Report says packaging needs clearer labels

The Australian Council of Recycling (ACOR) has published a report discussing the standard of environmental labelling on packaging in Australia. The report has identified something that the Australian Packaging Covenant (APCO) and its partners at Planet Ark and PREP Design hav recognised – that Australia needs a clear, concise and evidenced based label placed on every product and packaging type sold into the Australian market.

Report findings 
The report’s findings were developed using a random audit of products found on supermarket shelves. Its findings include:

  • 88 per cent of all packaging components are recyclable (this is consistent with APCO data)
  • 40 per cent of products contain some form of recycling labelling instruction
  • 23 epr cent of products on supermarket shelves contain the Australasian Recycling Label

The ARL Program is growing rapidly and tracking well compared to similar programs being implemented globally. As of May 2020, 402 APCO Members (27 per cent of the total APCO Membership) have joined the ARL Program, including many of Australia’s major household brands and retailers. In comparison, the United States’ How2Recycle Program (which began in 2012), reported 225 brand owner and retailer members across North America in 2019. Meanwhile the UK’s OPRL Program (which launched in 2009) reported 500 members in 2020.

This year the program was also recognised internationally as a world-leading consumer education initiative in a report from the UN Environment Programme, commended for its clarity, reliability and accessibility.

The ARL – a nationally consistent solution  
The ARL Program has been free and available for all APCO Members since 2018 and APCO is looking forward to seeing the ARL on every packaging format as the Program grows over the coming years.  Through the APCO Membership model, the Program is freely available to approximately 80% of the current supply chain, and as the Program develops and grows, we welcome anyone interested in the work to participate.

Labelling is one of the critical success factors to support the delivery of the 2025 National Packaging Targets. It is also one of APCO’s priority actions under the Federal Government’s 2019 National Waste Policy Action Plan (2.14 – Improve consumer information to increase recycling rates and improve the quality of materials in kerbside recycling collection through the Australasian Recycling Label).  

How APCO is building the Program  
The implementation of the ARL Program is a five-year journey and we will continue to invest significantly into building an evidence-based, trusted labelling Program. This includes:

  • Providing transparent administrative and governance functions for the Program through the Marketing Advisory Committee and Technical Advisory Committees
  • Building consumer awareness and interest in the label. The Program’s 2019 Benchmarking research found 48 per cent of consumers currently claim to recognise the label, while 60% per cent are either ‘extremely’ to ‘very’ interested in knowing more about the label
  • Building awareness of the Program with communications and education: In 2019 the ARL was featured in 470 media articles – including Sunrise, Sky News, ABC Breakfast, The Conversation and The Project. In 2020 APCO will be delivering its new National Consumer Education Campaign in partnership with Planet Ark to continue to build the Program’s profile.

One billion pieces of plastic saved from landfill

Coles has taken a step towards its goal of becoming Australia’s most sustainable supermarket after diverting more than 1 billion pieces of soft plastics from landfill.
Since 2011, Coles has worked with sustainability partner REDcycle to recycle plastic bags and soft plastic packaging such as biscuit packets, lolly bags, frozen food bags and bread, rice and pasta bags which cannot be recycled through most kerbside recycling services. 
With the program now collecting an average of 121 tonnes – or 30 million pieces of plastic every month – customers returned the one billionth piece of plastic to the REDcycle bins at Coles in June.
The milestone coincides with Coles’ first Sustainability Week as a publicly-owned company and aligns with its strategic objective to become Australia’s most sustainable supermarket.
Liz Kasell, founder of Red Group and the REDcycle program, congratulated Coles and its customers for reaching the incredible milestone. 
“For nearly ten years Coles has supported the REDcycle program, and thanks to the participation of their enthusiastic customers, they have now diverted more than a billion pieces of soft plastics from landfill,” Liz said. 
In 2018, Coles became the first national supermarket retailer to have REDcycle bins in every store for customers to donate soft plastics, which are transformed by manufacturers such as Replas into a range of recycled products including outdoor furniture for community groups.
To support its recycling initiatives, REDcycle received a $430,000 grant from the Coles Nurture Fund to increase the amount of soft plastic it collects for recycling. The funds, which it received this year, allowed the company to purchase new processing technology and three new collection vehicles.

Coles’ soft plastics collected by REDcycle are also recycled into an asphalt additive for roads by Melbourne manufacturer Close the Loop and into garden edging by Albury business Plastic Forests.
This month, Coles supported another recycling solution for soft plastics by providing a $300,000 grant from the Coles Nurture Fund to Plastic Forests to manufacture steel-reinforced plastic posts which can be used for fencing by farmers including those affected by bushfires.
Coles chief property and export officer Thinus Keeve, who leads Coles’ sustainability strategy, congratulated customers on their role in helping to reach the milestone. 
“Our customers have told us recycling is important to them and Coles is proud to support initiatives which help close the loop on recycling and divert waste from landfill,” he said.
“One billion pieces of soft plastics recycled via Coles and REDcycle is a fantastic achievement by our customers and team members. It’s also an important step in helping to drive generational sustainability in Australia.”    
Many of Coles’ sustainability initiatives are focused on waste reduction, including through partnerships with food rescue organisations SecondBite and Foodbank to collect and distribute edible, unsold food to Australians in need. 
Last month, SecondBite reported nine out of 10 of their food relief charity partners surveyed across Australia had been impacted by COVID-19 and more than 80% have witnessed an increase in demand for food relief.
To date, Coles has donated the equivalent of 146 million meals to SecondBite and Foodbank, which partner with local community groups to deliver nutritious meals to vulnerable Australians facing hardship. 
Coles further reduces the volume of food waste sent to landfill by donating fruit, vegetables and bakery products that are no longer suitable to eat to livestock farmers and animal shelters, with more than thirteen million kilograms donated to farmers in FY19. 
As part of Sustainability Week, Coles supermarkets are now reaching out to local farmers and customers to expand this program. Customers who may have a use for the produce as livestock feed are encouraged to visit their local Coles supermarket and speak to the store manager. 
Coles is also working with bakery supplier Goodman Fielder on an initiative to recycle surplus Coles Brand bread that cannot be used by our food charity partners by processing into breadcrumbs and bread meal, an ingredient in pet foods such as dog biscuits.
Following a successful pilot earlier this year, the program is now being rolled out to over 200 stores, to further support repurposing unsold Coles Brand bread away from was

Bans are effective, but not the endgame in solving the plastic problem

Plastic is an incredible material. It can be airtight and watertight, moulded to any shape, clear or coloured, shock-resistant, lightweight, and is chemically stable. Unfortunately, these last two features also mean plastic pollution poses a huge environmental problem.

In theory, plastic is highly recyclable. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), typically used in drink bottles, can be recycled back into new drink bottles, or even upcycled into raincoats or clothing.

But for this to happen, the plastic waste must be clean and separated by single plastic type, which is challenging when a typical drink bottle consists of multiple plastics – the bottle cap, the label, and the bottle itself. This mixing or co-mingling of plastic means that more often than not, “recycling” becomes “downcycling”, whereby the co-mingled plastic is actually turned into a lower-value product (for example, soft plastic bags returned to a supermarket are often turned into park benches or fence posts).

This is, of course, is still a much better result than it ending up in our waterways or oceans, but given the low material grade of the downcycled product, the end result is an object ultimately destined for landfill due to its inability to be recycled further.

Another obstacle for recycling is that virgin plastic is made from oil, which means its price moves with the oil price, and when oil becomes cheap, the economics of recycling are less attractive. A volatile oil price over the past few years has made the business case for investing in recycling infrastructure and operations particularly challenging.

In landfill, plastic is relatively innocuous on a generational timeframe. On a geological timeline, however, everything underground is eventually churned to the surface, so burying it isn’t a sustainable solution for the planet.

Once plastic gets out into the biosphere, ultraviolet rays from the sun break it down into small, lightweight pieces that clog the ecological systems we depend on for clean air, water and food.

The most publicised challenge is the great mass of plastics accumulating in waterways and the oceans. These micro pieces are eaten by the diverse range of creatures that form the base of the global food chain, clogging their stomachs and effectively starving them on a full belly. Plastic has now become so ubiquitous in the food chain that it’s found in the most remote corners of the globe – in 90 per cent of sea bird stomachs, and in increasing concentrations in our bodies.

READ MORE: The role that sealable packaging plays in minimising food waste

Just over half of this ocean plastic is thought to be leakage from land, with the balance coming from contamination directly into the ocean by way of littering, fishing nets, lost cargo from ships etc.

With their huge catchment areas, the Amazon and Niger basins are significant contributors to ocean plastic pollution. Asia, though, with 15 of the world’s 20 most polluting rivers, is the plastic pollution epicentre. This is partly due to municipal waste mismanagement.

However, given the Western world has been shipping its contaminated, mixed plastic waste streams to Asia for decades with the expectation that Asia would magically make the problem go away, we’ve all contributed to this pollution. Last year, China declared it would no longer be the global plastic dumping ground, providing the rest of the world with a plastic reality check.

Rather than just looking for a new country in which to dump our waste, we need to rethink the services plastics provide, and how we can create systems to maintain the value of these finite materials as they move through the economy. The Victorian government is aiming to stimulate this change through the ban on the lightweight plastic shopping bags, due to come into force on 1 November.

India taking action
India, meanwhile, is taking its plastic action much further. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced his government is aiming to limit the consumption of single-use plastic – including bags, cups, plates, small bottles, straws and certain types of sachets – with expected restrictions on its manufacture and importation. His stated goal is to eliminate it by 2022.

The reality is that with its population density and management practices, plastic pollution isn’t just a global environmental issue; it has a direct impact on the quality of life across the country. As one of the two most populated nations on Earth, and a significant contributor to global plastic pollution, this commitment will hopefully deliver meaningful environmental benefits.

These types of bans help raise awareness of the issues and prompt individuals to rethink daily habits to reduce single-use plastic waste. Significant reductions have been measured in countries that already have “plastic bans” in place, including Ireland and China.

However, it wasn’t the ban on ozone-depleting substances alone that saved the ozone layer – it was the development of economically attractive alternatives that transformed the market.

Single-use plastics provide incredibly useful services. Storing and transporting basic needs such as food and beverages, they’ve become such a fundamental part of modern life that if we’re going to replace them, we need to find convenient and economically attractive alternatives. Further to this, if you’re a mobile food vendor, cheap and disposable packaging in which to sell your product can be fundamental to your livelihood.

Enter the circular economy, where products and material are maintained at their highest value, ideally in perpetuity. Biological materials (such as timber, food and soil) are managed in a regenerative cycle, where food waste is processed back into soil conditioner to sustain the system. Finite materials such as plastics and metals are designed for reuse, repair and, ultimately, economical recycling, maintaining the materials in a closed loop.

Rethink required
Solving the plastic challenge begins with rethinking the “job” we’re asking plastic to do, and how we can do it in a way that creates and retains value. For example, filing a reusable drink bottle with pristine Melbourne drinking water eliminates the energy and material value lost when we throw away single-use plastic bottles. Similarly, dining in with friends on reusable crockery is infinitely more valuable to our wellbeing than eating out of a disposal plastic container on the fly, or at your desk.

In the case of India, bringing products such as bowls and cutlery into the market that retain value after use will enable meaningful secondary markets to form – for example, collecting, cleaning and reselling those products.

As important as individual choices are, global challenges require political leadership to reshape our economic systems to enhance the human experience while protecting and regenerating the biosphere we all depend on for our quality of life and ultimate survival.

This will be explored in an upcoming Lens article, but in the meantime, political leadership is unlikely to self-emerge, especially in the current climate – it’ll be driven by individuals and communities calling for action and walking the talk.

So, although your reusable shopping bags and drink bottle aren’t going to solve the problem on their own, if enough of us show the way, the system will follow.

Little Green Panda and Stroh tackle drinking straw issue

Two Australian companies offering competing products, Little Green Panda and Stroh, have joined forces in a bid to eliminate disposable plastic straws from the food service industry by replacing them with compostable, plant-based alternatives made from wheat stems.

Sharing a mutual commitment to eradicating single-use plastics in the retail and hospitality industries, Manon Beauchamp-Tardieu and Teresa Aylott, of Little Green Panda and Strohrespectively, have now become leaders in the plant-based product industry, selling a combined 1.3 million wheat stem straws to seven countries with a growth rate of 250 per cent in monthly sales.

“We are so excited to bring together our knowledge, resources, established relationships and most importantly, our passion, to tackle the pervasive problem of single-use plastics within the retail and hospitality industries. We believe our business is more than just selling sustainable straws, we are driving a movement to reduce waste,” says Manon Beauchamp-Tardieu.

READ MORE: New glass technology to replace straws?

Committed to being a zero waste business, Little Green Panda’s straws are predominantly made from wheat stems, considered an agricultural waste product but when turned into a resource that is 100% compostable, non-toxic, plastic free, gluten free and soggy free, making it a friendly alternative to both the environment and the consumer.

“We want our business to restore and replenish the environment, not deplete it,” says Teresa Aylott.

The company also makes straws from bamboo and sugar cane, with both options compostable and proving to be popular functional alternatives to plastic.

Focusing on the commercial mass use of plastic and paper straws, the duo has already made a mark globally, working with wholesalers and distributors across Australia, New Zealand, France, Italy and Hong Kong with clients including Marriott Hotels, Sofitel, Hilton Hotel, Attica, and Australian Liquor Marketers. Little Green Panda also supplies to 50 supermarkets in France and are in talks with major supermarkets in Australia.

Manufacturing currently takes place on the borders of Mongolia; however, the company is hoping to eventually move the manufacturing process to Australia. Off the back of Global Table, Asia Pacific’s largest international agri-food innovation event where Stroh was an exhibitor, Little Green Panda are now in talks with a major scientific organisation to research the machinery which would allow for local manufacturing as well as farmers around Australia to produce the straws.

Already seeing exponential growth, the company hopes to continue along this trajectory, eventually taking control of the entire supply chain and expanding their sustainable product offering beyond straws.

Plastic waste – why every gram counts

In my 30 years of HDPE plastic bottle manufacturing, I have become an expert in every aspect of this business. And this is not by chance, but a lot of hard work.

As I focus my efforts on the finite resource that is HDPE, I want to make the world aware of an important point: full-loop recycling is hard, and it is capital intensive. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t recycle –  in fact, we absolutely must. It is a priority in my world.

I believe one of the easiest and simplest ways to lessen waste is to reduce the weight of HDPE bottles by one gram. In many cases, a brand owner and a manufacturer can just agree to reduce the weight of HDPE plastic bottles by changing the specification with no resulting impact on the integrity of the bottle. It is just a change in documentation. If that is a little concerning, or for some reason makes you nervous, then go with half a gram – every bit will count in the end.

Success in weight reduction comes in the form of predictable results from known process inputs, and more importantly, having those known inputs in control.

The products that go inside the bottles are made using strict recipes and quality controls. For the HDPE bottle manufacturing process – extrusion blow moulding – it is the same.
Plastic bottles are made from a range of materials, and are an engineered part of the bottle – they must be seen as this until the day they are consumed and tossed into the recycling bin. Bottles that are produced with a high degree of repeatability and are proven on the filling line build confidence in the people who fill them. This confidence will be the trigger to a successful weight reduction project. And this may also build the confidence in brand owners to reduce the weight by even more than one gram.

Without the confidence of the team filling the bottles, anything that can potentially change the bottles performance characteristics will be fought against hard, and the end goal of reducing the weight by one gram won’t work.

Considering the billions of HDPE bottles that are made each year of just one gram of HDPE plastic is removed from even half of them, then we will have saved an extraordinary amount of energy to produce this plastic in the first place.

And let us not forget the extraordinary amount of product that will be saved from landfill, or the effort having to recycle it afterwards.

Nestlé supports global commitment to reduce plastic waste

Nestlé has joined forces with other businesses and governments in signing the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, known as the Global Commitment, at the Our Ocean Conference in Bali, Indonesia.

The Global Commitment is an initiative of The Ellen MacArthur Foundation and UN Environment.

It aims to rethink the future of plastics by applying the principles of circular economy, in which plastics never become waste.

The Global Commitment represents a framework to work collectively on solutions that address the root causes of plastics waste and pollution.

READ: Nestlé pledges increase in recycled plastics in the European Union

Nestlé CEO Mark Schneider said the Global Commitment is a step-change that is urgently needed in order to move from a linear to a circular economy.

“We want to act and lead by example. We will do our part to ensure that none of our packaging, including plastics, ends up in the natural environment,” said Schneider.

Nestlé recognises the need for preventing packaging material ending up as waste.

This is the rationale behind the company’s goal to make 100 per cent of its packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025.

To achieve this goal, Nestlé has embarked on several research and development projects.

One of them is the NaturAll Bottle Alliance, which aims to develop 100 per cent bio-based PET to be used for its water business.

Nestlé also plays a role in the development of well-functioning collection, sorting and recycling schemes across the countries where it operates.