By Saabira Chaudhuri
MUSSOORIE, India -- A generation of Indians has grown up on
instant noodles brand Maggi, which accounts for one in every four
dollars Nestlé SA makes in India. But its nonrecyclable packaging
has become a big problem -- for both India and Nestlé.
Yellow Maggi packets and other plastic waste increasingly blight
this verdant town in the foothills of the Himalayas and are strewn
across India. Now, Maggi packets -- along with chip bags, candy
wrappers and shampoo pouches from the world's biggest brands -- are
the target of new laws in India, forcing consumer-goods companies
to grapple with the waste their products generate.
The daily plastic waste generated by the average Indian -- while
much lower than the average American -- climbed 69% between 2015
and 2018, according to government estimates. Across the country,
dumps are overflowing and drains are clogging with plastic, while
cows -- considered sacred -- are getting sick after eating
To get a grip, India has instituted some of the world's
strictest rules on single-use plastic, forcing companies to collect
packaging that is often left as litter. The country's environment
minister even launched a Bollywood-style song -- complete with
dance moves -- to persuade Indians to reject single-use
India's stance is part of a broader crackdown by regulators the
world over on plastic that is used just once but can inflict
lasting damage on marine life and the environment.
Consumer goods companies for decades have focused on marketing
and sales, pumping out billions of nonrecyclable packets of
everything from shampoo to coffee, with little regard for their
disposal. Now the threat of fines or an outright ban on packaging
that has been crucial to their success here is a major concern.
Companies are counting on growth in India -- on track to overtake
China as the world's most populous nation by 2022 -- to help offset
slowing sales in the West.
"The narrative on plastic has changed dramatically," Sanjiv
Mehta, head of Unilever PLC's South Asia business, told investors
in December. India is Unilever's second-biggest market, with
plastic pouches of its Sunsilk shampoo and Bru instant coffee
hanging from tiny shop fronts across the country.
Nonrecyclable packaging is a problem globally, but particularly
acute in countries with poor waste management. Many Indian
households lack regular collection services so they burn trash or
dump it on the side of the road. Much of the waste ends up in
waterways. Of plastic found in the world's oceans, 90% is traced to
10 rivers, according to a 2017 study published in the journal
Environmental Science & Technology. Eight of the rivers are in
Asia and two flow through India.
In emerging markets, products like shampoo and detergent are
often sold in single-serve pouches similar to the ketchup packets
that come with an order of fries. The resilient "multilayer"
pouches protect against extreme temperatures and contamination,
and, most important, are affordable for poor consumers.
Single-serve packets make up over 80% of shampoo sales in India,
Indonesia and the Philippines, according to Euromonitor.
But like Maggi, this type of packaging combines different types
of plastic with materials like aluminum. That makes it
nonrecyclable and of no interest to India's waste pickers who trawl
through trash looking for recyclables to sell.
Three years ago, India's government said it would ban multilayer
packaging by 2018, setting off alarm bells through the
"We didn't want the government to phase this out and put the
whole consumer-goods industry into jeopardy," says Samir Pathak,
PepsiCo's sustainability chief for Asia, the Middle East and North
A consortium -- including Nestlé, Pepsi and Mentos-maker
Perfetti Van Melle SpA -- tried for months to develop a recyclable
alternative. After little success, they decided on a different
Through street plays and workshops, the companies trained 1,500
waste pickers across eight cities to identify and collect
multilayer packaging, paying them for what they brought in.
The pilot program amassed 680 metric tons of material in three
months. In March 2018, New Delhi changed the law to allow the sale
of multilayer packaging. The caveat is that companies must collect
back the equivalent volume of what they sell and find other uses
for it, like sending it to cement plants as fuel.
That is prompting Nestlé and others to hire businesses,
nongovernmental organizations and local governments to collect back
packaging. Companies must collect 100% of their multilayer
packaging by the end of next year. Half the battle is getting
households to sort the garbage rather than throwing it all in one
In Mussoorie, Nestlé is sending people door to door to educate
residents about proper disposal and funding plastic-packaging
cleanups, moves it hopes to replicate elsewhere.
On a recent morning, 21-year-old Kiran accompanied Poonam, a
waste picker, on her rounds in the town. Both women go by just
their first names as is common in much of India. Kiran, whose work
is funded by Nestlé, asked homemakers who answered her knock to
separate packaging from "wet" waste. Only then can it be recycled,
composted or used as fuel.
"You should have at least two bins, one for wet and one for dry
waste," Kiran told a woman who was handing over a bag of mixed
She unfurled a cement bag repurposed to serve as an educational
poster, with a Maggi packet, snack bag and plastic bottle stapled
to one end and crayon drawings of fruits and vegetables on the
other to illustrate different kinds of waste.
In Bangalore, Unilever has started paying a waste-management
firm, Saahas, to collect multilayer plastic from offices and
In a sprawling office complex where 60,000 people work for
companies like Morgan Stanley and Capgemini, Saahas staff trawl
through bags of dry waste each morning. After pulling out bulky
items like bottles, cans and big pieces of cardboard, the waste is
sent to a factory on the city outskirts where conveyor-belt workers
pick out multilayer packaging by hand. It is then trucked to a
cement kiln 600 kilometers away for fuel.
Trucking plastic long distances to be burned hurts the
environment, says Madhavi Purohit, Unilever's senior
packaging-sustainability manager for Asia. But she adds that it is
still better than adding to landfills.
Unilever declined to disclose how much the process costs but
says it pays for transportation and even pays the kilns to accept
Collecting from office and apartment buildings that already
separate waste is low-hanging fruit. The bigger challenge is how to
reduce litter and improve household waste separation.
Unilever has developed a four-week course for schools called
Plastic Safari to explain the merits of separating waste and
recycling. It is also lobbying education officials to include waste
segregation and recycling in the regular curriculum, hoping
children will influence their parents.
Despite such efforts, some government officials have accused
companies of moving too slowly. E. Ravendiran of the Maharashtra
Pollution Control Board says companies only swung into action after
being threatened with bans or having to pay a deposit on multilayer
Executives say the target of collecting 100% of multilayer
plastic by 2020 is unrealistic and that details on how the rule
will be implemented are scarce.
Hassan, a former waste picker who manages a small team of waste
collectors in Bangalore, says pickers aren't financially motivated
to bend down hundreds of times to collect a kilogram of multilayer
plastic from piles of mixed waste or just off the street. Saahas
pays him 27 rupees (around 39 U.S. cents) for one kilogram of
plastic bottles, compared with just 4 rupees for one kilogram of
multilayer packaging, which is much harder to collect.
As volumes ramp up and costs rise, companies are looking to
monetize what they collect. Some are researching other uses for
discarded packaging, like in roads or furniture, or are trying to
make packaging with just one type of plastic so it can be recycled.
Unilever has opened a plant in Indonesia to test recycling pouches
that borrows technology used to recycle plastic components for
electronic devices. Nestlé on Tuesday launched a recyclable paper
wrapper for one of its snack bars in Europe, which previously came
in a plastic wrapper.
Fixing Mussoorie's trash problem won't be easy. Collecting waste
from houses cut into the steep hillside is punishing work.
Torrential rain means plastic litter gets buried and is tough to
extract. Bands of monkeys overturn bins and tear open flimsy bags
of waste. During the summer, Mussoorie's cool temperatures are a
magnet for tourists, doubling waste and straining the resources of
a town that doesn't have a regulated landfill or incineration
Nestlé's education effort -- which began in January -- spans
1,800 homes. It plans to eventually reach all 13,000 in the town,
along with hundreds of hotels and businesses. It has also run radio
and newspaper campaigns to discourage littering and encourage the
separation of waste.
"We are looking at this project as a model for a city," says
Tulika Shukla, Nestlé's manager for packaging sustainability in
Critics say the Mussoorie program is a drop in the bucket and
that in most Indian cities a door-to-door campaign isn't
Nestlé estimates it collected the equivalent of more than 20% of
the multilayer plastic packaging it sold across India last year. To
hit the government-mandated target of 100% by next year it has to
scale up significantly.
In Mussoorie, Nestlé's Maggi packets are the biggest source of
multilayer plastic waste, according to a study by the nonprofit
Gati Foundation. It says 1,000 Maggi packets are used each day
across 60 roadside stalls called "Maggi Points."
Gati and town officials have asked the company to ditch
single-serve packets in favor of bulk packaging. Nestlé says it
can't because of food-safety concerns once a packet is opened. In
May, the company said it would start running a yearlong
waste-collection service for the stalls.
"You feel like crying," said Sanjeev Chopra, who runs the
Mussoorie-based national training institute for civil servants.
"The Himalayas are polluted all over with Maggi packets."
Write to Saabira Chaudhuri at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
July 05, 2019 07:14 ET (11:14 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2019 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.