“This topic is quite fascinating. However, in the real sense, paper cannot replace plastic both functionally and economically, as plastic has wide applications in our day-to-day life. We have to admit that plastics have revolutionized the whole world.

“No doubt plastics have created a nightmare in the society, disturbing the ecological balance and fully throwing the environment out of gear. But if you look at the cause of this disaster, you will find that the true cause is the ‘irresponsible use of plastics and the discarding mechanism.’Plastics are rampantly used for anything and everything and disposed of in the open, without any segregation at source. This is mainly due to the lack of understanding of the biodegradability of plastics and other various packaging materials.

“The government has banned the use of single-use plastics. Though the resolve is good, the result is not as expected. This is because of the lack of time spent on the very objective, various grades of plastics in use and their discarding patterns, SOP for handling plastics and the non-availability of alternate materials, be it carry bags, protective wraps and primary/secondary packaging. We should have done extensive studies on the use of single-use plastics in various segments and then looked for affordable substitutes. Alternate materials are available today, but the cost is prohibitive.

“The paper and board industry in India is considering this transition phase as a great opportunity coupled with the challenge of providing affordable alternatives. Paper mills are conducting various trials to make paper and paperboard for the intended use, like carrying, wrapping, protecting, packing and holding as a container.

“For carrying, the substrate is to have sufficient strength to hold the content for a specific duration, without tearing or snapping. Strength development with locally available fibers is a big challenge, because climatic conditions do not suitthe typical high-strength wood species.

“For wrapping or protecting, the substrate is to have good strength along with the required barriers. For example, to wrap burgers, pastries, cakes and oily eatables or snacks, the paper must have oil resistance properties or the paper has to be oleophobic (oil resistant). This is achieved by giving surface coating toone side or both sides of the paper, depending on the end use or application.

“For packing, the base paper or board must have good strength along with water and oil barrier properties; that means the product has to be hydrophobic and oleophobic in nature. This has been achieved only with LDPE poly extrusion on one side or both sides of the paper or paperboard. Now mills are conducting trials with PLA coating (on the extruder itself) and some emulsion coatings on the surface to impart water and oil barrier to the substrate. This segment is growing fast, especially in the food industry for Ready to Cook (RTC) and Ready to Eat (RTE) product packaging.

“For cups and containers, the substrate must have good strength and should be hydrophobic (water resistant). Beverage cups were made with paperboard coated or extruded with LDPE on one side or both sides as per the end application. Now that the total LDPE coating is banned, though it forms only 6-7 percent of the total weight, mills are now trying with various emulsion surface coatings to impart water or sometimes water and oil barrier together. Still these coatings are in the trial phase, as the functionality is yet to be proven for all applications; the cost is also higher than LDPE coating.

“At TNPL, we are looking at the options of PLA coating and surface emulsion coating to seize the opportunity to contribute towards creating aplastic-free State – Plastic Free Tamil Nadu (PFTN). Though right now the products are not offered, as they are in the nascent stage of development, TNPL will soon be coming out with hydrophobic and oleophobic paper and paperboard for all the aforementioned applications.

“These new barrier products will have superior features like good water and oil resistance for a longer period and good sealing of the seams/flaps making leak-free cups and packages. The product can be used for various purposes: wraps for vegetable markets, super markets, bakeries, the FMCG sector for primary and secondary packaging and hot and cold beverage cups.

“Globally these grades are made effectively on off-line coaters for superior functional results with higher cost of conversion. Here, we have been looking at various R&D recipe trials to make them on-line economically with all the functional properties met as per industry requirement.

“The mill’s technical and production team has been working overtime to make this product successful and to be one of its kind on the market. Vendors are also partnering with us for this holistic development with the spirit of co-creation.

“Our barrier paper and paperboard are to be first made functionally successful, facing the technical challenge; and then we will work on cost optimization. Though, in the longer run, cost will be optimized, the same cannot be cheaper than LDPE extrusion. After all, there is a cost for ‘protecting the environment’ and we call it ‘Earth Saving Cost’.”

“We have created a strong presence in the domain with our brand CHUK and work on both design and qualitative aspects to distinguish the products. These are innovative products.”

– Mr. Ved Krishna, Strategy Head, YashPakka Limited
Mr. Ved Krishna

“The whole purpose of our company is to provide compostable solutions. We currently provide paper for bags and molded products for food services. We work on creating strong bag grades with water and oil resistance from sugarcane residue bagasse. Our molded products replace styrofoam and plastics from food services. We have created a strong presence in the domain with our brand CHUK and work on both design and qualitative aspects to distinguish the products. These are innovative products. These products are affordable for Indian consumers. We ensure that the overall cost of packaging for the consumer is not increased. The products we provide have been evolved over time with a deep understanding of market needs. We have a strong R&D and innovation team. Also, we collaborate with various agencies across the world for learning and development.”

“The paper industry is quite capable of fighting the plastic menace. It can protect the environment and save the earth with a little help from the government, big corporations and the public’s change of habits.”

– Ms. Ruchica G. Kumar, VP-Marketing, Ruchira Papers Limited

“There was a time when it was most annoying and almost tiring to hear people say Save Paper, Save Earth. But now, finally, it seems that paper is entering a new golden age. The world is now seeking an alternative to plastics, and although we are far from seeing paper being as cost-effective as plastic or having a similar functionality, every day new technology is being adopted to position paper as an evolving material with similar features of lightness, strength and ease of storage. Perhaps the biggest change has been in the mindset of the crusaders of Green Earth. Paper is no longer considered destructive and wasteful but, very rightfully, as an asset. The practice of using paper instead of plastic is in its nascent stage, but I believe, it is just the beginning.

Ms. Ruchica G. Kumar

“At Ruchira Papers, we are working on R&D for products that could replace their plastic equivalent. Some of these might involve moderate changes to the machinery, but there are others that can be achieved by effecting a variety of biodegradable coating on our Multani as well as Kora range of papers. For example, previously, we were not concentrating on the paper bag segment, but seeing the increased demand of environmentally friendly packing bags, we started catering to this segment with high tensile strength Maati and Multani paper. The end use for this in 25 to 28 BF is in Pinch bottom and Square bottom grocery bags. Besides these, the two-color and four-color printing on our golden Kraft has given us excellent results.

“Plastic-coated visiting cards became a rage just a few years ago. Frankly, they contain more plastic than paper and can be used only once. Kraft paper should be used for eco-friendly business cards. Kraft envelopes and stationery for replacing plastic folders are the other environment-friendly products. The low lignin in kraft paper makes it more hard-wearing and durable than any other material. Incidentally, Kraft is the German word for force and strength. We are also in the process of developing a few more new products.

“As far as the affordability of these products for Indian consumers is concerned, let me tell you about an interesting article I read last year. It read, can you afford to be green, when you are not rich? It was fascinating how the author explained that the onus of changing to the earth friendly practices is very conveniently dropped in the lap of the consumer. However, this ‘plastic pandemic’, if I may call it so, was started by some prominent departmental stores all over the world. So why can’t the same world corporations and governments shoulder the ‘going green’ responsibility along with the consumers? People would make eco-conscious choices, if good and affordable eco-conscious choices are given to them – something that our company has always tried to do.

“Ruchira Papers is a modern paper farm in the heart of Himachal. Since our launch in 1981, we have endeavored to be one of the greenest paper makers in the industry. We take great pride in making a range of quality agro-enriched papers for writing, high volume print and packaging. We are actively involved in integrating earth-friendly practices at every stage of our production cycle. Our materials come from the earth. Locally-sourced agriculture waste – sugarcane bagasse, wheat straw and wild grass – create the fiber for our paper. Our plant has modern power and water conserving facilities that keep the consumption of natural resources to a minimum.

“To sum up, the good news is that the paper industry is quite capable of fighting the plastic menace. It can protect the environment and save the earth with a little help from the government, big corporations and the public’s change of habits.”