As 2020 draws to a close and the COVID-19 pandemic continues to frame discussions in boardrooms across the country, the Director of CSIRO James Darvell shares his thoughts on the key takeaways for Australian businesses.
Nestlé, Procter & Gamble and other investors have put $25 million behind Loop, a packaging reuse model that launched last year.
The Ocean Cleanup and Konecranes have chosen MHE-Demag to design, manufacture and service the Ocean Cleanup’s Interceptor to extract plastic from rivers before entering the ocean.
The Australian packaging industry has traditionally been seen as being at odds with the diligent efforts of the WARR industry to deal with the impacts of a society highly dependent on packaging.
This year the AIP Australasian Packaging Conference 2020 faced the issue head on with the theme of sustainable packaging threaded throughout its October online event. It was attended by 300 delegates and featured 80 speakers.
President of the World Packaging Organisation (WPO) Professor Pierre Plenaar opened the conference with his keynote address Global Perspective on Packaging: Fit for the Future.
“Plastic has its place but that place is not in our environment” he stated, adding that “it needs to be kept in a circular economy where they can be recycled, reused or even composted.
“But plastic is a necessity for keeping food safe, protected (especially during COVID) and for reducing food waste. But we do need to develop many solutions that reduce packaging volume and impact without compromising on protection.”
According to Plenaar, the WPO envisions a world without waste by increasing plastic recycling and identifying alternatives. He outlined the three main areas where the organisation has focused to reduce packaging waste:
- Reduction of food waste
- Reduction of packaging waste
- Increasing packaging education
“The WPO works with the UN and its Industrial Development Association where we have been focusing on helping developing countries to create systems to reduce the packaging and transition it to a recycling program.”
Shocked at plastic waste
The focus for the WPO in 2021-2023 is the identification of key countries that require WPO assistance in achieving their Extended Producer Responsibility schemes.
Plenaar said that he was “shocked” when he visited developing countries and saw the vast amounts of packaging on the beaches and in the oceans. “It’s much worse to see this in person than just looking at a photo.”
He added that another area of focus for the WPO was mono-material packaging. According to the Food Packaging Forum, mono-material films are said to be ‘fully recyclable’ in contrast to ‘conventional multi-layer composite films [which are] difficult to recycle because of the need to separate the different film layers.’
Twenty-five per cent of food waste can be eliminated
Plenaar cited the UN which claims that, of the existing figure of 35 per cent of food waste, up to 25 per cent of that could be eliminated through packaging. “We are concentrating on this through our Worldstar Award categories.”
However, Plenaar noted that pushing against the WPO attempts to curb packaging waste was a demand by consumers for convenience, which was illustrated by the growing amount of single-use packaging.
“This is a heavy burden on the environment and we need to manage that waste better. We are facing a crisis due to the unresolved challenges of packaging recyclability and recycling. Our rates across the world are not great. In the US it is 28 per cent, Europe is much better at 40 per cent but in Asia the schemes are not in place yet.
“Unfortunately, India has shelved plans for a full ban on single use plastics for now, but is pushing increased awareness campaigns and collection points. Meanwhile Latin America has relatively low commitments to sustainability with few regulations in place,” he added.
No Time to Waste
A breakout session on Day 2 of the conference focused on multiple aspects of the circular economy, from consumer awareness, to economics, materials and design.
Amcor Flexibles director, safety, quality, and sustainability Richard Smith stated succinctly what many in the WARR industry believe, in his presentation No Time to Waste, “because that’s exactly where we are right now; we have no time to waste”. Drilling down into soft plastics, Smith noted that despite their ubiquitousness, these materials have been extraordinarily successful in reducing waste over the past 20-odd years, along with delivering significant environmental benefits.
“Flexible packaging offers the ability to substantially reduce the amount of plastics we use because it replaces other more difficult waste material,” he said. However, he acknowledged that a paradox that lies within the flexibility of the material.
“It’s lightweight with good barrier qualities and low cost with a low carbon footprint. But this has also created some of its challenges in that, at the end of its life, there is little mass and, as a result poses a challenge to the waste industry which depends on a large amount of mass to collect and recycle.
“So, it has low value in collection at its end of life while also being hard to compete against the cheap cost of virgin materials,” he said.
Smith also said, for soft plastics, mechanical recycling wasn’t going to be able to close the loop on its own, the industry must turn to chemical recycling.
“This is the way where we can close the loop on soft plastics. We need to consider that soft plastics are a very large portion of the plastics we use in Australia now.”
Smith noted that another aspect is that the amount of mechanical recycling infrastructure which has been put into place has been very much around rigid packaging materials.
“But against the paradox, there is a huge opportunity if we can turn that linear economy model into a circular economy,” he said.
Smith added that the solution to the circularity problem has several dimensions, including the packaging itself, the waste-collection infrastructure, consumer behaviour, and the recycling infrastructure itself.
He referred to Amcor’s involvement in the Holy Grail project in Europe, which aims to ensure a purer recycling stream using digital watermarks on packaging.
Smith said that he considered targets to be an important tool in encouraging investment in the circular economy.
“There is a strong future for us with the technology available; it’s just a matter of a concerted effort across the supply chain, and that’s where the [2025 National Packaging] targets will come into play,” he added.
Veolia Australia and New Zealand CEO Richard Kirkman arrived from the UK business in the second half of 2020 following what the company has described as “a difficult year with devastating bushfires in Australia and then the global pandemic.”
A team of engineers from the University of Sydney may be one step closer to cleaning up heavily contaminated industrial wastewater streams. By using electricity to clean up heavily polluted industrial wastewater the team hopes the findings will help wineries, pharmaceutical manufacturers and other industries that must comply with strict wastewater regulations.
In this month’s Young Professional article, we profile EnviroCom Australia’s Environmental Consultant, NSW Jo Smith.
A degree in Conservation Biology and Zoology at the University of Western Australia combined with a passion for the natural environment were two key factors in leading Smith into the world of waste and resource recovery.
She told Inside Waste that new technology and educational approaches which enable society to think about its attitude to waste and the environmental and human impacts were deeply inspiring for her.
“When I was offered the chance to enter the waste sector, I leapt at it. Not only for the opportunity to make real, positive change at a local level, but to view and measure that change, knowing that my efforts and those of the community could make a difference.
“I was also very keen on being able to work within the close-knit, supportive EnviroCom team and learn from experienced supervisors and colleagues,” she said.
Co-ordinating in the Pilbara
Smith’s first full-time role in a waste-related sector was as association coordinator with the Care For Hedland Environmental Association. Based in Port Hedland, in the Pilbara region of WA, she coordinated staff and volunteers to assist with conservation and environmental programs. These included sea turtle monitoring during turtle nesting season, litter clean ups, recycle days and shorebird watching events.
“It was here that I first gained experience and exposure to the world of waste. Having run a monthly ‘recycle day’ as the Town of Port Hedland didn’t have a kerbside recycling service, I learned more about the recycling industry and its challenges in a regional area. I also had the opportunity to liaise with companies such as Cleanaway and Toxfree, and the Waste Services Manager of the Town of Port Hedland,” she added
Challenge to change behaviour
Smith told Inside Waste that the most challenging aspect of her current role was igniting behaviour change around waste and recycling.
“I manage Envirocom’s waste education contract with Orange City Council. The Council provides a FOGO service to residents but excludes the use of compostable bags with this service.
“Although this means contamination is very low, it can be difficult to encourage residents to use the FOGO service for their household food waste, as for many people this is a big change in disposal habits. It is crucial that food waste is diverted from landfill, to avoid excess methane emissions and potentially toxic leachate, while simultaneously providing a valuable resource in the form of compost,” she said.
A COVID re-think
Smith is candid when she says that COVID-19 forced herself and the EnviroCom team to “think outside the box” about waste education programs.
“After a several weeks of working from home when the pandemic first hit and rethinking some of the initiatives that were originally planned, we came up with new ideas. We started focusing on delivering webinars, creating media campaigns (with focus on events such as National Recycling Week and Plastic Free July) and I even started making cartoon videos for various councils with their preferred waste education messages.
“The videos were fun to make and a great new skill that I now have under my belt, plus they have been effective in communicating information to the general public, and councils have received positive feedback from residents.
However, COVID-19 had a significant impact on Smith, who wasn’t able to visit family and friends in Perth.
“I feel lucky to have a permanent position with EnviroCom, and since moving to Orange in November 2019, I hope to stay for several years to build up my skills, meet fellow waste educators and assist new staff joining the team. At some point in the future I would like to spend time in Germany or France, ideally working in waste education.
If Smith was the Prime Minister or Environment Minister, her top three priorities for the WARR industry would be to mandate that all products be made from recycled materials. She believes this would expand the market for domestic recycling product and reduce Australia’s dependence on raw, virgin materials.
“This could apply to products across all streams (MSW, C&I, C&D) and bring about an expansion of current recycling technology and demand. I would also streamline production, particularly with regard to plastics, and eliminate the need for multiple plastic types as well as focusing on diverting organic waste from landfill, as the methane emitted from landfill contributes to three per cent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions.
“The use of commercial composting facilities or even home composting can make a huge difference to the quantity of waste entering landfill.
“However, technology is becoming more advanced and it’s great to see fantastic solutions popping up all the time,” she added.