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Plastic packaging debate: ‘Don’t go compostable... yet’

Adam Zuchetti
Adam Zuchetti
23 August 2019 6 minute readShare
Plastic packaging

While consumers cry foul over plastic packaging, such as wrapping on fresh fruit and vegetables, SMEs are being urged to hold fire on switching to compostable alternatives, and instead embrace a two-pronged attack on the issue.

Speaking at the APAC Food Safety Conference in Sydney on Thursday (22 August), the Australian Institute of Packaging’s Keith Chessell said that consumers’ negative view of packaging is largely driven by the fact that they are the end user — i.e. the one who has to dispose of it.

And front of mind is food packaging, because as Mr Chessell told My Business, it forms the bulk of their weekly kerbside waste collection, and is the bulk of what households purchase on a regular basis.

Mr Chessell suggested that businesses will increasingly need to address this on two main fronts:

  • changing the type of packaging they use to recyclable/recycled options, which many are already doing
  • but also taking charge in educating customers about why such packaging is in place, such as for product protection, contamination avoidance and safety restrictions

Packaging plays role in waste reduction

According to Mr Chessell, how products are packaged plays an important role in reducing product wastage, such as food waste.

He said that 30 per cent of edible foods that are produced never reach the fork. Quoting figures from the federal Department of Environment, in the 2016–17 financial year alone, he said that Australia generated an estimated 7.3 million metric tonnes of food waste across the entire supply and consumption supply chain. Almost half — 3.2 tonnes — of that was disposed of in landfill.

With this in mind, Mr Chessell suggested that the amount of packaging can have a direct correlation with the amount of food waste.

This can include everything from using easy-pour liquid containers that minimise spillage, to compartmentalising meat into smaller amounts to avoid unused portions from spoiling, and even bulk bagging loose items such as apples to minimise the amount of damage inflicted on the fruit, both during transportation but also from shoppers handling and squeezing the fruit to test ripeness.

“An unwrapped cucumber loses 3.5 per cent of its weight in just three days on the shelf,” he explained as an example.

“Whereas a shrink-wrapped cucumber loses only 1.5 per cent of its weight over two weeks. So, it’s actually a 60 per cent reduction in the evaporation rate by simply wrapping the cucumber.”

Last month, online beauty retailer Adore Beauty outlined how it overhauled its packaging to become more sustainable and reduce wastage, netting itself a six-figure monetary savings in the process.

Infrastructure currently lacking for compostable packaging

“I’ve had lots of companies, even in these last two months, saying ‘I want to go compostable’, because they think that’s the right thing to do,” Mr Chessell told My Business.

However, he warned that the problem with this option is that just because something could be composted, doesn’t mean that it actually will be.

“We just don’t have the infrastructure yet in Australia,” he explained, “and I don’t believe we will have it before probably 2025.”

Not all consumers — such as those living in apartments or rental accommodation — have the ability to compost materials themselves, and Mr Chessell said that composting organisations generally don’t want “packaging in their organic waste because it doesn’t contribute much to the compost in terms of nutrient value”.

That’s not to say there are no options, with Mr Chessell citing Biopak as one option.

“But what I’m saying is unless you’ve got ability to collect your compostable packaging with your organic waste, don’t do it,” he said.

Instead, Mr Chessell urged businesses to “just make sure your packaging is recyclable”.

Different plastics, for example, can be recycled for alternative uses or reused. Certain cardboards, meanwhile, have plastic films which can make them unsuitable for recycling. This makes choosing the right type of packaging for a particular product all the more important.

His presentation noted the example of Coca-Cola committing to the use of 100 per cent recycled plastics for its smaller individual bottles as one such example where change can be made to a more sustainable option.

However, Mr Chessell admitted that in certain instances, there is not yet a viable alternative to non-porous plastic.

“The difficulty that a lot of companies are working through at the moment is particularly, say, in meat, they do need oxygen and carbon dioxide barriers to help the meat keep,” he said, meaning plastic is still the most viable option to meet safety, weight, energy and commercial considerations.

“So, there’s lots of technology still being worked on at the moment to do that.”

Consumer education on the role of packaging

According to Mr Chessell, consumers are also likely to be less negative about the type and amount of packaging used in goods they buy if they have increased awareness about why the packaging is there in the first place.

“We need to get better at providing information on why we are packaging it like that,” he said.

“It’s a frustration, certainly from my aspect, trying to get the limited space that’s on a label to say an extra thing like explaining why this packaging has been selected.”

Mr Chessell said that retailers in particular, given their consumer-facing nature, are well placed to provide point-of-sale information about why certain packaging types have been used on a product, and how that particular packaging could be disposed of for reuse or recycling instead of going to landfill.

He also noted that the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation last year developed a “world-first” prep tool designed to provide greater transparency about the composition of the packaging and advice to the consumer on how it could be disposed of.

“[It] is an online tool that companies can put their packaging information into and it will tell them whether it’s recyclable, recyclable with loss value, whether it’s actually [eligible] for kerbside [collection] for consumers to do so,” Mr Chessell said.

That is in addition to the rollout of the Australasian Recycle Label (ARL), which will denote the type of plastic or materials used in that particular packaging for easier identification of how (and if) it can be recycled.

“So, it might have a cardboard box with an inner sleeve and a wrapper on the outside: the ARL will say ‘the pack is cardboard that can go into the recycle bin, the film around the outside can go to store drop-off with a Coles or Woolworths recycle scheme, and the sashay inside — because of the food contamination — is going to be for the rubbish bin,” he explained.

“They can look at it at that point of disposal and go ‘OK, that goes there, that goes there and that one goes there’.”

Better design will eliminate waste

Deakin University’s Catherine McMahon said separately that better design inputs from the outset will go a long way to reducing the amount of waste we currently find ourselves struggling to deal with, not just in terms of packaging but all manner of products.

“We’re in this recycling crisis because our current generation of materials were never designed to be recycled or repurposed,” said Ms McMahon, the circular economy strategy lead on the university’s Institute for Frontier Materials.

“Circular economy should be the new mainstream benchmark, just as recycling was in the early 1970s. Beyond the scientific community, there’s still a lack of understanding about how much waste comes from the current recycling process. That’s why communal thinking needs to be underpinned with a circular approach.”

Ms McMahon cited her team’s research into manufacturing medical tissues and artificial bones from materials that would otherwise have wound up in landfill as an example or rethinking the final purpose or usage of a product, not just its initial design intention.

“Commonly found poly-cotton blends in clothing can be partially recycled, but the process leads to waste and devalues the material,” she said as another example of materials not being designed with recycling or reusage in mind.

“Our researchers are designing materials that are made to separate once they are no longer fit for purpose so that all of the product is easily reused or biodegrades.

“If we made products from their inception thinking about end of life, then we will never have a recycling crisis again.”

Plastic packaging debate: ‘Don’t go compostable... yet’
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Adam Zuchetti
Adam Zuchetti

Adam Zuchetti is the former editor of MyBusiness and a senior freelance media professional, specialising in the fields of business, personal finance and property. In 2020, he also embarked on his own business journey – inspired in part by the entrepreneurs and founders he had met through his journalistic work – with the launch of customised pet gifting and subscription service Paws N’ All.

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