COPAR’s range of alternative wheat straw packaging offers the industry a viable alternative to otherwise less sustainable packaging materials.
COPAR continues to work towards the 2024 date for the start of production but results around the companies alternative packaging options are already causing optimism among key stakeholders.
As sustainability and waste management standards and targets continue to evolve, so do the requirements of producers and manufacturers in the food and beverage space.
The timing of these evolving standards around waste, sustainability, and environmental impact, has created an ideal scenario for COPAR and its fibre-based packaging alternatives.
The company has also created formulations which present similar, or equal, protection that is attributed to other plastics, meaning the wheat straw packaging remains both compostable, and recyclable.
So far COPAR has created wheat straw packaging options for food service and hospitality, fresh produce, and meat and poultry. Thanks to recent formulations, the company is also developing viable alternatives with companies in the booming ready-to-eat sector.
Changes in the way society looks at waste is also having a positive impact on alternative packaging companies like COPAR.
“The world has been caught in the ‘Take-Make-Waste’ Model and we are finally moving away from that now,” said Colin Farrell, business development manager at COPAR.
“That model was never sustainable and always had an end point, which we are reaching.”
Farrell said COPAR was started on the principal of creating a truly circular economy around packaging, with the aim of creating an alternative which offers both recyclability and compostability.
“It starts with straw, which is a by-product of wheat production, which has high resource potential,” said Farrell.
“Currently wheat straw has been burned as waste, but we have found other uses for it and that is the basis of how we got started.”
Farrell said COPAR aims to help move industry away from the highly convenient ‘Take-Make-Waste’ model towards a more ‘Cradle-to-Cradle’ model where the product is made and then repurposed or composted.
“That creates a lot of challenges, with the world still focused on the convenience of ‘Take-Make-Waste,’ there are challenges in designing products and systems that model industry on nature’s processes which leads to a positive ecological footprint,” he added.
“Wheat straw or anything certified compostable to Australian Standards allows you to achieve this.”
As bans on single use plastics continue across the country, many stakeholders are eager to find alternative packaging solutions while working towards greater sustainability end goals.
In Australia, both the Federal and State governments are addressing the plastic pollution crisis with new standards, such as those found in the National Plastics Plan, along with each state having its own action plan.
The main idea is to eliminate unnecessary single-use plastics by 2025.
Farrell said COPAR recognised early on that wheat straw provided an excellent resource for an alternative fibre-based packaging option, a resource which is otherwise treated as waste or low grade fertiliser.
“The idea is to re-purpose farmers’ agricultural waste by turning it into compostable packaging, which means it will naturally degrade in the environment with no microplastics, it is truly a circular product based on natural processes,” he added.
“Wheat straw is a fantastic product with so many uses. Our thought process is looking at waste in terms of pushing the barriers for composting.”
Hugh Perrottet, operations manager at COPAR, said some of the initial difficulties around the creation of wheat straw alternative packaging was around curbing long held conventions.
“Wheat straw is interesting because no one was really working with it at the time, sugarcane was the fibre-based resource being used most,” he said.
“But as a biomass and waste product that no one was working with, to try and partner people with it was difficult at first, which created a very big learning curve.
“As a waste product in Australia, it’s abundant, much easier to work with and much easier to access than other alternatives like sugarcane or bamboo.
“That was a big issue to overcome and help create a better understanding around wheat straw. All of this was extremely important in the journey towards creating our product.”
Farrell said the move back towards pulping technology was a ‘Back to the Future’ moment.
“The world was pulping to create packaging long before plastic came around and now, we are going back to that model as a sustainable option,” he said.
“Plastic packaging has dominated now for years pushed pulping down the totem pole. We are fortunate that India and its large economy never gave up on pulping and China also maintained the practice.
“We were lucky to partner with experts from India like Dr Thava Palanisami, who helped us come up with some our formulations.”
Palanisami is the team leader of the Environmental Plastics Innovation Cluster at the University of Newcastle, which is partnered with COPAR on the development of both its fibre-based packaging and bio-polymer films.
Palanisami said the development process presented some challenges which needed to be overcome, from meeting Australian Standards to providing a robust alternative for food packaging while avoiding plastics.
“We started a partnership with InnovationClub (COPAR’s parent entity) which was very helpful. We wanted a completely plastic free and fully optimised PFAS free product. That was critical,” he said.
“It has been a challenge, but we got the perfect formulation. Australia has strict requirements for packaging, so we had to make sure the product met those standards.”
Along with the continued research and development through its partnerships with the likes of The University of Newcastle, COPAR also broke ground on a manufacturing facility in Bathurst NSW, which is expected to be operation in the first half of 2024.
While wheat straw is COPAR’s first area of focus, biomass as a whole will also be a continuing area for the company.
“It’s not just wheat straw and pulping, we can also look at other possibilities for customers because there are other sources of biomass,”said Farrell.
“They include hemp which has great potential in terms of packaging, and even bamboo.
“Focusing on biomass that is currently agricultural waste where some farmers pay people to get rid of it, and then turning this into another revenue stream for farmers is a great thing.”
Currently, COPAR has up to 13 prototype forming moulds on hand that have been developed in conjunction with its Indian partner.
And with the ability to fabricate prototypes for potential customers on-site, COPAR has reached a critical point in the development of Australian wheat straw packaging, finally possessing a tangible example of what the company can provide.
Some wheat straw packaging product types already created by COPAR include square bowls, round plates, clamshells, and in a big positive for the company, meat trays.
A recent development has created a meat tray type solution that is MAP compliant, meaning they are now a viable option for the booming Ready-to-Eat Market.
Over the course of the past two years, COPAR has continued to navigate the challenges presented by making fibre-based packaging a more viable alternative for the food industry, including recent accreditation for recyclability in the UK by the OPRL.
A good sign for the future of the product in other markets, including Australia.
Especially given the changing standards around packaging, waste, and sustainability.