Becoming water-positive and plastic-neutral

New Delhi (IANSlife) At this point in our lives, we are all aware of how the use of plastic can have a negative impact on both one’s life and the environment. However, the increased awareness of the necessity of eliminating single-use plastic through new channels, as well as climate change activists, has resulted in a paradigm shift in how individuals process their thoughts, even when switching simple items in our everyday lives. For example, instead of using a plastic straw, use a bamboo straw.

And, more recently, Bisleri International Pvt Ltd, one of India’s largest packaged drinking water firms has strengthened its sustainability strategy by launching ‘Bisleri Greener Promise’.

In light of this, Angelo George, CEO of Bisleri International, speaks to IANSlife about how Bisleri’s upcycling method benefits the environment

Read Excerpt:

What does sustainability mean to the brand?

Angelo: Sustainability is embedded in the core of Bisleri International’s business strategy. Our approach to business revolves around creating sustainable solutions that address environmental challenges and drive growth. Our commitment to sustainability is based on its core principle, the Bisleri Greener Promise which aims to build a greener future through programs focused on water conservation, recycling, and sustainability. At the heart of this philosophy is the belief that Bisleri should replenish more natural resources than it consumes. This goal is achieved through initiatives such as Project NayiUmeed and Bottles for Change, which make the company water-positive and plastic-neutral, respectively.

How is the company attempting to reduce its environmental footprint and actively promote sustainable practices throughout its operations?

Angelo: At Bisleri, we are committed to ensuring sustainability while maintaining business profitability. We have adopted a strategy of conserving natural resources and building a circular economy.

Our business strategy factors responsible extraction of the groundwater. Instead of large plants at central locations to maximize scale efficiencies, we have plants spread across the country, closer to consumption centres to extract groundwater evenly. Proximity to markets reduces the carbon footprint of transportation as well. We are a country blessed with excellent rainfall and it’s too precious a resource to be allowed to drain off. All plants have robust rainwater harvesting systems and we adopt water bodies nearby to recharge groundwater. Our manufacturing processes convert > 90 per cent of processed water into finished goods. It must be noted that domestic RO systems salvage just about 60 per cent and 40 per cent of water is wasted! In rural areas, we build check dams to conserve rainwater for irrigation to help villagers.

All our packaging is 100 per cent recyclable. Our approach has been to reduce virgin plastic consumption and ensure the repurposing of used plastic. Through design innovations, we reduced virgin plastic by 10 per cent last year. Our focus on reusable containers has made this segment almost 30 per cent of our portfolio. We managed to reduce the carbon footprint by over 40,000MT last year. We collaborate with Municipal bodies, NGOs, Aggregators, and Recyclers to ensure the recycling of used plastic. We’ve invested in solar panels and electric delivery vehicles to further decrease our carbon footprint and operational costs.

These efforts have made us water-positive and plastic-neutral, and we’ll continue to explore innovative ways to ensure sustainability while maintaining profitability.

Tell us more about how the company collects and processes PET bottles into an upcycled product.

Angelo: As an organization, we recycle more plastic than we consume. We have always believed in the value of used plastic and circularity. Bisleri was one of the pioneers in India to start plastic recycling in the 90s, with an imported machine from Japan and we are passionate about it.

I believe being plastic-neutral is about demonstrating the accountability of containing the scale of the problem. However, the story isn’t complete without plastic circularity – when used plastic is collected, recycled, and reintroduced into the consumption cycle.

There are three issues to be addressed to achieve plastic circularity: proper disposal of used plastic, collection process, and value-added repurposing.

In 2018, we launched the ‘Bottles For Change’ program to raise awareness that used plastic is a valuable resource that can be recycled. We educate people about the responsible disposal of used plastic and provide enabling systems to ensure it is sent directly for recycling.

We advocate a three-stage process – clean the used plastic, segregate it at the source, and send it directly for recycling. We also provide collection infrastructure to ensure used plastic reaches recyclers directly and does not end up in landfills. The program is active in seven cities and we have managed to reach over 600,000 people so far. The footprint covers some of the largest corporates, educational institutions, and housing societies in India. We have also introduced a user-friendly mobile app that allows individuals and organisations to register for the program. Through the app, users can easily locate nearby plastic agents to collect the clean and segregated plastic, which is then sold to recyclers.

Once collected, PET waste is sorted, cleaned, and treated to remove other materials like caps, rings, or labels. The bottles are washed using a combination of hot and cold water and then processed through a PET treatment plant that is specially designed for the purpose of recycling. Any irregular lumps or blocks of materials are crushed to produce flakes, which are then dried, mixed with pigments, extruded, and spun into filaments. These filaments are then cooled, collected, stretched, crimped, heat-treated, and cut into desired lengths depending on the final product For example, for an apparel, the fibers are spun into yarn, wound onto bobbins, and woven into the fabric. It is then finished and dyed if necessary. Finally, the material is stitched to create various merchandise such as T-shirts and backpacks.

Through the ‘Bottles for Change’ program, we promote sustainability and create employment opportunities for rag pickers, aggregators, and recyclers who repurpose used plastic to create higher-value items.

Explain the concept of circular economy and how Bisleri’s upcycling initiative contributes to it by reducing waste and promoting the reuse of materials.

Angelo: A circular economy is an economic system that aims to keep resources in use for as long as possible and eliminate waste. This approach contrasts with a linear economy, where resources are extracted, used, and disposed of as waste. The circular economy is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems. The adoption of a circular economy can contribute to sustainable development and the transition to a low-carbon, resource-efficient economy.

A circular economy is an approach that prioritizes the restoration and reuse of materials in a continuous loop. For example, recycling breaks down materials like plastic into their original form, allowing them to be used again in the creation of new products. This approach not only eliminates waste but also reduces the demand for virgin plastic. The benefits of this process are numerous, including mitigating environmental pollution, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and alleviating resource stress.

At Bisleri, we believe that used plastic is a valuable resource that can be recycled. We believe that behavioural change in consumption is essential for ensuring the success of the circular economy.

We focus on consumer education to ensure proper disposal and also enable the collection of used plastic and upcycling it into new products, such as apparel, benches, and utility items. By upcycling, we’re reducing the demand for virgin plastic needed to create new products. Additionally, these initiatives create employment opportunities for waste collectors and recyclers, contributing to sustainable development and the local economy. For instance, PET bottles that are typically sold for Rs 15 per kg can be converted into apparel that sells for over Rs. 1000. Value-added products are greatly appreciated in our country. Repurposed products of higher value will attract greater investments in circularity, creating a virtuous cycle.

How has the desire for a more sustainable living influenced consumer behaviour?

Angelo: Consumer behaviour is undergoing a transformational change. Increasing awareness about environmental and social concerns is driving consumers to become more conscious of their purchasing decisions. Consumers worldwide are now looking for products and services with a minimal impact on the environment. They expect businesses to play an active role in driving positive change and being responsible for the social and environmental consequences of their operations, alongside governments and other stakeholders.

This trend is evident across several industries, most notably consumer goods, food and beverages, fashion, and mobility. Consumers are increasingly preferring local and organic food, reusable products, energy-efficient appliances, and renewable energy sources. They are engaging in conversations and initiatives around recycling, water conservation, biodiversity, organic produce, and ethical sourcing. Brands that prioritise sustainability and continuously seek sustainable innovation are becoming front-runners in consumers’ purchasing decisions.

Tell us more about the ‘Bottles For Change’ campaign.

Angelo: The ‘Bottles For Change’ campaign is part of Bisleri’s broader sustainability commitment, the Bisleri Greener Promise, which aims to provide a greener future for all. The initiative aims to raise awareness among people about the value of used plastic as a resource, encouraging them to segregate and dispose of it responsibly to prevent it from ending up in landfills or oceans. The campaign focuses on educating people on how to clean and segregate all types of plastic, which are then sold to local ragpickers, who, in turn, sell it to recyclers, generating more value as used plastic is converted into higher-value products.

Since its launch, the ‘Bottles for Change’ initiative has made significant progress, engaging with over 600,000 citizens across seven cities and 13 Municipal corporations.

The program’s footprint covers more than 3500 housing societies, 680 educational institutions, 790 corporates, and 600 hotels and restaurants. Bisleri plans to expand the program’s reach to more cities, such as Bengaluru, Hyderabad, and Pune, and promote sustainability while creating employment opportunities for ragpickers, aggregators, and recyclers. All profits from the initiative are dedicated to improving the lives of the ragpickers.

We have also released our sustainability report with ambitious targets for 2025. We plan to extend the ‘Bottles for Change’ program to cover 20 major cities and collect and recycle 12,500MT of plastic through the program by 2025.

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