For consumer goods firms like Procter & Gamble or Johnson & Johnson, the massive expansion of the Indian market offers nearly irresistible promise. In particular, as consumer education expands, the middle class gets larger, and even poorer consumers find ways to purchase single-use items, the markets for their personal care products have grown exponentially. One of the most positive areas of growth involves diaper and sanitary pad sales; Indian consumers are learning about the convenience, sanitation, and safety benefits of disposable products.
But these benefits come with costs too, including the environmental cost of the quickly growing waste associated with these disposable items. Soiled disposable diapers and pads are substantial in volume and number, taking up substantial space in dumps and landfills. When consumers have informal garbage practices, such as burying their household waste in a yard or dumping trash in a nearby river, the products also create ecological and environmental hazards.
Furthermore, India hosts a substantial job market for waste pickers, who visit landfills to pull potentially valuable tidbits from the collected trash. For these workers, the presence of used sanitary pads and diapers creates new hazards, including potential exposure to unhealthy substances. A cooperative labor union for waste pickers accordingly has called on the companies that produce these products to find a solution to limit the risks.
One option was to sell the products together with specially marked wrappers. After use, consumers would wrap the items in these wrappers, so that waste pickers would know to avoid touching them. Another solution would rely on increased recycling facilities so that either consumers or the waste pickers could bring the used products in, to be sanitized and recycled into alternative uses such as cardboard or containers.
Despite some efforts along both these paths, neither has been completely successful thus far. The worker cooperative notes that despite an Indian regulation requiring the provision of wrappers, many products continue to be sold without them. In addition, the available wrappers are often of poor quality, such that they break open, thus undermining their very purpose.
The recycling facilities also have been developing slowly, if at all. Few consumers appear willing to separate their trash and bring just their diapers and sanitary pads to a separate facility. One enterprise offered waste pickers 1 rupee (equivalent to about 1 U.S. cent) for every kilogram of waste they brought in to be recycled, but the volume and weight of this type of trash made that offering inefficient and unappealing for workers, who could make more money collecting other kinds of waste.
Thus the consumer goods companies face a difficult dilemma. They continue to seek to expand their reach in India, where the markets for both sanitary pads and diapers are projected to more than double in size in the next few years. Comparatively, these growth rates are less than 2 percent in the United States. Thus, they cannot ignore India as a vastly attractive consumer market. But as they pursue this growth, they also are likely to face increasing pressures to find a solution to deal with the waste inherently produced by the use of their products.
- What would be the best response for consumer product goods companies to address this dilemma between growth and demands for effective waste strategies?
- Are these companies responsible for dealing with waste, or is that effort the responsibility of local governments and consumers?
Source: Saabira Chaudhuri, “P&G Faces Backlash over Diaper, Sanitary Waste,” The Wall Street Journal, April 3, 2019