When plastic is fantastic
Sometimes, plastic is the best option to avoid causing waste in other areas.
Auda Finan, owner of award-winning vegan cheese company Savour, has recently switched to plastic packaging from siliconised parchment paper due to product longevity issues within her supply chain.
“When I started this business, I wanted an ethical, sustainable approach and to me that meant no plastic,” she says. “But as we’ve grown we’ve found wax paper isn’t the most suitable packaging for our product, which is fresh and needs to be refrigerated. The scale of our operations means we now need packaging that supports the product to travel, and extends the shelf life.”
After having unsaleable product returned Finan decided to make the switch.
“There is no point in creating an environmentally friendly sustainable product if it ends up in the bin,” she says. “I did not want to contribute to food waste. Plus, we are still a small business and we cannot afford too many returns.”
Finan did a lot of research as she wanted to make the right choice. Her first port of call was compostable plastics.
“But unless you can dispose of them properly, they actually just add to landfill. That didn’t feel right to me,” she says. “In the end, we decided to go for a straightforward PET pot that can be placed in the usual household recycling bin at its end of life, and sent to a recycling plant. They can also be repurposed.”
Finan is currently vacuum sealing while she saves up for the PET pot machinery.
“There was a sense of urgency in terms of my business to make a change, but I haven’t yet come across a plastic packaging product I’m entirely happy with,” she says. “I’m hoping to come across a new product, or see bigger change around the way New Zealand deals with compostable plastics. It would be great if there were a better option."
Fraser Hanson is the GM of Innocent Packaging, which makes fully compostable, plant-based single-use products like cups and take away containers.
“We can unmake everything we make,” says Hanson. “That was our starting point. All our packing is made from plant or waste plant material that can be returned to the soil.”
Crucially though, Innocent Packaging does not describe its products as biodegradable, but commercially compostable.
“We don’t want to mislead anyone,” says Hanson. “You can’t just dig a hole and bury it. It will break down in 10 to 12 weeks but only under the right conditions.”
A commercial composting plant is just a giant compost heap, but one that reaches the much higher temperatures needed to break the material down, around 60 degrees celcius.
“End of life is the biggest challenge in NZ. When we started there was only one facility that could manage this process,” says Hanson, who notes that even Innocent’s certification is European and American as there is no industry standard in NZ. “If they end up in the recycling they are treated as a contaminate. If there is no way to appropriately dispose of compostable packaging then unfortunately it needs to go into landfill.”
“We are aware compostable packaging isn’t full proof, but it needs to be part of the discussion.”
Hanson would like to see more commitment from local authorities to processing compostable plastics. Innocent even took part in a collaborative project in Auckland CBD, providing public composting bins to prove it could be done. “We are only going to get more wasteful and we need smarter solutions to deal with that.”
Hanson notes that even if their products end up in landfill, they’re still greener from a carbon capture perspective. But they are working with their clients, who include Spark Arena, on education and options around closing the loop.
“At the recent Pink concerts, all of the packaging was collected and composted. They diverted over seven tonnes of waste from landfill over six events,” says Hanson. “It’s exciting big organisations like Spark Arena are implementing this. An oil-based product will never be recycled, it’s only going to landfill. A compostable product has an opportunity to close the loop.”
While food service and food packaging are easy targets for a plastic review, there are many other places in retail where single-use plastics occur. One major area is delivery. Cling-wrapped pallets, anyone? How about 17kg of packing nuts for a 1kg product? Excessive plastic packaging is an area industry names are tackling, and DHL is at the forefront of the global picture.
“At DHL we are fully aware of the environmental concerns of single-use plastics. We currently use plastics as a lightweight, resilient and low-cost material in the supply chain, but are working towards a more environmentally friendly future of logistics and are in the process of testing different alternatives in our operations,” says Birgit Hensel, vice president, shared value, Deutsche Post DHL Group.
“In New Zealand, we have introduced light plastics recycling, while at the same time are working on developing alternative solutions. Additionally, our employees are also actively engaged in local environmental initiatives, including beach clean ups, micro plastics collection, and recycling drives to raise greater awareness on this topic and to contribute their efforts directly.”
As part of its ongoing efforts around plastic, DHL said it is interested in seeking out customers and stakeholders to partner with to provide more environmental friendly alternatives.
“DHL takes its environmental responsibility seriously. Our group-wide environmental protection program, GoGreen, addresses the impact of the logistics industry and defines a global target of achieving a zero emissions business by 2050,” says Hensel. “We have also been actively engaged in the topic of circular economy since 2015 and have prioritised packaging as an important focus in our approach to circular logistics.”
There are already compostable plastic packaging alternatives available. NZ company FriendlyPak offers starch-based packing materials from peanuts to bubble wrap that can be disposed of in garden compost or even flushed. They dissolve in water so won’t harm marine life and are actually cheaper than Styrofoam. However, education is a barrier to use.
“You can throw it on the lawn and it will dissolve in the rain,” says Kevin Graham, founding director. “Some of our clients put that information in the packaging but not all.”
The result is that it can end up in landfill, which is still better than Styrofoam ending up in landfill, but not ideal. Graham feels the onus is on Government to improve infrastructure.
“In the UK, you pay $200 a tonne to dispose of waste in landfill. In New Zealand, it’s $10 a tonne and has been for over a decade. It’s a joke,” he says. “Currently 50 percent of our landfill is organic material that shouldn’t be there. The new government have plans to increase landfill costs, which will fund better infrastructure for other waste management solutions.”
Signage is another area where plastics easily sneak in. When Phantom Billstickers needed a materials solution that provided longevity and sustainability, it was disappointed with what was already available on the market.
“Our desire was to provide tighter install with greater weather resistance on our bollards and poster frames nationwide,” says managing partner Jamey Holloway. “We went looking overseas and all examples pointed towards using vinyl and tougher glues. The vinyl installs looked good but they didn't pass the sniff test, it felt wrong.”
Keen not to introduce plastic or non-biodegradable glues into their processes the company decided to develop its own system, called Weathertech, using standard paper and biodegradable glue that can go into paper recycling at end of life.
“It gives us better presentation through tighter install and has cut weather damage by more than 95 percent. This has been an obvious benefit to both us and our clients,” says Holloway, who believes that when it comes to finding more environmental solutions, “there’s no excuse not to”.
In store, using an aluminum poster frame for paper print outs could be a better choice than having plastic signage printed, especially if you are going to be changing that signage on a semi-regular basis. Systems like Ticket-it, part of the Do-it integrated marketing platform, can help keep unnecessary printing costs and waste down.