The thing about everyday packaging

I am an 80’s kid and I’m sure anyone born in the 70s or the 80s in India will be able to relate to what I’m about to share.

During my childhood, at least until high school, every morning meant waking up at 6 am and walking to a milkman’s cow shed for fresh milk. The cow would be milked right in front your eyes in a steel pail and then measured and distributed to customers right there. If this routine did not take place in the mornings, it would surely find its place on your schedule in the evenings. During summer vacations, the trip to the cow shed would turn into a delightful exploration of newer places and games with your cousins who came visiting. Moreover, milkmen riding their thundering bullets at specific times in the morning and evening with their milk cans hanging on both sides of the bike was a common sight. My childhood also meant running to the corner kirana store where ‘uncleji’ would pack the toor dal my mother ordered me to get in paper packets tightly held together with the thick cotton thread, the ream of which hung from the ceiling of the store. Yeah.. the same ones which would be wound around packets endlessly. I think one could still find them at the local flower market to pack loose flowers in paper. Several aunties from the neighbourhood would send homemade chaklis and sweets several times during the year. After we moved from the south to the north of India, we relished the home made potato chips and papads. 

And then I grew up. I was so caught up with the changes happening within me as young adult that I failed to notice the pace at which the world outside was changing. And when I did finally take notice, everything had already changed. Just like the rest of the world, I did not have the time or the patience to get milk every morning. And so the milk started coming to me in packets. The corner kirana store uncle was also busy and wanted longer shelf-life. Hence he started procuring and storing pre-packed materials. I also wasn’t surrounded by those nosy and nurturing aunties anymore… I started buying my share of chaklis and other goodies off the shelf. And those hundreds of options of chips and biscuits and chocolates and breads … were too tempting, too easily available to be eaten at anytime and anywhere… anyone refusing them would definitely not be their right minds!

 When it came to consuming products, the too easy, too many, too tempting etc. had been the story for most of my adult life. Until a few years ago.

India consumes about 12.8 million tonnes of plastic annually. And this industry is growing at 18% per annum. There is also another side to this growth story which takes place after the plastic is discarded.  43% of the plastic manufactured in India is used for single-use packaging, and this packaging mostly finds its way into the landfills. This fact is reflected at a micro scale in our waste bins every single day. To add to the waste growth story, according to Down to Earth, 80% of all plastic used in India is discarded. 

Plastic, as most of you know, was a solution to mitigate the issue of rising deforestation done to feed the paper industry. Then how did it become a menace itself? To my mind, Plastic is not an absolute enemy. It has its uses and benefits. It kind of reminds me of the debate ‘Technology – boon or bane’. Just like all other inventions, plastic too was created for our wellbeing and as a solution to a greater problem. However, incorrect usage is harmful to our health and to the environment. If we are to tackle the issue of plastic, I think a good start would be understand it better, what it means in our daily lives and then guide our own decision to use it or not consciously based out of that understanding. 

Globally, to ensure appropriate usage and disposal of plastic waste, every plastic item is categorised into one of the 7 categories. The categories are essentially codes given to the resin used to manufacture the plastic item. You may have noticed a small triangle with a number in it on most packaging. And almost all kinds of packaging uses plastic in some form or the other and at varying degrees. The biggest challenge is that two different categories of plastic cannot be recycled together as the resins composition differ. Hence segregation is a key part of the plastic recycle process. 

  1. PETE 2. HDPA 3. PVC 4. LDPE 5. PP 6. PS 7. all other

Plastics under Codes 1 and 2 are the most recycled. 3 and 4 are recyclable but most often through a very specific processes and units. 5 to 7 are not recyclable. Most of the single-use plastic packaging for food items example food trays, multilayer packaging for chips/biscuits etc. fall under categories 5 to 7. Here’s a good resource for you to understand this better https://www.qualitylogoproducts.com/promo-university/different-types-of-plastic.htm

One of the biggest concerns with plastic, especially when used for food, is the leeching of bioactive chemicals – Bisphenol A and phthalates. These chemicals can imitate the body’s hormones and impact how the natural hormones function in our bodies. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/plastic-not-fantastic-with-bisphenol-a/

There are enough resources describing plastic, their codes and concerns out there. Besides the health concerns, we wouldn’t want plastics to be lingering on in the environment forever!

Here are a few things we can do at our own, individual level to ensure we use plastic appropriately and if possible, minimise the use of it in our daily lives.

  1. When shopping for products, take a moment to look under and around the packaging. Look for the category code in a triangle and allow that information to influence what you buy without hesitation.
  2. The next time you want to buy a new container for storage, replace the plastic with steel, glass or another natural material. 
  3. Cling film used for wrapping food can be replaced with beeswax wraps or the good old cloth wraps.
  4. Water bottles could be steel or other metals like copper. Glass is a good option too if you are comfortable handling it J
  5. If you do think a plastic bottle or container to be used for food or beverage is essential, look for the ‘BPA free’ options. They are embossed at the bottom of the bottles.
  6. Avoid buying smaller single-use sachets or pouches of shampoo, coffee, sugar etc. and go for either jar or bottle packed ones. If you are travelling, you can carry them in smaller glass jars with spoons in them. Remember single-use packaging is not recyclable! At all!
  7. Most good old grocery stores still sell loose items and are more accommodating to requests related to packaging. Visit them often and if possible educate them as well through a friendly conversation.
  8. Keep a cloth bag handy in your bag or car or the scooter dikki. Be prepared. 
  9. For plastic pouches, packets and bottles that one cannot avoid, example milk packets, collect them and sell them off to the kabadiwala. These days kabadiwalas are only a phonecall away. (Chips, biscuits, maggi etc. packets are not recyclable and hence will not be taken by the kabadiwala)
  10. Home-made is still the most sought after food by all age groups J. Leverage your local groups to find home bakers, snack makers etc. You would not only be helping them make a living but can also build communities. 

Plastic is tough to beat, but wherever possible we must do what we can and what is needed to minimise our own contribution to the waste growth story.

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