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Ocean Watch: Sri Lanka’s sachet addiction

Sri Lanka will soon be subject to a ban on a selection of sachets in our market. Sachet usage has been rising in Sri Lanka and other developing, low-income nations. Exponential environmental and economic impacts have been evidenced as a result of increased consumption.

The concept of a sachet dates back to the Han Dynasty in China and has evolved to be a commercial mechanism to sell products in lower quantities at cheaper prices. Originally, sachets were made of cloth and wool and were carried around predominantly as scented and aromatic pouches. However, modern-day sachets have become heavily commercialised to cater towards low-income consumer needs.

While many products such as tea bags, medicine, herbs, and spice mixes have been sold in sachets, a solitary type of sachet has emerged drastically during the past several decades. Present-day sachets are predominantly made of multi-layered plastic and can be seen in almost any supermarket, fast food restaurant, coffee shop, or pharmacy.

“A Plastic Planet”, a movement against the use of plastic, has revealed that 855 billion sachets are used every year globally by food and home care brands. Comparisons have been drawn to the number of sachets used per year, as being able to cover the entire surface of Earth. It is estimated that if sachet production continues at the current production rates without any regulation, the world will see a trillion sachets used by 2030.

 

Positive and negative attributes

Sachets are mostly used by low-income populations and are prevalent in African, South Asian, and Southeast Asian countries. While Southeast Asia is known to contribute towards half of the world’s sachet production, developing nation economies during the past 20 years have heavily become dependent on the usage of sachets. The concept of a sachet allows for the production of low quantities of a product at a cheaper price, making it more appealing to countries in these regions.

The “sachet economy” promotes the consumption of small units of product and is particularly suited to consumers with limited financial resources. Consumers at the bottom of the income pyramid have inconsistent and low wages and it is economical for them to purchase small amounts rather than in bulk. This has resulted in sachet usage becoming prevalent in lower income populations. In nations which have populations with low-skill labour opportunities and where spending habits are based on low daily wage rates, sachets provide adequate comfort in providing the consumer with utilising the daily products needed in small quantities. Consumers in developing nations are price conscious, and there is extensive opportunity to capture a large segment of market share through heavily reduced pricing.

Discarded sachets found in Mt. Lavinia beach

The lack of security and protection is a common issue in some impoverished areas. Residents in low-income communities are unstable and they tend to have as few valuable assets on the premises as possible, and therefore small quantities of single items are mostly preferred. The convenience of packaging is also considered a major advantage. Due to its size and composition, transportation has been relatively easy, enabling a wider consumer base to be reached.

The “sachet economy” effectively ceases the application of economies of scale. A product purchased in bulk would be less expensive than a product purchased in smaller quantities. Although it reduces the barriers to economic participation, low-income customers pay more for such goods than their higher income counterparts over time. This evidently results in low-income populations unable to save or spend on other products which can increase individual utility.

The primary negative attribute of the sachet is its contribution to environmental degradation. Made of multi-layered plastic where polyethylene accounts for 60% in the layers, the recycling of sachets is impossible. According to waste audits collected during the shoreline and seabed clean-ups conducted by The Pearl Protectors, sachets along with food wrappers were the leading plastic pollutants prevalent. Sachets and food wrappers account for approximately 45% of plastic waste collected. Challenges have arisen in its collection due to the sheer small sizes of discarded sachets.

Due to the multi-layering in plastic found in sachets, the prevalence of these sachets breaking into smaller particles such as microplastic and nano plastic is high. When fragmented in the ocean, microplastics are consumed by marine life mistaking plastic particles to be its diet. According to a recent study, the Maldives and many of South Asia’s shorelines have the highest proportion of microplastic found compared to the rest of the world.

Microplastics have been shown to damage marine organisms as well as turtles and birds in the following ways: They obstruct digestive tracts, decrease the desire to eat, and change feeding behaviour, all of which reduce growth and reproductive performance. Globally, fish provides more than 1.5 billion people with approximately 20% of its average per capita intake of animal protein, indicating the high prevalence of these microplastics ending up in the human’s digestive system.

Since most of the sachets are discarded through low-income-generating communities, the prevalence of used and discarded sachets entering the ocean through the means of canals and rivers is significantly high. As many undernourished families within urban Colombo are located in close proximity to the canals, the immediate solution to many of these communities is to use the canal system to dispose of waste generated within households.

Due to the extreme price sensitivity, many undernourished households purchase the products which have the lowest prices in the market without considering the quality of the product or sustainability in packaging. This vulnerability has successfully been capitalised on by several large corporations where they manufacture a variety of sachet brands at a significantly low price with increased distribution, effectively challenging any small or medium-size company’s ability to enter the market, and negating space for sustainable packaging solutions.

As part of the survey conducted, the collective views of grocery store vendors indicate that customers purchase sachets also to avoid content wastage. Shop owners reflected that the consumers believe that bulk purchase leads to unnecessary usage or losing the ability to control the product utilisation. This trend is prevalent where households consist of children and adolescents. This thinking process by the consumer reflects the Southeast Asian cultural practice called “tingi”, which is a mindset of careful consumption and conscientious usage reduction.

Shop owners were also unanimously in favour of banning the usage of sachets since they bring far less benefit to the seller while also risking storage contamination where one damaged sachet could potentially contaminate other products found within the storage area, and also making it more tedious to identify the damaged sachet. Instead, as alternatives, the proposition of setting a bottom cap based on the weight limit for products ranging from 60 ml/g to 150 ml/g will ensure the consumers are provided the correct balance between price vs. quantity while allowing space for better or even sustainable product packaging.

To be continued next week. 

(The article was written by Muditha Katuwawala and the survey was conducted through The Pearl Protectors Advocacy. The author can be reached through dmkatuwawala@gmail.com)a