Our war on waste – the fight for a circular economy
Everyone is fighting for something; a reason we get out of bed each morning and a purpose that drives us.
In an ideal world, we would be living plastic-free where all packaging is made from rapidly renewable resources and returned to the soils it came from with zero-waste systems and sustainable practices. “Waste” would be a crucial part of the natural circle of life. Our forests and ecosystems thriving, air clean, water crisp, fish stocks and sea life healthy, and not a single disposable bag, bottle top or fossil fuel plastic to be seen.
But how we get there is a battle. Plastic waste continues to put up a tough fight with 8 million tonnes infringing on our oceans (Plastic Oceans Foundation, 2017).
It’s fair to say that we will never live in a perfect world. There will always be resistance, disagreement, and contention. But that’s life. As long as we strive to improve and use Mother Earth as a mentor, we can evolve and grow to live more sustainably.
Here we share our war on waste and highlight some of the imperfections of the industry.
Graph showing the predicted increase in plastics by 2050. Source: World Economic Forum, & Ellen MacArthur Foundation. (2016). The New Plastics Economy – Rethinking the future of plastics.
Busy lives and less time have given birth to a culture of convenience, a so-called “take-make-dispose” society with well-ingrained behaviour patterns where product stewardship is given little thought. We do not often know the details of what a product is made of nor where it goes once disposed of. This, coupled with the proliferation of the low cost, high functioning and revolutionary material we call plastic, is the cause of the largely unsustainable plastics economy we operate in today.
It is now widely believed that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the sea by weight (World Economic Forum & Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2016). Not only that, most traditional plastics like PE (polyethylene) and PS (polystyrene) are made from one of the world’s scarcest and non-renewable resources, oil.
This enemy is also hard to dispose of and never really goes away. Traditional plastic takes a long time to break down and even then, will leave behind toxic micro-fragments. Although most plastic can be recycled, it is estimated that only 14% of global plastic is recycled and 32% of plastic packaging escapes collection systems (World Economic Forum, & Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2016). In addition, there are only so many times a plastic can be recycled before it ultimately ends up in a landfill or the sea.
The battle plan
We are at a decision point and we believe the solution lies in a concept called the circular economy. This is a global ambition that can be applied to every industry, as it is a complete redefining of traditional manufacturing and business models. It aims to be restorative and regenerative by design:
- Ensuring efficient use of resources and fostering system effectiveness.
- Preserving and enhancing natural capital by reducing the use of raw materials and encouraging re-use for material input.
- Making waste a crucial component to the input of the manufacturing process.
As an example, Pentatonic is a company embracing these principles, and make furniture and homeware entirely from recycled materials. When you’re ready to part with their products, Pentatonic will buy it back from you to be used in the manufacture of new season pieces. These principles can be applied to almost any industry. Imagine renting your kitchen appliances and returning them to the manufacturer when you are finished. Components of the old product can be reused to make new appliances. “Disposal” is not included in the process, and is replaced with “restoration”.
In regards to the plastics world, we could mitigate our plastic pollution problem by creating an effective after-use plastics economy. We could drastically reduce the leakage of plastics into the environment (in particular the ocean) and disconnect plastic from fossil fuels.
Ecoware is reflective of a circular economy; packaging produced by nature and commercially composted after use. Our products are made from rapidly renewable plant material like bamboo, and responsibly sourced birchwood, paper and kraft pulp. We use IngeoTM bioplastic, a breakthrough innovation that completely replaces traditional oil-based plastic with a resin of the same functional properties, but made entirely from plant material – corn.
When organic waste (food and compostable packaging) is composted in optimal conditions, natural biodegradation will occur, leaving behind a nutrient-rich compost that can be used to assist the growth of next-generation plants. Ideally, there should be no “waste” or “throw away” step in the process.
Our offering sounds simple but only gets us halfway through the battle.
Compostable packaging is a reasonably young industry. Bioplastic (PLA) was commercialized at least 40 years after PE and other traditional oil-based plastics. During that time, the manufacture of oil-based plastics proliferated, and accorded the development of its recycling. Plastic recycling became a lucrative and efficient industry as traditional plastic remained unrivaled for so long.
The composting industry is described as being in development and growth phase, and although there is no doubt the demand for plant-based bioplastic is increasing, it has its own set of challenges to growth.
An industry report commissioned by The Packaging Forum was released earlier this year. It looked at the ability of New Zealand commercial compost facilities to process event waste (food and compostable packaging), including coffee cups and lids. Ecoware was a part of the advisory group to this project, helping to guide the research and give recommendations. Some of the following challenges were discovered.
- Commercial composters accepting packaging waste
Currently, there are 11 commercial compost facilities who openly promote their capacity to accept compostable packaging waste. A further 8 are currently trialling this process. These facilities are concentrated in the North Island, meaning that the commercial composting of packaging is limited in the South Island. We are now increasing our focus on the South Island and working with compost facilities to help with development, and investing in local community projects.
- Consumer knowledge
General fluency of waste concepts and knowledge about what can and cannot go in different waste streams is limited. It is inevitable that someone will put a toxic oil-based coffee cup or plastic bottle in the wrong bin, and find itself in a commercial compost facility. This means that there is a high risk of contamination for a facility accepting compostable packaging. As with any business, commercial compost facilities endeavour to earn a profit and do so by selling premium-grade compost/fertilizer. Contamination of their compost reduces its value, so the risk is too high for many. Ecoware believes education is the key, and are working with industry bodies to address this issue.
- Labelling of packaging
In our blog, Defining Sustainability: Green Claims and Misconception, we caution about the misleading claims found on packaging. Terms like “biodegradable” have the potential to mislead consumers into thinking that a product is better for the environment. Such “greenwashing” has a negative impact on consumer understanding as mentioned above, but there is also no existing standard of identification in New Zealand for compostable products. Here lies an opportunity to create specific identification and logos clearly defining who can use a logo of compostability, and the process surrounding permission granting. This would not only give consumers confidence, but commercial compost facilities can be confident in a lowered risk of contamination.
- Bioplastic innovation
Of the 98 commercial compost facilities in New Zealand, 11 are able to accept and process PLA. Many of these remaining facilities do not have the ability to process PLA for operational reasons, including the persistent high temperature required to process PLA (65°Celsius) and the shredding practices needed for dense PLA like coffee cup lids. There is an opportunity here for the bioplastics industry to develop innovations and create greater ease of processing. Our IngeoTM bioplastic is at the forefront of innovation and we are constantly working to improve its ease of processing.
It’s time to face the music. New Zealand lags behind in the sustainability race, and as a nation, we can do better. Here’s how we are helping.
Since we began, we have expanded our product range by 5 fold to service a wider group of food vendors with their need for more sustainable packaging. We constantly invest in new technology to improve the efficiency of our operations and reduce our environmental impact, so that we can work effectively for more customers. Because of this, we have an ever-growing group of committed cafes, restaurants and organisations choosing to join us on a journey towards improved sustainable business practice. We are proud to partner with some of New Zealand’s biggest companies like SKYCITY and Fisher & Paykel Healthcare, who have chosen Ecoware to help transition away from toxic oil-based packaging. We were the exclusive packaging suppliers for Christchurch City Council’s first Composting Food Packaging at Events trial over summer, where we helped them divert an incredible 12 tonnes of waste from landfill. We are working hard and closely with industry bodies like WasteMINZ, The Packaging Forum and more, to drive the development of the industry and overcome the challenges our industry faces.
The momentum towards a circular economy is building with an increasing amount of waste being diverted from landfill, and more research and development committed to this sector. The battle is in full swing.
Ultimately, our war on waste continues. Despite the challenges we face, we have seen positive change and significant growth. So, we will continue to persevere and work with like-minded individuals and organisations. We will continue to be transparent and honest in educating and encouraging positive social change and adoption of green innovation. We will continue to lead by example, armed with the knowledge that with collective effort, progress is made. Join the journey and let your purchasing decisions count. Fight for zero-waste.
Written by Kristy Wilson
Plastic Oceans Foundation. (2017). The Facts. Retrieved from Plastic Oceans: https://www.plasticoceans.org/the-facts/
World Economic Forum, & Ellen MacArthur Foundation. (2016). The New Plastics Economy – Rethinking the future of plastics. Ellen MacArthur Foundation.