Packaging sustainability issues in spotlight

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The current furore over packaging often overrides the reality that sustainability issues may be complex; however, Australia has great minds working on it, Australian Packaging and Covenant Organisation CEO Brooke Donnelly said at the inaugural Global Table forum in Melbourne this week.

Packaging sustainability complex: Global Table forum
Packaging sustainability complex: Global Table forum in Melbourne wrestels with the issues

Packaging has been one of the main growth areas for printers as commercial print has stagnated, but is at the centre of a storm in Australia over its post-consumer disposal.

Donnelly chaired a panel of industry leaders from Tetra Pak, BioPak, Detmold Group and Chep, who discussed sustainable packaging and how to balance food waste reduction with delivering material circularity.

Tetra Pak Oceania MD Andrew Pooch told delegates that as the world’s largest packaging supplier to the food processing and packaging industry, the company has to be a leader in the solution to the problems that packaging has created.

The key for Pooch is to ask questions about whole lifecycle analysis. “Companies need to ask the challenging questions to their manufacturer: understand how the raw material for the product produced, how did you actually make this stuff, how is it distributed, how is it used from the manufacturing environment?” he said.

According to Pooch Tetra Pak is carrying out some full lifecycle analysis on Australian food and beverage packaging, which will be published in a few months. “I think it will explode some myths about what sustainability is in the food packaging market,” he said.

Chep Australia executive general manager Liz Mannes talked about how the company has circularity at its core. “What we do is sustainability and what we are is sustainability,” Mannes said. The opportunity for reuse in Australia is “incredibly large”, but the asset ownership model an important insurance policy to build circularity.

In terms of opportunities, Mannes said there is a lot of low hanging fruit. "I hate to think how much single-use cardboard is actually happening. In lifecycle analysis with customers, the cost of a single use cardboard carton versus a crate could be as much as four dollars per container used if you were to tally it up through the whole supply-chain.

“There is actually a really economic argument for this, as much as a sustainability one,” Mannes said.

Approaching sustainability at the core of your business is not something you should enter lightly, Mannes said, but “progress is progress, and we should always reflect and acknowledge and celebrate that. We think very hard about the actual use throughout the entire life of all our assets and how they transfer. Sustainability is not just what we do, it's who we are".

Detmold Group’s Recycle Me program put the plight of single use cups on centre stage. Group general manager of Marketing & Innovation, Tom Lunn, told delegates the company recognised there was an issue with single use coffee cups when only around one per cent was being diverted from landfill.

“All the brands we deal with were concerned. No brand, or us as a 70-year-old packaging manufacturer, wants to be associated with waste or doing the wrong thing,” he said.

Tackling hard issues for a necessary change should not be done alone, he said. The issues of sorting and separation were difficult. Lunn said: “Don’t try to do this on your own. You're going to need to get people on board, you're going to understand what the objections are. You're going to find a lot of people who don't want to help you.

“There's a lot of people with a lot invested in landfill who are efficient in that space. That’s not the way forward, and so the partners that we're working with are innovative partners who see new market opportunities.”

For an international outfit like Detmold, difficult products need to be tackled “one by one, country by country”.

“In South Africa we can get a polyethylene lined cup recycled by our partners there, but we have the same collection and separation issues that we have here. New Zealand has been a challenge, they were going down a different path and but they’re starting to go down the recycling path too.”

Lunn said Europe has been an easier market, as legislation, the choice of builds and manufacturers of paper grades, and consumer education are further ahead. “But we're not that far behind,” he said.

The adoption of circular economy principles means designing for separation must be the first task completed, BioPak founder and sustainability director Richard Fine said. Compostability requires technical and biological nutrients to be separate, and that is difficult when they are blended together in products.

Fine told the room there are two objectives – diverting free waste and recovering the materials and then turning them into nutrients by returning them to the system in a “really beautiful, circular economic way”.

He pointed out that being compostable doesn’t work for everything, and nor is it always appropriate. “We need the Tetra Paks of the world because their products are durable and reliable in providing nutrition to large volumes of people without refrigeration,” he said.

For Fine, it is “really important that we don’t want to leave anyone behind in the field. As an organisation we must take responsibility for our products and ensure that they are recovered at the end of their life”.

California is leading the field in compostability, he said. “There’s an eighty per cent diversion rate to organics of their waste. Which is probably a world standard. The reason that they can do that is a combination of government legislation and policy coupled with a relevant infrastructure.”

Australia lacks the infrastructure, so in 2017 BioPak launched a compost collection program with cafes. “It’s quite difficult and the challenge continues. There are a lot of obstacles and barriers but there is a lot of innovative solutions coming to the market. The challenge for us is how do we recover that in public places.”

Donnelly told delegates: “This is not an insular piece of work. This is about a collective action towards achieving sustainable packaging, and the best way we can do that is collaboration. We're all heading in the same direction, and if one of us doesn't get there, none of us get there.

“APCO would recommend to anyone who is looking to understand how they can make those changes, to talk to your supply chain, talk to the people you work with, talk with your industry associations, have these conversations. This is how we drive and make change.”

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