India’s ban on single-use plastic rolls out on July 1. Yet, makers of packed juices, fizzy drinks and milk-based beverages are still struggling to find a sustainable, cost-effective alternative to plastic straws.
Companies such as Parle Agro Pvt., Amul, PepsiCo Inc., Dabur Ltd. and Mother Dairy are wary as the industry requires more than 600 crore straws annually. At risk is the demand from fast-selling affordable packs of buttermilk and lassi to fruit juices priced below Rs 30. According to industry estimates, low-value units including such packs contribute 40-50% to the beverage market sales.
As the deadline draws near, companies are importing paper straws but have run into global shortage and higher costs.
“The infrastructure for producing both biodegradable plastic straws and paper straws at scale is non-existent in India today,” said Shahrukh Khan, executive director (operations) at Dabur India Ltd., which sells Real fruit juice packs priced at Rs 10. “We would be able to cover only 10-15% of our requirement with the imported paper straws as there is a huge global demand-supply gap.”
According to Khan, plastic straws that come with juice and milk-based drink packs do not contribute as much to plastic pollution since they are part of a recycling and processing chain put in place by companies in compliance with the Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016.
“Independent surveys have pointed out that plastic straws account for less than 0.1% of total plastic consumption,” he said. Khan hopes the government extends the date of the ban till the infrastructure for producing paper straws locally is developed.
The country currently has zero capacity to produce compostable and recyclable plastic straws, according to Praveen Aggarwal, chief executive officer at Action Alliance for Recycling Beverage Cartons, which represents beverage makers including Dabur, Parle and PepsiCo.
Lack of commercially viable alternatives could lead to losses worth Rs 3,000 crore in sales for the industry, he said.
“But work is under progress to introduce bio-compostable polylactic acid or PLA straws,” Aggarwal said over the phone. “Orders for machines to manufacture such straws locally have been placed, but the production would begin at the end of this year.”
PLA straws look and feel like plastic straws but are a bioplastic made from corn starch and are compostable. Unlike paper straws, the plant-based PLA straws don’t get soggy when wet. But, it is more expensive.
Another alternative is shipping products without a straw. That, however, would compromise hygiene and it doesn’t make the products “convenient”.
The transition is expected to take 12-18 months as these straws also require approval from agencies, including the Bureau of Indian Standards and the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India, Aggarwal said, calling for the deadline to be extended.