Success Story — How they reduced packaging waste in Auroville, India

By Minhaj AmeenonNov. 03, 2018in Economics and Technologies

A large proportion of consumer packaging is made from a variant of plastic. Nearly 50% of the plastic waste generated globally in 2015 was plastic packaging. According to the UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme), “researchers estimate that more than 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced since the early 1950s. About 60% of that plastic has ended up in either a landfill or the natural environment.” Plastic does not biodegrade, and its chemicals pollute the natural environment including our water bodies. Furthermore, over time plastic breaks down into finer particles called microplastic that enters the food chain; ultimately finding its way into our bodies.

A Significant reduction in packaging waste for consumer products is possible with a little bit of effort and consumer awareness. I want to share the remarkable achievements made by one such place, Auroville.

Auroville is a spiritual community, and an eco-village, located near Puducherry in South India. It has around 2,500 residents from 45 different nations and a floating population of guests, interns and volunteers of another 1,000 people.

The community has always been conscious of waste generation and management, and has been collecting, segregating and processing its waste for over 20 years. Each housing locality segregates its waste into 6 categories which is then collected and processed further by community’s EcoService.

Twelve years ago, the Auroville had started another service for its residents called Pour Tous (‘for all’ in French) Distribution Centre (PTDC) to supply basic food and consumer essentials to its members. From the outset, the founders of the service were concerned about the packaging waste and were experimenting with ideas on how to reduce it.

Our organisation, earth&us collaborated with PTDC in trying different possibilities and helped build some of the solutions.

Here’s how it was done

Grain dispensers

Grain items are being provided through air-tight and insect proof bin-dispensers. Initially, we had imported two dispensers from the USA to test the idea. Subsequently, more were made locally with plexiglass. And now, the plan is to put 10 more large steel jars for other grains, from which community members can fill the bags they bring from their home or use a paper bag available at the store.

Loose snacks

Snacks are kept loose in airtight plastic containers and can be taken in paper bags, with the product code printed on it, kept next to the container.

Loose bread

High quality bread without packaging is available at the bread stand and consumers take a portion from the loaf and wrap it in biodegradable paper.

Packaging free soap

Most of the soaps made locally are now available without packaging and are kept in plastic containers and can be taken in paper bags placed next to the container.

Packaging free liquid soap and cleaning agents

A variety of liquid soaps and cleaning agents are stored in barrels with a tap. Consumers bring their own reusable bottle for a refill.

Reusable glass jars and milk containers

A number of items including jams, pickles, hummus, tahini, curd that are made locally are supplied in reusable glass jars. Three years ago PTDC also started supplying pasteurised milk in reusable plastic containers.

Used-packaging collection counter

Local producers accept returned glass jars, glass and plastic bottles and plastic containers. There is a segregation facility right outside the PTDC for consumers to deposit empty packaging for use.

The segregation facility also accepts segregated wax, CFL bulbs, batteries and Tetra packs for further processing and disposal.

Used bottles and containers collected for reuse

Used-packaging collection counter

How is this possible?

Considering where India and the rest of the world is with active reduction of product packaging, what has been achieved in Auroville makes for a great case study to learn from and identify opportunities to pilot and replicate these solutions. Here are some of the success factors in my view.

Incremental approach

Not all the initiatives covered above were implemented at the same time. The bread counter with biodegradable paper came first as the community was used to this from the local bakery. The snack counter came next, followed by the used-packaging collection counter outside the store. The soap and cleaning agent producers were encouraged and supported when they came with non-packaged products. And finally, the grain bins were installed.

Quality products

It was ensured that the loose products were as good of a quality if not better than the packaged products. It was easy to ensure this as most of them are produced locally and the vendors are known to the service providers.

Regular contact with waste collection team — Eco Service

PTDC sought constant feedback from the Eco Service on which packaging is not recyclable and then look for substitutes. One such product was mushrooms that came in plastic trays which were difficult to process. They negotiated with the vendor who agreed to supply them in cardboard trays.

Enabling consumers

Consumers were supported in getting used to carrying un-packaged products. Brown paper bags are always available to carry things if they forget to bring a reusable bag from home. The option of borrowing empty bottles, from the used-packaging collection counter outside, to take liquid soap and cleaning agent made it easy for the consumers.

Clear and passionate communication

Regular communication through the local weekly newspaper News&Notes, and the intranet on waste and related issues has been around for many years. The consumers are highly sensitised and primed for a nudge for behaviour change. So when new initiatives are introduced, they are more receptive and willing to be part of the trial and error process that precedes a successful implementation.

Producers such as ITCUnilever and P&G and retailers BigBazaar and Reliance Retail can examine this case study further to explore workable possibilities for scaling such solutions in India.

Interesting short reads: Fact Sheet: Single-Use PlasticsZero Waste Shop in Goa.

Courtesy of PTDC, Auroville

First published on Medium on Sep. 28, 2018

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