Packaging the new normal: APCO

Packaging the new normal: APCO

With much debate surrounding how COVID-19 will shape Australia in the long-term, the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation is exploring opportunities to accelerate sustainable packaging, writes CEO Brooke Donnelly.  

There has been much debate about how COVID-19 will shape our country in the long term.

For professionals in the packaging and resource recovery industries – one of the most persistent questions has been whether COVID-19 will accelerate or hinder efforts for packaging sustainability in Australia?

It’s a challenging question to unpack. We are after all in largely uncharted territory – professionally, economically and socially.

In the short term there have certainly been consequences. Under lockdown many consumers faced a greater reliance on single use products, while greater restrictions emerged around reusable packaging formats, most notably coffee cups.

Once the immediate risks are gone, it will be imperative that industry provides a united voice to discourage these from becoming long-term behavioural patterns.

For the recycling industry, lockdown conditions have also meant added stress to the kerbside system.

In May ACOR reported a 10 per cent growth in householder kerbside recycling, as well as unprecedented levels of contamination in some locations, especially from soft plastics.

Meanwhile for the restaurants and food industry, many businesses have been required to navigate takeaway packaging for the first time.

For the team at the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) lockdown has meant a period of adaptation. Practically there have been delays, particularly for our projects requiring data collection and trials.

Likewise, our members have been forced to navigate new challenges. With many industries across Australia adversely affected, or even shut down due to COVID 19, it has been a timely reminder of the essential role packaging plays in the Australian economy.

Australian manufacturers produce more than 3.3 million tonnes of packaging annually, or around 61 per cent of all packaging used in Australia.

As well as being a dynamic and thriving local manufacturing industry in its own right, the packaging industry plays a vital role underpinning many other Australian businesses delivering essential products.

Yet despite these challenges, progress is continuing at a remarkable rate. At APCO we launched Our Packaging Future, the strategic roadmap for delivering the 2025 Targets, and Considerations for Compostable Plastic Packaging, a new report developed in partnership with ABA and AORA.

We have also facilitated 12 working and advisory group meetings, bringing together representatives from the complete packaging value chain.

Our events program is one of APCO’s most important industry engagement tools, so we were particularly proud of the decision to move these events to a weekly webinar format.

These sessions cover all things sustainability and give our community a regular opportunity to stay in touch, continue learning and keep collaborating. Switching to an online platform has allowed us to reach approximately two thousand participants – a far greater and more geographically diverse group than before.

These are challenging times, however, I think we can all agree that technology has proven functional, resilient and can open our minds to new ways of doing business as we transition to the new normal. The sessions are open to everyone and registrations are available on the APCO website.

It has also been inspiring to see some Members rise to the challenge of COVID in creative and inspiring ways.

Packaging manufacturer Detmold has switched its manufacturing operations to the production of hand sanitiser and surgical face masks for front-line health workers.

Pact Group has also demonstrated remarkable agility and converted production lines at three of its Sydney plants to produce hand sanitiser for the first time. The team is producing around two million units of sanitiser per month, with 95 per cent sold in Australia.

Meanwhile, APCO member THE ICONIC has maintained a strong focus on its sustainability goals, with the launch of its 100 per cent recycled content delivery satchels in May.

The move is a major milestone for the brand’s target for 100 per cent recycled content in all shipping packaging by 2022, and a demonstration of clear leadership in the online retail space.

As we all prepare to re-enter the new ‘normal’ world of work (whatever version of normal that may be), it has been inspiring to see people ask what can we learn from this time, and how can this challenge be embraced as an opportunity?

Looking ahead, many businesses facing financial strain will need to find operational efficiencies.

Waste – the process of creating and then sending something to landfill – is fundamentally a business inefficiency. By changing our mindset to view waste as a strategic and operational flaw, circular design could provide a powerful opportunity for businesses to financially navigate this challenging time.

Our interconnected, globalised society is one of the unique challenges of managing COVID-19. The pandemic has demonstrated the deeply interdependent relationships of our economy, society, and the environment.

As governments and businesses look to rebuild, there are powerful insights to be taken about how deeply connected and systemic our solution to Australia’s waste and recovery challenges needs to be.

Finally, while it’s a devastating example, the pandemic has illustrated the potential of collective action and how powerfully Australians can come together to address a challenge. So let’s harness that approach for building a sustainable future for Australia.

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