Rethinking plastic

March 15, 2020

Environmentalists say that the high percentage of plastic waste is a big concern. Corporate stakeholders need to come up with cleaner initiatives

Pakistan’s plastic industry is growing by 15 percent per annum; its production capacity now stands at 624,200 metric tonnes per annum which results in 6.41 million tonnes of plastic waste every year and the pollution caused by an estimated 55 billion plastic bags. The excessive use of plastic has caused a negative impact on the environment by increasing the carbon footprint.

Plastic Manufacturers’ Association of Pakistan’s data shows that Pakistan produces 50,438 tonnes of MSW (Municipal Solid Waste). Out of this, 67 percent is organic, 5 percent paper, and 18 percent is plastic. Interestingly, the percentage of plastic waste is much higher here than in India (2 percent), Sri Lanka (6 percent), Bangladesh (7 percent), and Iran (11 percent).

Environmentalists say this high percentage of plastic waste in MSW is a big concern. There are two types of plastic waste; recyclable and non-recyclable. Single-use plastic bags with an average usage-span of 12 minutes, are non-recyclable and a massive problem both for land and oceans, as they are generally made from non-degradable low-density polyethylene (LDP/LDPE) and can remain in the environment for 400 years or more.

With the introduction of regional bans on single-use plastic bags, Pakistan is moving towards active implementation of UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. Hunza has been declared the first plastic-free district in the country.

PET (polyethylene terephthalate), a recyclable material, is a major contributor to plastic waste. As per a World Bank report, beverages and packaging industries are the main producers of PET waste. In 2016 alone, the world generated 242 million tonnes of PET waste.

It’s no shocker that giant corporations that make bottled drinks — CocaCola, Nestlé, and PepsiCo—are the world’s biggest plastic polluters. In many ways, this ranking reflects how large and global these companies are. All of them produce a large range of food and household products marketed in PET bottles.

Environmentalist Sardar Asif Sial says that irrespective of the recycling efficiency of PET material, the PET bottles, containers cap, straw and stirrers, and beverage bottles cause great pollution. “There are countless environmental threats in Pakistan; from villages to small towns and big cities everywhere on the street corners, in the air, on the seashore, in the freshwater bodies, in the water channels, we find heaps of plastic waste”, he says.

To fulfil its corporate social responsibility (CSR), the CocaCola Company is leading the industry with a bold, ambitious goal: to help collect and recycle a bottle or can for each one they sell by 2030 – regardless of where it comes from, Fahad Qadir the director Public Affairs and Communication for Pakistan and Afghanistan at the CocaCola Export Corporation says, “Today, more than 85 percent of our packaging globally is 100 percent recyclable. In Pakistan, 98 percent of our packaging is 100 percent recyclable. This is part of our broad strategy to grow with conscience by becoming a beverage company that grows the right way.”

CocaCola is working towards establishing local collaborations and partnerships with formal NGOs and those within the established but informal PET recycling industry to develop a post-consumption collection and recycling system of PET bottles in major cities to enhance process efficiency and output, Qadir states.

“For this purpose, CocaCola, in collaboration with WWF (Worldwild Fund for Nature) Pakistan also carrying out a nationwide empirical study aiming to map out the post-consumption collection and recycling of plastic PET bottles.”

Nestlé has given a global commitment to use hundred percent recyclable and reusable plastic material till 2025. Through CSR, Nestlé Pakistan has done a project in Hunza with the collaboration of district administration to achieve the target of first plastic free district in the country. Waqar Ahmed, the head of Corporate Affairs at Nestlé tells TNS that companies generally do not have resources to collect and recycle all the plastic they use.

“In fact, collecting and recycling is not our job but we’re determined to look at every option available to help solve the plastic waste challenge and we are embracing multiple solutions that can have an impact. What we can do is join hands with the public sector. The government too has to intervene through legislation and collaborative projects”, he adds.

However, environmentalists consider replacing plastic to be a better option to protect the ecosystem and to control waste. According to reliable industry sources, this cannot be done overnight. The first step would be perhaps to replace plastic straws. Even this he says, cannot start till 2021-22. There are only two vendors in the world that have the capacity to produce paper straw but they are unable to fulfill the current demand of around 10 billion per year.

Being 100 percent recyclable PET bottles are, part of an informal circular economy in Pakistan. Various stakeholders, from scavengers, waste pickers and housemaids, to junk-shop dealers, recyclers, plastic manufacturers and plastic palette exporters in their hundreds of thousands are involved in the collection, recycling and trade/export of crushed plastic palettes primarily made out of the PET bottles.

Pakistan currently has a 99 percent collection rate of PET beverage bottles which is much higher than most developed countries. Jameel Khawar a spokesperson for Lahore Waste Management Company tells TNS that it is always hard to find any recyclable plastic in the waste.

“Recyclable plastic is hard cash for collectors … they sell it at a minimum price of Rs55 per kg. Thus, collecting recyclable plastic has become an informal industry.”

Recycling of PET bottles was almost non-existent in Pakistan till late ’90s and most of the waste could easily be seen scattered on the streets. The recycled PET can be made into fiber for carpets; fabric for T-shirts or fleece jackets; fiberfill for sleeping bags, winter coats, and dog beds; industrial strapping; sheet and thermoformed (clam shell) packaging; and automotive parts such as headliners, bumpers, and door panels.

PET is a plastic resin and the most common type of polyester. Many beverages, food items and other consumer products are delivered in bottles or packages made from PET. The #1 code is usually found on or near the bottom of such containers.

German researchers at Goethe University have claimed in a research conducted in 2009 that “PET or polyethylene terephthalate, may not be so benign after all. It now appears possible that some as-yet unidentified chemicals in these plastics have the potential to interfere with estrogen and other reproductive hormones, just as BPA (Bisphenol A) and phthalates do.”

However, scientists and researchers also say that it’s too early to say whether or not drinking out of PET plastic bottles is harmful to human health.

Recyclable packaging

Polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, is a form of polyester. It tends to be completely reused, in which case it becomes recycled polyethylene terephthalate, or rPET.

If you grab a bottle or container, you may observe a #1 code on its base. This signifies that it is made out of PET. It is extremely popular as a container material, including things like peanut butter, drinks, frozen foods, cosmetics, and household cleaners etc. PET itself is amazingly transparent, thermo-stable and extraordinarily resilient. Furthermore, it is lightweight, affordable and, most of all, recyclable. This is where rPET comes in.

rPET is made by recycling plastics that are normally utilised as packaging materials. This is also used to make plastic jugs. When collected, PET waste is arranged and cleaned, after which it is improved into rPET, which would then be able to be utilized for new packaging.

Prime safety concerns for the food authorities around the world with regard to the use of recycled plastic materials in food-contact articles are: 1) that contaminants from the post-consumer material may appear in the final food-contact product made from the recycled material, 2) that recycled post-consumer material not regulated for food-contact use may be incorporated into food-contact packaging, and 3) that adjuvants in the recycled plastic may not comply with the regulations for food-contact use.

Currently, food packaging material regulations of the Punjab Food Authority (PFA), 2018, indicate that “Recycled plastic, waste plastic, bottles/jars, scrap plastic and hospital waste are not allowed for making food grade plastics.”

However, in 2018 Nestlé Pure Life with 100 percent rPET bottles were launched in North America. In July 2019, Nestlé has also launched its new bottle made entirely from recycled PET (rPET) in Belgium that is called ‘Valvert’.

Moreover, HENNIEZ mineral water in Swiss region has already taken a big step towards improved sustainability. As of today, all of this Swiss brand mineral water is being packaged in 75 percent recycled plastic (rPET). America’s spring water brand Poland Spring has also announced its plan to convert its portfolio to recycled plastic by 2021.

Head of Corporate Affairs Nestlé, Waqar Ahmed tells TNS that, “rPET innovation is a step further towards meeting Nestlé’s commitment to increase the rPET content in its water bottles to 35 percent globally by 2025. Undoubtedly, the new Valvert 100 percent rPET bottle will be a game changer in regards to sustainable packaging.”

Environmentalists believe that by recycling PET bottles and turning them into rPET, we can conserve a great amount of landfill space, as-well.

The writer is a staff member. He can be reached at [email protected]

Rethinking plastic: Environmentalists say that the high percentage of plastic waste is a big concern