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 The thing about sustainable packaging-0000

Sustainable business adviser Simon Harvey says exporters keen to reduce the environmental impact of packaging are best to take a “whole of system” approach, rather than to “start with what they’ve got and try to make it ‘less bad’”

BY:  Virginia McMillan

Tauranga technology exporter Blue Lab has had a change of heart on the packaging of its two most popular products.

Instead of casing them in throwaway cardboard and plastic sheathing, the soil PH-meter manufacturer designed a plastic case that doubles as a durable storage container for the unit.

Blue Lab sales and marketing manager Chris Winslade says this reduces packaging, is useful for the consumer and helps in the company’s quest for sustainability.

A member of the Sustainable Business Network, Blue Lab has a focus on keeping plastics use low.

The company has eliminated one petroleum-based packaging product: the polystyrene foam that was ubiquitous in the industry until concerns about slow degradability turned off some customers. Instead, Blue Lab uses corrugated cardboard inserts made of recycled fibre.

As much as it can, the company recycles the materials entering its offices and factories, and large cartons received are reused or sent back for the supplier to reuse or dispose of, says Winslade.

Whole system approach

Sustainable business adviser Simon Harvey says exporters keen to reduce the environmental impact of packaging are best to take a “whole of system” approach, rather than to “start with what they’ve got and try to make it ‘less bad’”.

By this he means not assuming products must be packaged the way they currently are. Instead, he says, evaluate product design, decide whether and where packaging is needed and for what function and seek the best packaging solution with the least impact over the lifecycle of the packaging.

Auckland-based Harvey is an adviser for sustainability organization The Natural Step. He points to US-headquartered Interface’s move into leasing its flooring product as a way to keep guardianship of it and manage reuse and recycling over its lifetime.

In Christchurch, Cyclops Yoghurt chose plastic containers that were reusable by the consumer, and enThe thing about sustainable takeaways-0000courages keeping them out of the landfill.

Mitch Cuevas, ecostore’s CEO, says his company uses recyclable plastic containers and its store has “refill” stations – an idea ecostore wants to see take off. It is also considering changing to a fully biodegradable container.

Options under scrutiny include cornstarch-based polyactic acid (PLA) plastic, but Cuevas says this will biodegrade only at a high temperature in an industrial facility not available in New Zealand.

PLA can be recycled and reused more easily than petrol-based plastics, he says, but domestic volumes aren’t yet high enough for recycle operators to separate out.

Packaging manufacturers can, alternatively, put an additive into plastic, converting it into a product broken down by microbes. Ecostore may decide on containers made of this, says Cuevas. “Fully biodegradable is the ultimate goal and the science is moving very quickly.”

A New Zealand company making and sourcing starch products – including bags, film, cutlery and plates – is Auckland-based FriendlyPak.

Managing director Kevin Graham says of 10 products his company makes or sells, the most relevant for exporters are the “popstarch” packaging chips for use in place of polystyrene foam chips.

The product can be thrown on the garden after use, he says.

Demand is growing and a couple of truckloads are produced a month.

At Elldex Packaging New Zealand, Steve Davis says most exporters can find a fully recyclable plastic that can be easily recycled overseas. An additive can be used to create a degradable plastic but the product’s lifetime is reduced. He estimates the cost premium is at least 25-35%.

Not Necessarily More Expensive

Cost holds back many businesses, but Tait Radio Communications group quality and environmental manager George Elder says eco-friendly products are not always more expensive. Each has its own cost and benefit profile.

Elder says customers are key to packaging decisions.

After dispatching components for a product that is assembled by a customer company, Tait discovered its packaging was useless and would be thrown away. Now Tait sends specially designed packaging for the assembler to use with the components. Elder says Tait chooses cardboard over plastic wherever it can, based on the fact that New Zealand card comes from a renewable resource and includes a high proportion of recycled content.

Tait phased out polystyrene foam four years ago.

Packaging choice sometimes conflicts with other demands, says Elder. For example, the ability to recycle cardboard containers may be limited by the labelling required by marketing.

Despite Kiwis’ recycling efforts, Graham and Cuevas point out that cardboard production takes a lot of energy, water and chemicals and large volumes of plastic waste are either land filled or shipped to China.

Innovation from the packaging industry is providing some answers, and exporters say they work closely with their suppliers. Ecostore says a plastics supplier, on request, developed a recyclable spray unit for ecostore.

Alto Plastics refined its kiwifruit “pocketpacks” for Zespri, making them reusable. Alto reports that it takes part in key environmental programmes such as Environmental Choice and makes recycling bins and other goods out of recycled plastic.

However, only 24% of New Zealand’s plastic consumption volume was collected in 2008. In the same year, 70% of New Zealand’s paper was collected; some goes to Australia but much of it is reprocessed by Carter Holt Harvey Packaging locally.

The company’s environmental sustainability report shows that about 225,000 tonnes of recycled fibre a year is used in the production of more than 500,000 tonnes of carton and corrugated packaging materials.


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