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Getting drastic about plastic

Government plans to phase out single-use plastic bags have been heartily embraced by leaders in the grocery sector, but there are plenty of other ways surplus plastic can sneak into supply chain. Jai Breitnauer breaks it down.

By Jai Breitnauer | January 17, 2019 | News

My kids are big fans of Aussie eco-pop group the Formidable Vegetable Sound System, and classic ditties about composting toilets are often belted out at home. Among them is the prophetic number, Plastic, It’s Not Fantastic, which talks about the evils of buying stuff in single-use plastic packaging.

Since the government announced in August that single-use plastic bags would be phased out, there has been a huge focus among retailers and consumers alike on the alternatives. But it could be argued that there is too much focus on this, and more in-depth analysis has to go into the reduction of plastics from other parts of the retail supply chain. From clothes hangers to packing peanuts, we are addicted to the convenience and price of plastic products – and it’s not doing the world any good.

The facts

According to the Packaging Council of New Zealand, Kiwis consume about 735 tonnes of packaging each year, and only recycle about 58 percent of it. About 8 percent of New Zealand’s waste stream comes from plastic, according to the Ministry for the Environment, and it is estimated plastics could use up to 20 percent of landfill space, due to volume. It can take 450 years for one plastic bottle to break down, and 10 million tonnes of plastic end up in the world’s oceans each year, endangering the marine environment. According to EcoWatch, enough plastic is discarded annually to circle the earth four times.

Feeling bad yet? Well don’t, it’s counter-productive. Small changes in the plastics we use and the way we dispose of them, and reducing unnecessary plastics in products and stores, can make a huge difference – and not just to the environment. The results of a consumer poll published in UK trade title The Grocer earlier this year showed that from the 5000 Brits surveyed, 42 percent said food and drink manufacturers should make recyclable packaging a priority, and 59 percent said they were taking measures to tackle plastic waste at home. Less plastic is what the consumer wants.

Circular economy

Recycle.co.nz encourage consumers to take responsibility for the packaging they buy, reminding them they have a responsibility to dispose of it appropriately. This thinking applies to the business consumer too, and the Sustainable Business Network encourage retailers and manufacturers to think of the end of life of the products they use and sell, and how packaging in particular can be repurposed.

“Reducing plastic packaging is a key focus and has always been an aspect where we’ve received high queries from members. Over the last year that has dramatically increased,” says James Griffin, general manager project and advisory at SBN. This is partly because of the increased profile of the environmental issues associated with plastic waste and pressure resulting from changes around plastic disposal.

“Most of our plastics are sent overseas to be recycled, but a recent amendment in Chinese policy regarding what materials they’re accepting is fuelling global action around the idea of a circular economy and plastics.”

A circular economy focuses on ‘closed loop’ and ‘cradle to cradle’ principles which ask businesses to consider the full life cycle of products, what might happen to them once their primary use has expired and how it may capture continuing value as an alternative to landfill.

“The use of plastics is ubiquitous across all sectors, because it’s relatively cheap and the supply chain is well established,” says Griffin. “Alternatives are available in most cases but they’re often more expensive. In other cases, they’re emerging and not yet proved from a functionality perspective.”

Griffin recommends retailers audit their plastic use, starting with packaging, to understand which are the unnecessary and/or problematic plastics in their supply chain. 

“Look at whether those plastics can be recycled, reused or composted in practice – how likely is it to end up as a pollutant? From there think about which areas you can begin to phase plastics out of.”

If, for example, you’re using a lot of PET (No 1), which already has a viable recycling market, you should work to ensure that it’s clear PET (higher recycling value) and that labelling solutions don’t hamper the recycling process. You could also substitute virgin PET with recycled PET. Other plastics, apart from natural HDPE (No 2) have a much lower value for recycling and looking for alternatives should be priority. 

“Indicate to suppliers you wish to reduce unnecessary packaging and see what they can do to support that,” says Griffin.

You also have to consider if removing plastics in a particular area will actually cause more problems around product life cycle.

“Look at what the packaging needs to be delivering, and ensure that packaging changes are not creating unintended consequences such as reducing shelf life or creating additional logistical impacts,” says Griffin. “You don’t want to create food waste, for example.”

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.

Auda Finan

“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.”

Beyond food

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.

Birgit Hensel 

“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.

Will finds a way

Much of the discussion around reducing plastics in supply chain is focused on the end of life of necessary plastic products alongside alternatives, but much of it requires investment from other industries or government to become a truly workable solution. Progress has been slow, but Chris Wilkinson from First Retail Group believes that increasing pressure from within retail itself will speed things up.

Chris Wilkinson

“We work with a broad range of major retail brands here and overseas. All are actively trying to reduce plastic across every part of their business,” he says, noting an increase in businesses seeking to design single-use plastic products out of their processes. He says that much of this new thinking has come from a grass-roots level, as new employees prompt change in increasingly democratised enterprises.

“Initially there have been perceived costs, however we're seeing greater awareness and availability of alternatives which is helping achieve change. Moving from plastic hangers was seen as an impossibility [for example], however bamboo has been an emerging option. Every retailer must focus on this. We're seeing consumer action, but increasingly community action and now collective-commercial initiatives. Interestingly, Wellington's OurCBD programme, which supports the success and resilience of the Capital's inner city retailers has set environmental sustainability as one of its two key focus areas in 2019.”

Ultimately, there is a willingness there from retail to reduce plastic, but solutions need to be cost effective and supported by both other industries and infrastructure. For the SBN, this means seeing New Zealand’s place within the bigger picture.

“New Zealand is part of a global supply chain,” says Griffin. “What we do here needs to impact that [supply chain] positively. We can’t find a solution in isolation.”

Closing the loop

When Daily Bread opened in January, the reduction of plastics from its offering was part of the business model. A commitment to composting plastics lead it to compost waste in-house.

“Two of the three owners are from Orphans Kitchen, and they were already interested in composting but it couldn’t be done at the Orphans site,” says Tim Bowater from Daily Bread. To compost plant-based plastics you need the right environment – not too wet, with the temperature about 60 degrees celcius

“Along with Richard [Wallis] from NZBox.nz, we created bins that could compost plant plastics on site,” he says. “In January in the cranking hot weather we tore up the tarmac, installed corner posts and put in removable wood panels. It’s effectively four big boxes and you can access the compost at any stage.”

All staff were required to attend an orientation session led by Richard on how to use the compost bins and what was involved in the process. Within the bakery though, there is no education aimed at the consumer.

“It’s not really our service style,” says Bowater, noting that the compostable plastics have to be disposed of in a particular way to make sure they break down, or avoid contamination of normal recycling. “People weren’t always that responsible with how they disposed of things. Now we just collect it all, sort it and dispose of it correctly.”

On a daily basis the Daily Bread team sees raw veggie scraps, orange halves from the juicer, coffee grinds, breads and pastries make up the compost. They add 40 percent wood mulch to balance the nitrogen and carbon content. The compostable plastics go in with everything else. As long as it’s not too tightly packed it composts just as well as the food scraps.

“There are other streams for waste as well, such as donating unsold breads and pastries to the City Mission and Everybody Eats,” says Bowater. “It’s not worth popping bread that’s only 12 hours old into waste when there are mouths to feed.”

As a result of clear strategy, Daily Bread has kept its landfill down to just one wheelie bin a week, lowering third party waste management costs. The compost is donated to local projects like schools and community plantings, or customers. Bowater believes that to reduce plastic from the supply chain, you need a mix of government led strategy – like the plastic bag ban – and local ideas from the ground up. It also needs to be supported by better waste management solutions, including more focus on disposing of compostable plastics in the right way.

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