Pocket-Sized Mountain of Trouble
By Shanuka Kadupitiyage
Looking back at last year, you would remember a major incident that caused massive uproar among the public on the shore of Mount Lavinia beach (besides the failed seashore reclamation fiasco), and that is the large volumes of waste washing up on the shore of Mount Lavinia beach, of which a huge quantity was plastic waste. Following massive public outcry in the wake of this fiasco, authorities took steps to speed up the implementation of new regulations regarding plastic use in the country.
A year later, news comes out of a new set of regulations outlining the use of plastics, banning the use of several polythene and plastic packaging materials for any process, trade or industry. As a result, the use of PET or PVC materials for packaging agriculture related products, sachet packets having less than or equal to a net volume or weight of 20 ml or 20 g (except for packing food and medicine) were banned.
The announcement of this new regulation was made with a grace period given until 31 March 2021 to fall in line with this new regulation.
Almost a month and a half later, I stepped inside my neighbourhood store, and was greeted with the usual sight of a plethora of sachets, still hung out, waiting to be purchased by customers.
It was the same story in all of the other neighbourhood stores I visited, curious to see if any other store nearby had taken notice of the new regulation regarding the use and sale of sachet packets. Sadly, I had little success. Seems that the newly enacted regulation has met the same fate of many other such regulations; enacted, only to become inactive.
Champion or exploiter?
If you have been paying attention to the ongoing conversation about plastics and its impact on the environment, you would be aware of how damaging the use of sachets is to the environment and our health. First introduced to the consumer market by companies targeting the daily-wage earners and those who are found in the lowest strata of the income pyramid, no one can deny that sachets make plenty of business sense.
By selling in smaller quantities, companies can sell their products at cheaper prices, making them more accessible. Not only that, marketing campaigns from companies that offer sachet packs point out that you’ll actually be saving money by using sachets, because of their cheaper price. Also, they argue that you wouldn’t waste as much compared to when you’re not using a sachet – all arguments that resonate well with consumers of Developing Nations such as those found in South and South-East Asia, among the people where every rupee, peso and kyat counts.
By making such a point, companies that offer sachet packets sound almost as if they are the ‘champion’ of the common man. Almost too good to be true.
Unfortunately, the sachet packets being used today, touted to be for the benefit of the everyman, blatantly advertised to have stunningly affordable prices in bold lettering, is no champion. In fact, this false hero might be one of the biggest exploiters of the common people, without them even realising it.
“Companies claim that they provide sachet packets as a service to the public,” explained Executive Director, Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) Sri Lanka, Hemantha Withanage. “But in reality, their real objective is to establish bigger market shares using more accessible prices. In fact, it is these people that are put under threat because of using and throwing away sachet packets to the environment.”
Similar sentiments were shared by Director of Solid Waste from the Central Environmental Authority, Sarojani Jayasekara.
“It is a popular argument,” she said. “But in our experience, a person would not have any economic benefit at all. When you use sachets, you can’t get all the contents inside to use, unlike in a bottle. For example, when considering shampoo, you can always mix more water in the bottle to maximise your usage of shampoo, something you can’t do with a sachet.”
Wanting to find out if there really is a benefit in using the sachet, I set out to scour a few neighbourhood stores as well as a local supermarket to gather some data.
Numbers don’t lie
Looking at most of the sachets on offer in stores, it was clear that there was a huge demand for sachets of shampoo. Needless to say, shampoos aren’t the only product that offers sachets, but it would serve to be a decent enough benchmark. Of course, you’re free to try your own experiment.
Most shampoos offer sachets of 6 ml for just Rs 8. Which would mean that you’re paying 75 cents for each millilitre of shampoo you purchase using sachets.
Things got a little bit difficult when it came to their bottled versions though, with some varying price tags. However, taking only the bottles counterparts of the shampoo sachets, and applying some simple mathematics, the average price for 180 ml of bottled shampoo came close to around Rs 255.
A small calculation shows that 1 ml of bottled shampoo is priced at around 70 cents.
Numbers don’t lie, and it’s clear that going for the bottle is in fact cheaper. It’s true that the difference of five cents doesn’t add up to much, but it is proof that there really is no long-term economic benefit to using sachets in the first place.
An environmental crisis for no consumer benefit
Although the use (or non-use) of sachets makes very little difference to your wallet, it has a massive impact on the environment.
“We receive reports from clean-up projects that happen near bodies of water such as rivers, that show a lot of sachet packets are carelessly discarded into the environment,” Jayasekara said.
“A lot of people bathe in the rivers and tanks, but they weren’t polluted like they are today. It’s because people have grown accustomed to the ‘throw-away economy.’”
Unlike plastic bottles, sachet packets are made out of printed plastic and cannot be recycled. Also, they easily break down and pollute the environment as microplastics; when plastics are broken apart into miniscule particles that are unseen to the human eye. They contaminate water and food we drink and eat every day.
“While we are still acquiring the needed equipment to conduct more extensive research, even our rudimentary tests have confirmed that many bodies of water in Sri Lanka have already been contaminated with microplastics,” she said.
Microplastic contamination has become a major issue in the world today, affecting people and the environment on a global scale. While plastic bottles also contribute, Jayasekara points out that it is the lesser evil compared to the massive harm sachets have caused.
Bottles are better
It’s less likely that you’ll throw an empty bottle of shampoo after its use than it is with a sachet. More often than not, you’ll take it home with you, reusing it for some other purpose or handing it over to the trash collector.
Either way, by doing so, you’ll be keeping plastics from uncontrollably contaminating the environment, according to Director Jayasekara.
“Instead of sachet packets, it would be better to introduce small bottles,” Withanage opined. “They are recyclable, unlike sachet packets. The act of producing sachets is wasteful.”
He was quick to point out that using bottles instead of sachets will help in creating a circular economy, where we can minimise the plastic and carbon footprint made.
Refill and recycle
Bottles can be recycled. But they can also be refilled. If you have a bottle that’s perfectly fine, all you need is a way to refill it with the product you need; be it shampoo, detergent or even dishwashing liquid. That way, fewer bottles need to be used, drastically reducing the use of plastic overall, and saving manufacturing costs as well. Not only that, you won’t have to worry about recycling costs either.
This is a concept that has seen major success in countries throughout the world. We learnt from Withanage that plans are already underway to introduce this concept to the consumer market in Sri Lanka, and that it can play a major role in making Sri Lanka a sachet minimal country.
Is the 20 ml rule worth it?
“In my opinion, we should bring it up to at least 50 ml,” Withanage said. “Because there really is no point in enforcing this regulation otherwise. 20 ml is a miniscule packet. If the market provides products in larger quantities, I’m sure people will purchase it.”
Withanage’s words ring true. While important, the newly announced regulation will only affect a small fraction of the many products offered as sachets.
Not only that, we also have major corporations finding workarounds for this newly-imposed regulation, to stick to their dirty habits.
Ceylon Today was informed that the grace period before the enactment of the new regulations has been extended unofficially on request, and will be put into effect afterwards. However, recent actions by manufacturers have started to raise concerns over the efficacy of such regulations being implemented.
With sachet packets below the weight and volume 20 ml and 20 g being prohibited, one multinational company has begun producing 24 ml sachet packs of their products, by fusing their usual 6 ml sachets together, into what can be called a ‘combo pack.’
We were informed that State officials were outraged at the news of this happening. “The new regulations were made to reduce the amount of plastics being discarded into the environment. What they have done is technically legal. But through this underhand move, more plastic will be used and thrown away,” Withanage explained, assuring us that action will be taken against this exploitation of legal loopholes.
“The carbon and plastic footprint created by companies that produce these sachet packets is massive. Companies like to showcase that they are ‘green,’ but for a company to be sustainable, they have to minimise the waste they create…we all have to share the environmental impact of this.”
Although consumers pay to consume content from Media companies like Ceylon Today and other newspapers, television and radio stations, most of the money needed to function comes from advertising and sponsorship. The Media is heavily reliant on them.
More often than not, these sponsorships come from major corporations, who use this advantage as leverage. Because of that, Ceylon Today and other mainstream media cannot reveal the name of the company who’s responsible. The same goes for other major corporations and their malicious practices (aflatoxin anybody?).
It’s not just the Media that is affected by these corporations. Ceylon Today discovered news of Vega Design Studios (remember the electric supercar?) unveiling a refilling machine that can be used as a solution for the prevailing sachet problem through one of their Facebook posts.
Contacting Vega to learn more, we found that even high-level executives of Vega were reluctant to reveal anything about this valuable new machine without prior permission from one such major corporation.
An educated guess suggests that this corporation is sponsoring the production of these units with the goal of unveiling these with major Media fanfare in the near future, as a publicity stunt to showcase their commitment to ‘going green.’
More regulations on the way
The fight against sachets is far from over. Besides the regulations in place, Withanage informed us of plans already underway to introduce stricter regulations to limit the use of sachet products.
However, you can also assist in making the change. “The customer is always right.” Your purchases have power and so does your opinion.