India’s food processing sector is one of the largest in the world, and its output is expected to reach $535 Bn by 2025-26. In particular, the Indian food and beverage packaging industry, with an annual growth of 14.8%, is projected to reach $86 Bn in 2029. This dynamic industry includes various items like containers, cups, tableware, straws, bags, wraps, and boxes designed to safeguard or encase food. Due to its perishable nature, a considerable portion of food loss occurs in the supply chain caused by various environmental factors, such as moisture, oxidation, thermal degradation, or microbial contamination. With the increasing urban population, tackling this challenge becomes more evident, highlighting the need for efficient food packaging to make it easier to transport, store, and consume food products.

The food and beverage industry is one of the largest users of sustainable packaging among all other industries. Sustainable packaging involves the creation and use of packaging materials that have minimal environmental impact throughout their life cycle. It includes using eco-friendly and renewable materials, reducing waste, and mitigating the carbon footprint associated with product packaging, transportation, and disposal. The primary goal of sustainable packaging is to protect the product while simultaneously minimising the environmental impact of the packaging. 

The food processing industry has seen impressive innovation in terms of packaging. The eco-friendly food packaging market is categorised based on material selection, application, type, and technique. Materials include paper & paperboard, bioplastics, metal, and glass, among others. Applications range from bakery and confectionery to meat, fish, poultry, fruits, vegetables, dairy, beverages, and convenience foods. Techniques employed encompass active packaging, moulded packaging, and multipurpose packaging. At each level, a shift towards green packaging is seen through “the use of materials that are biodegradable, recyclable, or compostable, and designs that are efficient, reusable, or refillable.” The emerging trends in the biodegradable packaging include:

  1. Corn Plastic: Using corn kernels to create a biodegradable plastic from PLA, an industrial resin. 

  1. Bamboo: One of the fastest-growing plants, making it an excellent alternative to paper and plastic is being widely used for eco-friendly cutlery like spoons, fork, knife, straws, cup, etc. 

  1. Wood and Plant Fibres: Cellulose from plant matter and wood pulp is used to create biodegradable packaging material and paper, which can be easily recycled into other paper products. 

  1. Mushroom: Mycelium, the thread-like roots of mushrooms and other fungi, is mixed with seed husks to create an eco-friendly substitute for polystyrene or styrofoam packaging. 

Ongoing research is also focused on developing frontier technologies to present revolutionary solutions to age-old challenges:

  1. IoT (Internet of Things): IoT devices significantly improve supply chain transparency. Real-time tracking and inventory management play a crucial role in ensuring the freshness and timely delivery of food. 

  1. AI-powered forecasting: AI processes extensive datasets, enhancing the accuracy of demand predictions. 

  1. Blockchain: Ensuring transparency and security in food sourcing and distribution is critical. Blockchain offers verifiable records, fostering consumer trust—an invaluable advantage for professionals in the packaging industry. 

Given the vast potential of the food processing and packaging industry, the Government of India has taken several steps towards facilitating ease of doing business and investments in this sector. Notable initiatives such as the Plastic Waste Management Rules and Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) framework play a crucial role in promoting environmentally friendly packaging, fostering recycling and waste management, and holding manufacturers responsible for their packaging waste. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has notified the Food Safety and Standards (Packaging) Regulations, 2018, prescribing general and specific requirements for food packaging to ensure materials used for packaging are in adherence to various national and international standards. Some regulatory measures taken by FSSAI to reduce Food and Beverage Industry’s plastic footprint include:  

  1. Allowing use of other food grade packaging material like paper, glass, metal alloys for packing water 

  1. Issuing guidelines for use of bamboo as food contact material 

  1. Allowing serving drinking water in paper-sealed reusable glass bottles for captive use within the hotel premises, subject to certain conditions 

Additionally, the Ministry of Food Processing Industries (MoFPI) has introduced several programs: 

  1. Pradhan Mantri Kisan SAMPADA Yojana (PMKSY) is a comprehensive scheme which aims to modernise infrastructure and enhance supply chain management from farm to retail, boosting the food processing sector. It contains several component schemes such as Integrated Cold Chain and Value Addition Infrastructure, Creation of Infrastructure for Agro Processing Cluster (APC), and Creation/ Expansion of Food Processing And Preservation Capacities (CEFPPC), among others which provide credit linked financial assistance in forms of grants to entrepreneurs for setting up of food processing projects across the country. PMKSY scheme is expected to leverage investment of INR 11,095.93 Cr, benefiting 28,49,945 farmers and generating 5,44,432 direct/indirect employment in the country by the year 2025-26.

  1. The PM Formalization of Micro Food Processing Enterprises (PMFME) scheme has been launched with an outlay of INR 10,000 Cr for a period of five years, from 2020-21 to 2024-25. It offers financial, technical, and business assistance for establishing or upgrading micro food processing enterprises. So far, a total of 43014 micro food processing enterprises have been sanctioned for assistance in the country.

  1. The Production Linked Incentive Scheme for Food Processing Industry (PLISFPI), with an outlay of INR 10,900 Cr, has been implemented from 2021-22 to 2026-27 for enhancing India’s manufacturing capabilities. The scheme aids in enhancing industry capacity, incentivising strong Indian brand growth, and increasing the global presence of Indian food brands. As on 11 August 2023, a total investment of INR 7800.53 Cr has been committed in projects located across the country under the scheme.

The food processing sector is a priority under the Make in India initiative. To attract investments, the Ministry of Food Processing Industry is implementing schemes to develop infrastructure for food processing industries. This includes promoting Mega Food Parks in areas rich in agricultural resources, providing common facilities such as roads, electricity, water supply, sewage, and processing amenities like pulping, packaging, cold storage, dry storage, and logistics. 

To tap into this sector, businesses are leveraging research and development, enhancing technologies, and innovating efficient disposal methods. ITC Limited has introduced FiloBev, a food-grade board that is 100% recyclable. Nestle aims to make all its plastic packaging recyclable and achieve a recycling rate of over 95% by 2025. The Government of India has identified and prohibited single-use plastic items, which have low utility and high littering potential, with effect from 1st July, 2022. The Extended Producers Responsibility guidelines mandate sustainable plastic packaging to reduce plastic footprint and put forth a framework to strengthen the circular economy of plastic packaging waste, promote the development of new alternatives to plastics and provide next steps for moving towards sustainable plastic packaging by businesses. With the support of government policies and compliance regulations, India is a fertile soil for investments in the sustainable food packaging sector. 

Global consumer preferences and sustainability considerations are rapidly changing. A 2020 global survey revealed that a significant majority, around 79% of consumers, are adjusting their buying choices based on factors like social responsibility, inclusivity, and environmental impact. The research also reveals that a notable portion of consumers, specifically 53% overall and 57% in the 18-24 age group, are gravitating towards lesser-known brands that showcase sustainable practices. Additionally, over half of consumers, accounting for 52%, express forming an emotional connection with products or organisations perceived as sustainable. Particularly for India, it was found that 66% of the respondents from India have switched to lesser-known brands whose products or practices they perceive as more sustainable. This not only underscores the increasing significance of sustainable packaging but also underscores the profound impact of sustainability on consumer purchasing decisions.

In today's environmentally conscious world, sustainable packaging is essential for minimising the adverse effects of packaging materials on the environment. It significantly reduces waste by employing biodegradable, recyclable, or compostable materials, contributing to a circular economy. Additionally, sustainable packaging lowers the carbon footprint, as materials like biodegradable plastics require less energy and water during production. This helps mitigate climate change. Furthermore, embracing sustainable packaging practices enhances customer loyalty, as consumers are increasingly supporting businesses aligned with eco-friendly values. 

India has taken significant strides to address environmental concerns, particularly by supporting sustainable packaging solutions, including the use of biodegradable materials, the establishment of a robust recycling infrastructure, and the promotion of reusable containers. India aims to reduce its projected carbon emissions by one billion tonnes by 2030 and decrease the carbon intensity of its economy by 45% by 2030. The country also aspires to achieve net-zero emissions by 2070. By fostering collaboration between the government, businesses, and consumers, a substantial reduction in food waste can be achieved, paving the way for a sustainable India.

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