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Food Safety > Sustainable Business Network Packaging Masterclass

30 March 2022

Sustainable Business Network Packaging Masterclass

On 25 February 2022, the Sustainable Business Network (SBN)[1] organised a masterclass with a focus on packaging, where participants explored multiple packaging related topics and shared information on what is currently happening both in New Zealand and in international markets.

The masterclass was delivered online, lasted from 9:00am to 4:30pm and was not limited to food packaging solutions but attempted to incorporate a range of packaging materials and pathways.

This document serves as a summary of the presentations given by all the participating panellists on various aspects surrounding the topic of packaging. Instead of summarising the presentations individually, the document compiles the information shared holistically into one, as all presentations were related to the singular topic, i.e., packaging. There were some presentations that even built on the information shared by other participants, which demonstrated how intertwined the information shared by the different panellists was.

 

Scope

Our current economy is overly reliant on packaging made of plastic, as it is a relatively cheap material with a plethora of applications and lasts for a long time. Such qualities, make plastic the ‘go to’ material for many industries and sectors.

There were various categories covered over the course of the masterclass, revolving around the issues caused from overreliance on plastic packaging, such as single use plastic cups, wraps, or containers; how to properly handle these packages post-use; and other options available as possible replacements.

Examples from sectors like Hospitality (single use plastic cups), Fresh Produce (plastic containers and wraps), and Transport (parcel envelopes), to name a few, were used over the course of the masterclass to create a snapshot of the current use of plastic packaging and the alternatives available.

 

Summary

Throughout the day, the various presentations provided information on the multitude of materials used for packing purposes throughout New Zealand by multiple industry sectors, such as in hospitality, fresh produce and/or dairy, as well as how to reduce the impact these materials will have on the environment after they fulfil their purpose.

The masterclass began by highlighting that packaging is a good place to start considering change in the right direction towards mitigating the damage our current economic ideologies and practices are causing the ecosystems and natural resource availability.

There is a need to shift further towards a circular economy, as currently, our economy is focused on taking resources from the environment, turning those resources into whatever product(s) we need, and then discarding them/throwing them away once they fulfil their purpose.

It was highlighted and re-iterated throughout the masterclass duration, focusing on plastic as an exemplar, that in order to achieve a shift towards a circular economy we must:

  • - Eliminate the materials we do not need.
  • - Innovate to ensure the materials we do need are reusable, recyclable, or compostable.
  • - Circulate all items we use that are made of those materials to keep them in the economy and out of the environment.

 

The main point, according to the Reuse Wins Report[2] (2021), published by New York based Upstream Solutions, is that any product designed to be used for a matter of minutes and then thrown away is not a sustainable option, regardless of whether the product is made from plastic, paper, metal, or plants. The real culprit is not just the single-use plastics, but “single-use” itself.

Understanding what can be done and what solutions are already available, serves as the first step in determining the scale of the issue plastic packaging represents.

Understanding the types of materials that are the most likely to pollute the environment, how they end up as litter in the environment, and what are the available options to mitigate polluting the environment due to discarded packages will shape the approaches we can take.

For example, data collected by programmes, such as Litter Intelligence[3], demonstrate that the main offending items that enter our environment are:

  • - Unidentified litter,
  • - Glass,
  • - Food wraps,
  • - Polystyrene packaging and insulation
  • - others.

 

This data also demonstrated that about 75% of what is collected along the New Zealand shorelines is, in some form or another, made of plastic. Additionally, 40% of all the items found are packaging related.

According to the data gathered from programmes such as Litter Intelligence, packaging and other items made from plastic are the most common to be found littering the environment. Litter made from other materials, such as fibre (paper or cardboard), metal (aluminium) and glass were also found, but less frequently.

These other alternative packaging materials have their own strengths and weaknesses when compared to the versatile and widely available plastic options.

The main benefit of these alternative materials is that, when compared to plastic, these materials will have a smaller impact on the environment due to their ability to be continuously recycled, given that proper collection processes are in place, and at a reasonable cost.

For example, glass is believed to be infinitely recyclable, with a relatively easy process, while paper can undergo the recycling process for a limited number of evolutions, before it becomes unusable, due to either the amount of impurities present or degradation of the paper fibres.

The process of creating and designing sustainable packaging includes the analysing and determination of the best method to protect and transport the product, selecting the right materials for the job and understanding how to prevent the packaging from turning into waste. The outcome of such analysis determines the final packaging design parameters.

Nowadays companies design and create products to fit standard packaging, meaning that the product is made to fit into the package (i.e., oranges and/or kiwifruit being packaged into cardboard boxes of similar dimensions). Within the circular economy scenario, companies like Marx Design[4], aim to re-define the approach towards packaging by designing packaging that allows for safe transport of the product whilst minimising the waste produced after the package has fulfilled its function.

As an example, Loving Earth’s ‘Bean to Bar[5]’ concept serves as a case study for developing sustainable packaging for a sustainable product. A bar of chocolate in this instance, where the packaging is minimalistic, made from post-consumer fibres[6] and printed with vegetable-based inks that are free from heavy metals and toxic chemicals.

Despite all the technology available to facilitate the recycling, there are various things that packaging providers can and cannot do when processing packaging after it has been recycled by consumers.

Consumer recycling is built around the ‘dos and don’ts’ concept. For example, depending on packaging material used, packaging that held individual cuts of meats provides recycling instructions on the empty package.

This ‘dos and don’ts’ concept of recycling is also aimed at the local council decision makers.

The measures required to ensure that the recycling process is correctly undertaken, typically depends on the support council decision makers give to the process. For example, the final quality of recycled glass is dependent upon the used glass collection process, due to contaminants such as label & adhesive residues, and different types of glass being recycled. Glass that is ground up again after labels have been removed, for example, will be of a higher quality than glass that was ground down whilst labels were still in place.

The assistance consumers receive from regulatory decision makers will, most likely, take the form of methods to standardise the separation of the different materials, when the consumer throws away the package after its use. An example of such assistance is the establishment of a container return scheme, where the consumer pays a deposit on the packaging, and once that packaging is returned to the retailer or to a collection point, the deposit is then returned, ensuring that packaging collected can be recycled or re-used.

Packaging re-use is a concept that has been around for quite a long time, but actual use of this concept has dwindled. Companies usually take a vertically integrated approach to reusable packaging, where the company that produces the product will package, collect, clean, and re-use its packaging. The other option is a third-party approach, where another independent company, that focuses on reusable packaging as their core line of business, will collect, clean, and return the packaging to the producing company to minimise the waste generated from these materials.

The transition into systems that make use of reusable packaging requires, sometimes drastic, shifts in behaviour, practices, and infrastructure along entire supply chains. To succeed one must re-evaluate and understand the purpose and functionality of the packaging, including intended use, waste minimisation options, the level of packaging robustness requirement in relation to both the product as well as the supply chain, and the realistic expectations for success related to multiple post-use recycling evolutions.

Other aspects to consider are:

  • - The sourcing of the raw materials for the package construction,
  • - The fate of the package after it has fulfilled its function (its end of life),
  • - The hidden impacts surrounding the delivery of the final and packaged product to the consumer. For example, evaluating the effect the transportation medium has on final sustainability rating, as the package is sustainable, but the cost and resources needed to ensure the product reaches the consumer could make the final product not environmentally sustainable.

The people driving the shift towards a circular economy model, must also consider the political implications that may arise as, for example, the current policy landscape of the Ministry for the Environment, who is a critical player in the success. The Ministry has circularity, climate and duties of care as its driving factors, with current action focusing on legislation updates to the national waste strategy, the national plastics action plan, improving kerbside recycling[7], phasing out problem plastics, and many others.

The current vision is to achieve a circular economy for Aotearoa New Zealand by 2050, where the planet’s resources are looked after with care and responsibility, where we respect the connection we have with the environment, and where nothing is wasted. There are 3 stages towards achieving the vision above:

  1. Catching up (Now-2030) - where we get the basics in place and working.
  2. Pushing ahead (2030-2040) - where there is increased support and pressure for widespread changes in mindset, systems, and behaviours.
  3. Embedding a new normal (2040-2050) - where circular systems and behaviours across society are embedded & integrated and have become the norm.

Another matter under consideration is how to properly convey the information about the types of materials that make up the packaging and directions on how to properly recycle it. When such information is not properly conveyed on the packaging, the term ‘greenwashing’, which refers to the process of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about the packaging of a product, is increasingly being applied to identify such practices.

According to the Commerce Commission, companies should, in order to avoid greenwashing claims:

  1. Be truthful and accurate - Apply the “reasonable person test”, which means putting themselves in the shoes of the consumer and see if the claim being made aligns itself with the truth.
  2. Be specific - Ensure the claim clearly states what parts of the package are recycled.
  3. Substantiate their claims - “If you can’t back it up don’t say it”.
  4. Take care when relying on tests and surveys - These must not be presented in a way that shows them to be better than they actually are.
  5. Consider the overall impression and be cautious of using fine print - This can include words or images. Again, follow the reasonable consumer test to ensure the above points remain true.
  6. Regularly review the claims - The information presented must be kept up to date to ensure the claims remain accurate and true.

 

Concluding Comments

The necessary processes and technologies to shift towards a circular economy already exist. These processes and technologies focus on ensuring that the available resources are used sustainably and to their fullest.

The two biggest challenges in achieving this shift are:

  • - Convincing and educating the public on the benefits of a circular economy and how one can contribute towards achieving that goal.
  • - Accepting that scaling existing circular economy enabling processes and technologies to the point that they contribute in a meaningful way towards achieving global environmental goals will require substantial commercial investment that often cannot be directly attributable to an individual organisation required to make such investment.

It takes a tremendous amount of cooperation between all parts of the supply chain, from the producers, packers, and retailers, to the consumer, as well as government officials in charge of developing and implementing policies to direct the shift.

The masterclass focused on packaging sustainability and did not cover potential contamination of as a result of using recycled materials.

United Fresh is supporting a project managed by the New Zealand Food Safety Science & Research Centre that looks at this issue. This will be reported on completion.

More information on the packaging masterclass and resources provided by the Sustainable Business Network here: https://sustainable.org.nz/plastic-packaging-circular-innovation-programme/.

Additionally, the recordings of each presentation during the masterclass were made available to the participants and can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLoVyBhbezDiGXrr-cIhEAE14U7mpNhXZl

[1] https://sustainable.org.nz/

[2] www.upstreamsolutions.org

[3] https://litterintelligence.org/

[4] https://marxdesign.co.nz/

[5] https://lovingearth.net/blog/blog/2016/05/11/really-raw-cacao-from-bean-to-bar-2/

[6] Post-consumer fiber is paper material that has been thrown away and recycled after someone has used it.

[7] Recycling by the consumer after use of the packaging.