India is one of the largest consumers of single-use plastic, using almost 50% of worldwide production. This has resulted in more than 10% of the total waste generated daily coming from households in India. Despite plastic production rates touching nearly 16% compared to China’s 10% and the UK’s 2.5%, India’s plastic waste management system is performing miserably. Plastic packaging waste contributes the most to environmental pollution.
Plastic packaging, especially in the form of a plastic packet, is commonly used in India for milk packaging, and it plays a critical role in delivering fresh products to consumers with minimal waste. However, plastic packaging contributes substantially to environmental pollution, including the accumulation of plastic in water bodies, which comes up to approximately 13 million tons.
Why is plastic packaging used and can it be done without?
The use of plastics for packaging has some advantages since they are flexible and inexpensive. However, most plastics are single-use, combined with low recycling or reuse ratios, contributing substantially to environmental pollution. According to Environmental Impacts of Milk Packaging Made from Polythene Using Life Cycle Assessment, plastic package contributes more to fossil fuels, respiratory inorganics, and climate change.
Additionally, the incorrect disposal of plastic bags and other forms of plastic has created a problem, as they have found their way into oceans, posing a threat to aquatic life, agricultural lands, and the environment in general. According to Plastic or Glass: A New Environmental Assessment with a Marine Litter Indicator for the Comparison of Pasteurized Milk Bottles, incorrect plastic disposal has led to marine litter, which is causing environmental problems to maritime flora and fauna all over the world.
The need for sustainable alternatives
India’s plastic consumption has been growing significantly, and despite per capita usage levels being lower than most other developing and developed countries, plastic pollution has emerged as one of the significant problems in the country. India produced approximately 3.47 million tons of plastic waste per annum, with the per capita waste growing from 700 gms to 2500 gms over the last five years. Unfortunately, only a small amount of this plastic waste gets recycled, and the majority of it leaks into the environment through various polluting pathways. India collects only 60% of its plastic, according to the Report on Alternative Products and Technologies to Plastics and their Applications, published by NITI Aayog of India.
Public policy can influence the types of packaging promoted, the ease of recycling compared with landfill, and whether incineration is allowed. Sustainable alternatives to plastic packaging are necessary, but these alternatives should be less harmful to the environment or have no impact at all. Consumer interests include a selection of the best type and size of the container, based on environmental impacts, and the influence of consumer-driven end-of-life scenarios. Milk in bags is cheaper to produce than milk in jugs and cartons, and it was first introduced by DuPont in 1967 when glass bottles were going out of favour. Bags were easier to manipulate than jugs and cartons, which needed to be redesigned.
Alternatives to plastic packaging
The abundance of plastic waste in India and other parts of the world has led to the search for alternatives to plastic packaging. Several materials are being considered, including glass, paper, aluminium, and biodegradable plastics. However, each material has its advantages and disadvantages, and the suitability of each depends on the type of product being packaged and the environmental impact of the material.
Glass is a widely used material for packaging beverages and food. It is reusable and recyclable, and its transparency allows consumers to see the product inside. However, glass is heavy, fragile, and expensive to transport. It also requires more energy to produce than plastic, and it can break during handling and transportation, leading to waste.
Paper is a renewable and biodegradable material that is widely used for packaging dry goods and some beverages. However, paper production requires large amounts of water, energy, and chemicals, and it can contribute to deforestation if not sourced sustainably. It is also not suitable for packaging liquids and wet foods as it can easily tear and leak.
Aluminum is a lightweight, durable, and highly recyclable material that is used extensively for packaging beverages and food. It is resistant to light, moisture, and oxygen, and it keeps the product fresh for longer. However, aluminium production requires large amounts of energy and emits greenhouse gases, and it can be more expensive than other materials.
Biodegradable plastics are made from renewable resources such as starch, cellulose, and vegetable oil. They are designed to break down into natural components when exposed to light, air, and moisture. However, biodegradable plastics require specific conditions to degrade, and they can release harmful chemicals into the environment during the degradation process. They also require specialized equipment and facilities to recycle, which can be expensive and limited in some areas.
The use of plastic packaging has become ubiquitous, with the majority of products sold in plastic containers, pouches, and bags. While plastic has many advantages, its widespread use and improper disposal have led to environmental pollution and health hazards. India is one of the largest consumers of plastic, and its plastic waste management system is inadequate. Therefore, there is a need for alternatives to plastic packaging that are sustainable, affordable, and environmentally friendly. While the transition from plastic to alternative packaging may not be easy, it is necessary to reduce the environmental impact of plastic waste and ensure a sustainable future for all.