How to make a circular economy possible under seemingly insurmountable challenges

Perhaps we are designing for waste. So said Sudhir Jain, SVP manufacturing and sustainability at Bira during the Drinktec conference on 9 December as part of the PackMach expo in Mumbai. Hence, it has become important for the beverage packaging industry to reduce the amount of non-recyclable waste generated by embracing innovative methods and materials. Pooja Mahesh reports.

06 Jan 2023 | By Pooja Mahesh

Session moderated by Ganeshkumar V on Circular Economy

Sustainability and circular economy, the moderator Ganeshkumar V said is a much-discussed topic across various industries today. In his introductory comments he said, F&B is among the leaders in sustainability issues. According to research by ESG consultants EcoVadis, F&B has an overall sustainability score of 48.9, coming in behind only Construction (49.4) and Finance, Legal and Consulting (51.1). He added how the F&B packaging market in India is expected to grow from a size of USD 33.2 billion in 2020 at a CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of 9.3% until 2026. In addition, the Indian Institute of Packaging (IIP) calculated that the consumption of packaged foods in India rose by 200% during the previous ten years, from 4.3 kg to 8.6 kg per person per year. Additionally, the beverage industry accounts for around 23% of all PET applications in packaging.  

Under such circumstances, he cautioned that the road ahead for sustainability and circular economy is a long and arduous one. There are many areas where companies in India need to improve, and they face insistence from customers, investors, and stakeholders to speed up their sustainability transformation especially towards a circular economy. Ganeshkumar V addressed the elephant in the room by asking, "How to address these concerns through a circular economy meeting the requirements of various stakeholders without affecting the growth of the company?"

All four panelists - K Ganesh, the head of corporate affairs, sustainability and CSR at Bisleri; Sudhir Jain, SVP manufacturing and sustainability at Bira, B9 Beverages; Darshan Vartak, the head of NPD Packaging at POSM Development, Storia Foods and Beverages; and Rajendra Dobriyal, director, scientific and regulatory affairs, India and South-west Asia Region, The Coca Cola Company - agreed that it is important that the industries embrace sustainability today. Doing so can enable reduction in waste, and by extension, increasing the lifespan of products. Though it has been a challenge, companies have engaged in extensive product developments so that it can be sustainable and meet the demands of a circular economy.

So, what is a circular economy? Rajendra Dobriyal pointed out that, "Presently, the model we are following takes materials from the Earth and creates products from them that are eventually thrown as waste. This process is said to be a ‘linear economy’. In contrast, a circular economy stops waste from being produced in the first place. It essentially entails reusing products, rather than scrapping them and then extracting new resources. As a result, all forms of waste like scrap metal are returned to the economy or used more efficiently. This can enable one to not only protect the environment but also use natural resources more wisely.

Rajendra Dobriyal added. "So instead of investing in a model that is ‘make and waste’, we need to invest in a one that advocates reuse, retake and recycle. This creates a circular economy and doing so will reduce the dependence on a linear economy. As a result, there will be more resources available for future generations. The COP27 meet also brought to fore the relevance of the circular economy in mitigating carbon emissions for India by ensuring responsible consumption and sustainable resource management."

While it may be challenging for companies to adopt circular economy-based approaches can alleviate the challenges associated with wastage and energy losses and resource consumption. Doing so can provide economic and environmental benefits to the F&B industry in particular. “The difference between a challenge as a pain and a challenge as an excitement are very different. As someone who is into hardcore manufacturing, I see sustainability as a user. I don't see sustainability as somebody who can get knowledge of what I use, how do I make it sustainable is the challenge for me,” said Sudhir Jain during the panel discussion which was attended by a full house as part of Messe Muenchen's Drinktec conference.

Sudhir Jain said "Perhaps we design for waste." He added, we need to develop the idea of a circular economy which eliminates waste and pollution, and circulates products and materials. Jain said, this can be achieved through equipment design or process design. He gave an Indian example when he pointed out that "Indians are greater repairers. Be it umbrellas or shoes, we repair items so that we can use them again and again." This Jain said was dissimilar to the wave of consumerism which prefers use and throw.

K Ganesh of Bisleri concurred with Jain. He said, with the volume of packaging increasing, we need to ensure that these packaging materials are made sustainably. For example, by reusing alone, we can save - on a monthly basis - 7000 metric tonnes of virgin plastics.

Darshan Vartak said, "The biggest challenge to embrace sustainability is mindset as many believe it is expensive and hence, out of reach." He added, "We can start as simple as making small changes in our homes. Small steps can make a huge impact."  His mantra: re-design and re-think.

Rajendra Dobriyal said, "Necessity is the mother of invention. A few years ago, electric vehicles for many may not have been a feasible idea to implement in India. However, today, there are many electric vehicles which have eager takers. Necessities can bring different sectors together. Take the cause of reducing plastic in the country. The way that various stakeholders came together and sought to reduce plastic was great. With the growth in these efforts, India might not have a plastic problem a few years down the line."

Amol Jagtap, assistant directort technical, FSSAI, said, "There are some multiple laws and as a result many interpretations of these laws." He felt "with planning and better coordination between the ministries things will be smoother." He emphasized the importance of protecting the consumer rights towards food safety, plus taking care about ease of doing business. He agreed that training and knowledge sharing among different stakeholders will play a crucial role for achieving FSSAI's mandate.

Sudhir Jain signed off the session by saying, Every business has a headache about finding a quick fix solution. He cautioned everyone that "cycles will come and go" and so, if we have to make headway with sustainability then "the fundamentals have to be attacked". He said, seek zero waste and told the members of the audience to "Always use what you have first!"  

For businesses to truly embrace sustainability and a circular economy, continuous efforts will be needed to ensure its success in the coming years. Challenges will be there, but with collaboration and co-learning, businesses will find some ease to do their work in a sustainable manner. Our planet has limited resources and to sustain our way of life, we will need to use them judiciously and also preserve, conserve and regenerate them.

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