Recycling plastic the natural way: Natures Organics

Natures Organics explains its journey to producing products made from 100 per cent recycled plastic.

It’s been a steep learning curve since personal care manufacturer Natures Organics launched in 1981.

With a focus on plant-based ingredients and pioneering environmentally responsible formulations, Natures Organics has had to make tough decisions in its manufacturing of products such as laundry liquids, floor and surface cleaners and body wash.

With recycled plastic pellets expensive and difficult to source, the company began using recycled plastics around 10 years ago. The bold move was no easy decision, as Natures Organics found it difficult to swap out virgin plastic stock for recycled plastic pellets.

Over the past decade, technical modifications allowed it to produce 100 per cent recycled PET in its products and the company has since led the way in maintaining this structure.

As an Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation member within the co-regulatory body’s membership of more than 1400 members, Natures Organics has already matched and exceeded the voluntary 2025 National Packaging Targets.

It is now encouraging more businesses to use its resources and networks to meet the targets.

In recent years, Natures Organics has been able to match the sustainability of its packaging in line with its original environmental goals.

For many brands, changing the look of a product is usually a marketing strategy. However, when Natures Organics redesigned the bottles of its Organic Care range in early 2019, the purpose was environmental.

Natures Organics uses pellets of Australian recycled plastics to mould and blow all of the bottles for its nine brands of liquid products. Nowadays nearly all of the 43 million bottles the company produces a year, across a range of 130 products, are made from 100 per cent recycled plastic. Likewise, every plastic is 100 per cent recyclable.

“We call it bottles from bottles – which is very important in a sector that still relies heavily on bottles and containers made from virgin plastic derived from petroleum,” says Nancy Clay, Commercial Manager of Natures Organics.

Natures Organics is well aware that the relationship between consumers and plastic is souring. In saying that, the company acknowledges the challenges of finding a practical alternative for liquid products as they are generally advantageous over glass and metal across price, flexibility, weight and durability.

“I think the push from Australian consumers is that they don’t want plastic at all, especially after seeing the War on Waste. Many consumers want plastic free options,” Nancy says.

“Unfortunately in our space that is not easy or practical to implement.”

The Melbourne-based manufacturer recently found a solution to coloured, dark or black plastics in their plant-based hair and skin products that were difficult for materials recovery facilities to detect. In response, the company stripped out pigments and moved to clear bottles allowing them to be passed through the recycling stream.

Nancy says the latest modification is just another step along a sometimes unpredictable road to more sustainable packaging. It hasn’t always been a smooth ride for Natures Organics with the company encountering difficulties in some areas of its packaged products.

New technical challenges arose when Nature Organics produced large bottles requiring handles for their laundry liquids made from 100 per cent HDPE. The bottles split, deformed or failed. The company discovered that some virgin HDPE plastic was still required and for this reason now use a 50:50 mix in HDPE bottles.

Then there was the challenges of price and supply. It was not until 2016, Nancy says, that a steady supply of recycled pellets was available in Australia. Yet that came at an additional cost of about 15 per cent more than virgin plastics.

More recently, the rapid emergence of compostable bioplastics on the Australian and global market seemed like an attractive alternative to petroleum-based plastics.

As a company that distinguishes itself in the market as a plant-based range of brands and products, these corn-based plastics appeared compatible with the company’s environmental ethos.

It was an option worth pursuing, Nancy says. However, the company’s first compostable plant-based containers immediately hit two hurdles.

First, the current generation of bioplastics must be composted in industrial facilities at temperature of at least 60° C and high humidity, which were not available in Australia. And, second, if they were mixed in with conventional waste plastics, they were not benign. Compostable bioplastics could contaminate entire batches of potentially recyclable plastics, creating an unintended negative environmental impact.

“It’s hard to distinguish between the bioplastic waste bottles and conventional waste plastics. I think both consumers and recyclers were confused,” she says.

So, bioplastics were shelved for the time being and Natures Organics went back to recycled plastic pellets.

While consideration is being given towards plastic-free packaging, Nancy says that ultimately it’s the circular economy model that currently offers the best solutions.

Today, the company buys only pellets of recycled plastic waste that have been processed onshore.

Natures Organics uses its own labels to identify its bottles as made from recycled plastics. The upcoming extension of APCO’s Australasian Recycling Label to include the recycled content of packaging will also align with its business model.

However, without greater demand for recycled plastic pellets, there won’t be more investment in the recycling infrastructure that’s needed to boost resource recovery in Australia. Nancy says that companies therefore need to help drive demand for recycled materials every step of the way.

And, while plastics are not infinitely recyclable, the environmental returns are considerable.

Every used bottle that makes its way into the recycling stream can be reprocessed 10 times, avoiding the production of ten virgin plastic bottles.

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APCO releases packaging progress data

Of the 5.45 million tonnes of post-consumer packaging placed on the Australian market in 2017-18, 2.67 million tonnes was recovered, according to a new report from the Australia Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO).

The report also reveals that Australia has exceeded the 30 per cent average recycled content National Packaging Target.

“Today’s benchmark data has confirmed post-consumer recycled content across all packaging was 1.9 million tonnes, or 35 per cent of total packaging,” the report reads.

“With the 30 per cent recycled content target now exceeded, APCO will deliver a consultation process with industry to develop a new, more ambitious target.”

According to an APCO statement, the Australian Packaging Consumption and Resource Recovery Data report maps the complete packaging ecosystem in granular detail, highlighting the performance of key areas within the system.

“The significant research project combines data from packaging manufacturers, packaging reprocessors, material recovery facilities, container deposit scheme operators, and includes analysis of Australian import and export data,” the statement reads.

Of Australia’s 5.45 million tonnes of packaging, more than half was paper and paperboard at 53.2 per cent, followed by glass packaging at 23.3 per cent, plastic packaging at 19.6 per cent and metal packaging at 3.9 per cent.

The report reveals that paper and paperboard have the highest recovery rate at 63 per cent, followed by metal packaging at 48 per cent, glass packaging at 46 per cent and plastic packaging at 16 per cent.

Additionally, the report details how Australia is tracking on the delivery of the 2025 National Packaging Targets – with new benchmark data in areas of packaging recyclability, recycled content uptake and plastic packaging recycling.

The targets aim for 100 per cent of all Australia’s packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025 or earlier. The report shows that as of 2018, 86 per cent, or 4.7 million tonnes of all packaging in the market is recyclable.

According to APCO CEO Brooke Donnelly, the single biggest challenge identified in the data is the recycling rate of plastic packaging.

The National Packaging Targets set the target for 70 per cent of Australia’s plastic packaging to be recycled or composted by 2025.

APCO’s data reveals that currently, only 16 per cent of plastic packaging is being recycled or composted for future use.

“Comprehensive and robust benchmarking data is one of the critical milestones in our delivery of the 2025 National Packaging Targets – a process that shows how Australia is performing currently and, most importantly, what needs to change in order to make the 2025 Targets a reality,” Ms Donnelly said. 

“It’s encouraging to see such a significant majority of packaging – 86 per cent – is able to be recycled in the current system. However, what the data confirms for us is that plastic is the critical issue that needs to be addressed.” 

Ms Donnelly said APCO will release its 2025 strategic document in February 2020, which sets out a series of key strategies to support Australia’s delivery of the targets.

“Plastics will be a central focus for this plan, along with a range of interventions and recommendations designed to close the gap between recyclable (86 per cent) and recycled (49 per cent) packaging in Australia,” Ms Donnelly said. 

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New national targets set within 2025 packaging plan

New targets within the 2025 plan have been outlined alongside the launch of the Australasian Recycling Label.

The new targets aim to aim to increase the average recycled content within all packaging by 30 per cent and phase out problematic and unnecessary single-use plastic packaging through design, innovation or the introduction of alternatives.

Additionally, the targets aim to ensure 70 per cent of plastic packaging is recycled or composted.

These build on the previous announcement of a target to achieve 100 per cent of Australian packaging being recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025.

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The targets build on commitments made by federal, state and territory environment ministers and the President for the Australian Local Government Association earlier in April this year.

Industry representatives and environmental groups support the targets including Aldi, ALGA, Amcor, Australia Post, Boomerang Alliance, Chep, Close the Loop, Coca-Cola Amatil, Coles, Detmold, Goodman Fielder, Lion, Metcash, Nestlé, Orora, Pact Group, Planet Ark, Redcycle, Simplot, Suez, Tetra Pak, Unilever, Veolia, Visy and Woolworths.

Woolworths General Manager, Quality and Sustainability Alex Holt highlighted the importance of this collaboration.

“We’re really pleased to see such a wide range of industry players come together in support of such a worthy goal. Moving towards a circular economy won’t be easy, but we have the right mix of organisations on board to help make it a reality,” Mr Holt said.

Federal Environment Minister Melissa Price congratulated the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) and the initial working group of businesses that are supporting the targets.

Minister Price has also officially launched the Australasian recycling Label to help achieve the 2025 National Packaging Targets, developed by Planet Ark, PREP Design and APCO to help consumers better understand how to recycle packaging.

“The Australasian Recycling Label provides people with easy to understand recycling information when they need it most, in those few seconds when they are deciding what bin the package goes in. The label removes confusion and reduces waste,” Ms Price said.

With more than 200 recycling labels currently being used in Australia, the new system aims to reduce confusion and contamination in the waste stream.

Nestlé Head of Corporate and External Relations Oceania Margaret Stuart said the inclusion of the label on Netslé’s packaging was a demonstration of the company’s commitment to sustainability.

“More and more people who buy our products want to know how to manage packing waste, so we have committed to implementing the Australasian Recycling Label across all our locally controlled products by 2020,” Ms Stuart said.

Unilever ANZ CEO Clive Stiff has said the announcements are a critical step towards greater collective action on increasing the nationals recycling capability.

“Plastic packaging waste represents an $80 billion loss to the global economy every year. The benefits of the circular economy approach are clear for business and the environment – the more effective use of materials means lower costs and less waste,” Mr Stiff said.

“We are proud to have recently announced that bottles of popular Unilever products like OMO, Dove, Sunsilk, Surf and TRESemmé will soon be made with at least 25% Australian recycled plastic.

“This is just the start for us and no business can create a circular economy in isolation. Heavy lifting is needed from all players involved – suppliers, packaging converters, brand owners, policy makers and retailers, collectors, sorters and recyclers. We need a complete shift in how we think about and use resources.”

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