New Delhi: If the Narendra Modi cabinet approves a consumer affairs ministry proposal, railway passengers, especially on premium trains such as Tejas Express and Vande Bharat Express, could soon get aluminium or steel water cans instead of plastic water bottles.
Government officials familiar with the matter told ThePrint that the ministry is in talks with the Steel Authority of India (SAIL) to produce these cans in two of the most common grades of food grade stainless steel — 18/8 and 18/10, also known as Type 304.
“We are in talks with SAIL for making water bottles/cans for the railways’ Rail Neer brand. These will be initially offered to passengers aboard premium trains such as Tejas Express and Vande Bharat Express,” said a source in the consumer affairs ministry.
The source said the government is also in consultation with private players, and an expression of interest has also been put up by PepsiCo and Coca Cola to introduce aluminium cans for drinking water, through their respective Aquafina and Dasani brands. The multinational giants are planning to sell drinking water in aluminium cans in the US by 2020.
“We will certainly consider steel/aluminium cans to replace plastic bottles and are resolved to replace plastic bottles phase-wise,” said Siddhartha Singh, public relations officer of the Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC).
“Even now, polymer-based bottles given in Tejas Express degrade by 40 per cent in 80 days, and cost only 15 paise extra to manufacture compared to normal bottles.”
Will the move be cost-effective?
Officials within the Department of Consumer Affairs, however, have raised questions about the monetary viability of manufacturing aluminium/steel cans.
A senior official from the quality control board of the department, who did not want to be named, told ThePrint: “The cost of making a one-litre plastic bottle comes to around Rs 2.50, whereas a steel/aluminium bottle with the same capacity may cost up to Rs 8.”
A senior scientist from the Bureau of Indian Standards, who is working on the project to standardise the quality of aluminium/steel for water bottles and cans, told ThePrint on conditions of anonymity that the idea isn’t viable without introducing some amount of biodegradable polymer or sugarcane-based/petroleum-based plastic.
The scientist, however, added that this wouldn’t hamper the eco-friendly aspect of the cans, “as they will still degrade up to 70 per cent in two months”, and will be “an easy and cost-effective recycling proposition compared to current plastic PET bottles”.
What environmentalists say
Environmental experts are sceptical about the proposal as they say it would not contribute to ecological conservation overall.
Sourabh Manuja, a waste management fellow at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), said: “Aluminium has an overall 59 per cent more carbon footprint and 45 per cent more production energy requirement than the plastic PET bottles.”
However, he added: “The aluminium industry has a more robust and economically profitable recycling infrastructure than plastic PET bottles.”
Manuja said the emphasis should be on effectively managing and reducing waste, rather substituting it with another easily recyclable one.
“More plastic bottle buy-backs and cheap water-dispensing kiosks should be set up at railway stations to encourage people to create less of plastic water bottle waste,” he said.