Scrunching the issue of soft plastics

The Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) has compiled a comprehensive gap analysis on the market barriers to recovering soft plastics. Waste Management Review sat down with APCO’s Brooke Donnelly to discuss how it fits into the broader plastics issue.

The co-regulatory Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) was endorsed to lead the development of a national roadmap to help achieve the state and territory environment ministers target of 100 per cent reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025.

It’s a goal that APCO and its Chief Executive Officer, Brooke Donnelly, are not taking lightly – representing around 1100 members across 153 Australian and New Zealand Standard Industrial codes. As it supports stakeholders and state and territory governments to achieve this target, APCO has begun to identify the gaps that exist in the market for the broader resource recovery and commercial and industrial sector.

Throughout 2018, APCO will work with its members to develop action plans for five problematic packaging materials – glass, soft plastics, expanded polystyrene, polymer coated paper board and biodegradable and compostable packaging. While there are numerous manufacturing, transport and recycling barriers that lie ahead, Brooke, who brings experience in packaging sustainability and procurement across companies such as Visy, Greenpeace and the Australian New Zealand and Recycling Platform, is confident it can be achieved.

With a great deal of negative sentiment surrounding plastic floating around in the general debate on waste, Brooke says we need to take a holistic approach to the issue, as opposed to advocating for blanket bans in the absence of alternatives.

“A lot of people don’t realise how much and how pervasive plastic is in our day to day lives. People think of the traditional plastic bottle as something you’d see on the supermarket shelf, but plastic and polymer materials are in the furniture you’re sitting in and the clothes that you’re wearing – so it really is difficult to pull that entirely back,” Brooke explains.

“We need to have a broader conversation on the real issue with plastic. It is not about whether it’s good or bad, but that it hasn’t been managed effectively at end of life. That’s what we haven’t done well and that is the work we need to do going forward.

“So we need to perhaps take some of the emotion out of the conversation and have a very pragmatic discussion.”

In August, APCO completed its most comprehensive gap analysis yet on one of the five materials – soft plastics.

With a focus on packaging design, infrastructure, end markets and consumer education, the gap analysis highlights the challenges soft plastics present, including increasing levels of consumption and waste, limited consumer access to, and awareness of, kerbside collection or drop-off facilities and finite markets for certain types of soft plastics.

The analysis includes definitions and scope, future goals, data on consumption and recovery and preliminary notes on stakeholders and barriers.

A draft action plan is expected to be completed by the end of 2018 as the Soft Plastics Working Group goes through its next phase.

According to the gap analysis, soft plastics packaging used in Australia is estimated by industry sources to be around 340,000 tonnes annually, with approximately 25 per cent of this recycled.

Storage and transportation play a key role in the recyclability of plastics due to a need to be made for maximum shelf life.

A COMPLEX MESH

Most of us are familiar with soft plastics due to their ability to scrunch up into a ball, including retail packaging (such as shopping bags, chip packets, pasta bags and biscuit wrap), clean commercial and industrial film (such as bundle shrink, pallet wrap and garment bags), agricultural packaging (such as silage wrap) and dirty/wet packaging (such as industrial packaging contaminated with food residue).

The gap analysis explains that soft plastics are generally made from LDPE, LLDPE, HDPE or PP. Barrier packaging is often made from multiple layers of different materials, including plastics, paper and aluminium foil. Other polymers in the mix can include PET and PVC.

Soft plastics are collected by some Melbourne councils (Cardinia, Hobsons Bay, Nillumbik and Boroondara) as part of their kerbside recycling program and through the national REDcycle drop-off program in supermarkets. There are also numerous waste contractors and recyclers who collect from other councils and businesses.

Newtecpoly, Replas, Plastic Forests, Envorinex and Downer/Close the Loop are just a few companies processing the materials locally into roads, resin or rigid plastics. Other companies export the film to markets in Asia and Europe.

However, this soon could change. According to the gap analysis, as the value of LDPE films in export markets has recently fallen by around 33 per cent as a result of China’s National Sword policy, the gap in the market could contribute to a need to reprocess more soft plastics locally in Australia.

Brooke says that the difficulties in recycling soft plastics are a reflection of the maturity of the recycling system and the need to begin to target hard to recycle materials and associated barriers with logistics, collection and aggregation.

“One of the things we’re really focusing on now is designing for end of life and recovery,” Brooke says.

“However, we also have to be aware that the functionality of plastics is really important in terms of food protection and pharmaceuticals, so there are some safety issues as well.”

She stresses the need for manufacturers to stick to ensuring products are functional, in addition to being recyclable, reusable or compostable.

According to the gap analysis, a need to cater to increasing requirements for improved food presentation, convenience and product protection has led to more than one type of polymer and material being used in flexible packaging.

The analysis highlights that layering different materials together is advantageous for manufacturers because it creates packaging with unique barrier and mechanical properties, resulting in thinner and lighter packaging when compared to monolayer, and reducing resources required to transport and produce packaging.

Brooke believes consumers aren’t aware of how pervasive plastic
is in our lives, from furniture, to clothing and plastic bottles.

CHALLENGING RECYCLABILITY

Multiple variations also add to the complexity of recovery and recycling, with conventional material recovery facility technology unable to handle flexible plastics.

Brooke says that the limited number of kerbside collection programs in Melbourne demonstrate that soft plastics can be successfully collected by asking consumers to add soft plastics to their yellow bin in a separate bag.

This is then pulled out manually at the beginning of the materials recovery facility sorting process, increasing recovery of soft plastics and reducing processing problems associated with soft plastics contamination.

She says Australia will benefit from international efforts to improve the recyclability of soft plastics, with new design guidelines expected to be released later in the year. New technologies are also being developed to process the more complex multilayer plastics, including chemical recycling, back into the basic raw materials for plastics, and waste to energy (pyrolysis or gasification).

Brooke says that we are now moving beyond the traditional infrastructure market where the main focus has been on sorting, with a need to ensure as clean a material stream as possible.

“What we’ll see is more development towards the recovery and recycling in terms of technologies,” she says.

She says due to Australia’s vast area, distance is one of the greatest barriers. Therefore, some recovery options might lead to a decentralised model for recycling, citing the work that has been done around microfactories by the University of New South Wales SMaRT Centre as an example of this.

Likewise, storage and transportation play a key role, making product manufacturing for maximum shelf life an important consideration.

“There are several elements to take into account in packaging design as well and that includes transport.

“You need to transport things over long distances in Australia so you have to package food and goods so they are transported and still intact when they get there.”

She says the packaging of the popular supermarket vegetable the continental cucumber, which has been deemed by some consumers as superfluous, shows how confusion can be created about food packaging.

According to the book, Why Shrinkwrap a Cucumber?: The Complete Guide to Environmental Packaging, a wrapped cucumber lasts more than three times as long as an unwrapped one.

“I think what that highlights is that we haven’t told the story about why some items are packaged the way they are.

“Somebody may buy it with the plastic, take it home, take the plastic off and throw it away, where the intent is the plastic is meant to keep its shelf life for an extra week.”

GUIDING THE WAY

APCO’s broader plan looks at optimising consumer packaging and making efficient use of resources, while reducing its environmental impact without compromising product quality and safety.

One of the tools to support this is APCO’s Sustainable Packaging Guidelines, which sees members implement and promote sustainable design throughout their value chains. Brooke says that the guidelines are being used across the international supply chain, including by retail brand owner Super Retail Group, which converted the Sustainable Packaging Guidelines to Mandarin to set requirements for its products imported from China.

Brooke says that meeting the 2025 targets also means addressing all packaging, regardless of whether it is imported or manufactured in Australia.

She says that this push to greater accountability through quantitative data will further support every organisation within APCO with their action plans and annual reporting requirements.

A percentage of membership will also be audited in line with the National Environmental Protection (Used Packaging Materials) Measure 2011 (NEPM) – statutory guidelines set by the National Environment Protection Council.

Whatever the barriers, the soft plastics gap analysis is merely the first stage in the development of a comprehensive action plan to improve collection and recycling of these important materials.

“I think APCO’s role is to take some of what is admirable passion and energy for this issue and translate that into the specific roles each and every one of us can play in this transition, and how we manage that effectively moving forward.”