12 October 2023

The circular approach to sustainability

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By Shilpa Jasani

Sustainability is becoming the watchword of this generation, with increasing awareness about the environmental impact of products we use and their final resting place in overflowing landfills or oceans littered with humongous amounts of waste. 
A linear lifecycle model is the cradle-to- grave approach; where we make, use and discard. However, nature doesn’t work like that.  In the natural environment, even when things die, they come back to generate life.
The more sustainable cradle-to-cradle (C2C) or circular approach is to make-use-reuse.  This C2C assessment proposes maximum reuse of resources thereby eliminating waste, while monitoring each stage of a product’s life-cycle -from the time natural resources are extracted and processed through each subsequent stage of manufacturing, use of clean energy, water efficiency, transportation and ultimately, disposal. Regulators too are pushing towards more circular products, meaning products that can be reused or recycled into something else after their first use.
From 1st June 2022, Abu Dhabi government banned the use of single-use plastic grocery bags, with plans to launch Bottle Return Scheme as well as a ban on Styrofoam products in 2024.  Other Emirates too have announced regulations to limit use of plastic.  Her Excellency Dr. Shaikha Salem Al Dhaheri, Secretary General of the  Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi (EAD) said: “In Abu Dhabi, we have seen an unprecedented reduction in single-use plastic bags since the implementation on the ban just one year ago. To date we can safely say that we have prevented 172 million single-use plastic bags from entering and harming the environment.”  
The UAE will enforce a blanket ban on single-use plastic shopping bags from January 1, 2024.  This will serve as the prelude to banning products made of single-use materials. From January 1, 2026, the country will ban plastic or foam products like cups, plates, cutlery, containers, and boxes.  The decision excludes some products, including thin bag rolls used to keep food items fresh. Products that are to be exported or re-exported are exempted, provided they are clearly labelled. Bags made from recycled materials in the country are exempted as well.
In an interview with Lakshmanan Ganapathy, General Manager of Al Ghurair Printing and Publishing, one of the largest printing houses in the UAE, said: “Sustainability is the future, and we are seeing an increased demand from customers for sustainable products.  The government too is providing all support and encouragement to companies offering planet-friendly solutions.  Today, one cannot win orders from leading brands without giving them sustainable options like FSC certified or recycled papers.  We have invested in high tech, automated machines to produce inmold labels, kraft paper bags and collapsible boxes.   The advantage of inmold labels is that it is made of the same material as the tub or packaging–namely polypropylene, and that makes the product a monomer, making it easy to recycle. Earlier, such inmold label packaging was being imported from Turkey.  Al Ghurair now supplies over 1 million inmold labels every month to a leading dairy and juice company.  We have also captured about 50% to 60% market share for inmold labels in Saudi Arabia.”
In another initiative, Al Ghurair produces Kraft paper bags with paper manufactured from agricultural waste and had bagged an order to supply 2 million Kraft paper bags to Expo 2020.  “We have been buying between 25 to 50 tonnes of paper from envoPAP every month and these Kraft paper bags are supplied to leading retail outlets across the UAE. Contrary to popular belief, these bags are quite strong and produced from paper that is made from waste, using clean energy.” Al Ghurair also purchases 2000 to 3000 tonnes of wood free paper from Etihad Paper Mills, which is used to manufacture schoolbooks. “80% of our wood free paper is purchased from Etihad mills,” adds Ganapathy. “Before Al Ghurair invested in the automated machine, collapsible boxes were being produced manually, which along with being labour intensive, had a higher cost of production. Collapsible boxes are as strong as the rigid boxes.  We are supplying 100,000 boxes every month to a leading real estate and automotive company. This initiative, along with being an import substitute, reduces the carbon footprint greatly since the entire manufacturing process is local.” 
Manufacturing inmold labels, kraft paper bags, using wood-free, recycled and paper made from agricultural waste has given Al Ghurair a high ICV (In-country Value) rating since they are manufacturing import substitute products.  “The 60% ICV rating that we have received helps us bag orders from Government organizations like ADNOC or Expo 2020 among others,” concluded Ganapathy.
Though many consumer product companies have announced sustainability commitments, the higher cost of recycled materials poses a challenge and customers are reluctant to replace current packaging operations. “The moment we hear the word sustainability, the prices go up,” explains Jenson George, MD of Carbon Middle East, a consulting and project management company for manufacturers and packaging converters.  “What we do is provide business models offering solutions to make sustainable packaging economically viable – it could be in terms of technology, materials, or consulting and advisory. It’s not a black and white situation – one needs to weigh which is the lesser evil, like for example if the paper bag cannot hold weight, it would not serve the purpose, and at the same time, PET or PP, if recycled can be an amazing product but for that to happen the consumers need play a primary role in segregating waste. Also, if labels and packaging come from the same family, that makes sorting much easier.” 
“Many materials lose their properties when they are recycled many times,” continues George. “PET is the magic material that can retain its qualities even after multiple recycles, but polystyrene is one of the most unnecessary plastic packaging, that poses a great threat to the environment, humans, and wildlife. Polystyrene cutlery for example can be replaced with many materials.  The only reason polystyrene exists is that it is 2 fils cheaper.  PET is a far superior material than polystyrene, and both come from the same family, so migrating to PET does not need equipment to be changed at all.  Granules can be bought at a slightly higher price per kilo and the selling price is not affected at all. This shift to sustainable materials does not always burn a hole in the pocket.” 
Many multinational companies are leading the way in taking concrete steps in replacing virgin plastics and increasing recyclability.  Nestle has announced that 95% of its plastic packaging will be designed for recycling by 2025, while Apple has committed to eliminating plastics from their packaging by 2025 and transitioning to recycled and renewable plastics. Bobst too has developed recycle-ready flexible packaging called oneBarrier as an alternative to the non-recyclable metallized polyester film. 

“Customers in the Middle East are showing a growing interest in mono-material, fibre-based packaging like oneBarrier,” explains Mohamed Hassairi, Bobst Africa & Middle East “This interest is driven by the desire to reduce environmental impact and meet sustainability goals. While there may be a slight price difference between one Barrier and traditional flexo packaging, due to the different materials and manufacturing processes involved; the long-term benefits of sustainability, reduced environmental footprint, and potential marketing advantages make it a worthwhile investment for many businesses.”

Sustainable waste management forms a central part of a broader circular economy, offering direct solutions to the immense problems that waste creates.  India based manufacturers, envoPAP supplies paper made from agricultural fibre, giving ‘agriculture waste a second life’.
In an interview with Gulf Print & Pack, Nilesh Chudasama, VP – materials said: “We do not need to cut down trees to manufacture paper.  Wood extracted from trees can be used where it’s essential like construction, infrastructure etc. Our paper for example, is made from by-products of the agriculture industry and can be used for food-grade applications.  We have US FDA and German BFR certifications and are currently shipping to over 60 countries all over the world. Our paper used by some of the world’s leading brands.  Innovation plays a big role in bringing change and we all need to do our bit to reduce waste and recycle consciously.”

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