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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Beyond the destruction: Shred-X

Shred-X diverts almost 50,000 tonnes of paper per annum from landfill, partnering with Australian recycling organisations to recover and repurpose the material it collects.

Australians throw out 2.7 million single-use coffee cups every day, adding up to almost one billion coffee cups a year.

Van Karas, General Manager at Shred-X, says to efficiently recover and repurpose products, there has to be flexibility to enable current business capabilities to increase landfill diversion.

“It’s in our DNA to ensure wherever possible, following the required destruction process, the products we collect are recycled or repurposed,” he says.

Although Shred-X started out in the document destruction and paper recycling industry 20 years ago, Karas says the company has since expanded, pursuing recycling for an array of products other than paper including used coffee cups, QSR waste, e-waste and textiles.

Karas stated that following some recent tests, it has partnered with an Australian packaging company to collect and process their 100 per cent recyclable coffee cups.

“We’ve also invested in new ways of processing millions of ‘non-recyclable’ coffee cups, partnering with another Australian company that’s leading the way finding innovative solutions for recycling and repurposing use coffee cups aiding a circular economy,” Karas says.

Shred-X is continuing to align itself with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s), which were first implemented into the global sector in 2016.

“One of the SDG’s Shred-X is actively working towards is building resilient infrastructure, promoting sustainable industrialisation and fostering innovation,” he says.

By 2025, Australia has committed to National Packaging Targets ensuring 100 per cent of packaging is either reused, recycled or repurposed.

Further to this, an Australian chain of quick service restaurants (QSR’s) are also aiming to recycle its customer packaging and waste.

According to Karas, Shred-X has always been a business that collects and processes specialised waste in line with recyclers needs.

“We’re working very hard with resilient partners to achieve common goals. Following an upcoming trial, we will be looking at smart innovations that add value to processing QSR waste, ensuring it goes to recyclers that will continue to add value to the waste product,” he says.

“It’s pretty impressive that we’re able to help companies achieve national targets by finding a new home for waste besides landfill. Shred-X are working with a range of partners and have begun undertaking trials with quick service restaurants to achieve their sustainability targets.”

Shred-X has achieved the highest industry certifications for its secure destruction facilities and operations located in every state and territory which incorporate the latest and most environmentally sustainable shredding technologies.

Through the company’s partnership with Australian recyclers, Shred-X recovers 98.5 per cent of the material collected and processed through its facilities.

Shred-X has also introduced a range of innovative secure destruction solutions for textiles and uniforms, high-end garments and accessories, seized goods, recalled items and liquids with an aim to ensure ethical disposal and landfill diversion whenever and wherever possible.

Environmental Policy and recycling partnerships reflect the company’s ongoing commitment to improving the sustainability and resilience of the business, while also ensuring its services remain cost-effective and best practice.

The company has applied these same foundational goals of sustainability and innovation to the medical waste industry through its Med-X Healthcare Solutions brand.

Shred-X and Med-X have continued to invest in technology and innovation that support the reduction of landfill and promote recycling, even amid essential operations during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Karas says Med-X operations ramped up during the COVID-19 pandemic, spotlighting the company’s investment in robotic technology to encourage human contact-less waste disposal and recovery.

“Plastic is infinitely recyclable and we like to think if people choose us, they know they’re part of a sustainable chain that positively impacts the wider community and environment,” he says.

On the other hand, the e-waste sector has its challenges. Shred-X pioneered IT asset management, destruction and recycling solutions when Australian businesses were beginning to go paperless.

“People thought we were just taking their paper and not doing anything with it, but beyond secure shredding, we’ve been a firm leader in removing all information contained on electronic and IT assets and responsibly recycling or repurposing the end components.”

As more offices convert to digital only businesses, Shred-X has been continually exploring further opportunities with ewaste, textile and fibre recycling and repurposing partners, plastic product developers and waste-to-energy processors.

“Shred-X works with our partners to recycle all electronic components of ewaste including precious metals, glass and plastic, as well as repurposing assets once the confidential information contained on the assets is removed,” he says.

“We’ve been led to so many avenues from beginning with just pieces of paper. Our exploration of sustainable recycling and destruction is undertaken in the most ethically responsible manner, to suit even the most stringent sustainability targets and government regulations.”

For more information click here

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ARL ranked ‘world-leading’ in new UN report

The Australasian Recycling Label (ARL) has been rated as world-leading among consumer labelling programs in a new report from the UN Environment Programme, Consumers International and the One Planet network – 10YFP.

The ARL aims to clearly outline what product packaging is made from so consumers can make responsible purchasing decisions and correctly recycle material post-use.

Furthermore, businesses that pledge their commitment to the ARL gain access to a unique analysis tool that allows them to better understand the materials they use in their packaging and associated environmental impacts.

Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) CEO Brooke Donnelly said APCO was “incredibly excited” to see the ARL program recognised as a world-leading consumer education initiative at the highest levels.

“The program was commended for its clarity, reliability and accessibility, and singled out as one of the few programs delivering considered, informative and useful information that could effectively increase responsible consumer behaviour,” she said.

“Congratulations to all of our 380 Members who are already part of the program and actively working to bring this first class program to life.”

The report, A Global Mapping and Assessment of Standards, Labels and Claims on Plastic Packaging, found only 19 per cent of assessed labels gave consumers quality information to make informed recycling and purchasing decisions.

“Globally, only about 9 per cent of plastic waste has been recycled and about 12 per cent has been incinerated. The vast majority ends up in landfill or leaks into the environment,” a Consumers International statement reads.

“Rising public awareness and concern about plastics has encouraged businesses to increasingly communicate this information about their packaging. However, the information is often unclear.”

Report lead authors Ellie Moss and Rebecca Harris have called for a global, multi-faceted, multi-stakeholder approach to tackling the growing problem of plastic waste and packaging.

The report outlines five global recommendations for action, including businesses following the Guidelines for Providing Product Sustainability Information in the their plastic packaging communications, and global consistency when it comes to definitions relating to the content and reusability of packaging and disposable items.

The report also suggests restricting the use of the ‘chasing arrows’ symbol, and having definitions and technical requirements used in standards related to recyclability, compostability, and biodegradability better reflect real world conditions, with more attention to accessibility and consumer understanding.

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New guidelines address compostable packaging confusion

The Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) has published new guidelines to help businesses make informed choices when considering compostable packaging.  

The guidelines were developed in partnership with the Australasian Bioplastics Association (ABA) and the Australian Organics Recycling Association (AORA).

Designed to cut through confusion, Considerations for Compostable Packaging aims to help industry professionals – particularly brand owners, packaging technologists and designers and food service providers – decide when and where to use certified compostable plastic packaging, and associated items like cutlery.

Based on systems and infrastructure currently available, APCO CEO Brooke Donnelly said the guidelines identify potential applications and opportunities for certified compostable plastic packaging, with a strong emphasis on packaging that can also facilitate food waste collection. 

“These include food caddy liners, fruit and vegetable stickers and ‘closed-loop’ situations such as festivals,” she said. 

Recommendations are also provided on how to correctly communicate with end consumers, including accurate certification and correct language for labelling and marketing.

Additionally, statements to avoid are highlighted, including misleading terminology and “greenwashing claims” that contribute to unintentional litter and contamination of mechanical recycling systems. 

“With brands facing intense consumer pressure to move away from plastics, coupled with thousands of Australian food outlets turning to takeaway packaging formats for the first time, there’s never been a more important time for businesses to receive accurate and consistent information about compostable packaging,” Ms Donnelly said. 

“Compostable plastics currently account for around 0.1 per cent of plastic packaging on market in Australia. Yet we know that it is a market that is growing and one that causes real confusion – for both industry and end consumers.” 

According to ABA President Rowan Williams, the development of Considerations for Compostable Packaging was an opportunity for peak industry bodies to collaborate on guidelines for industry and consumers.

“The collaborative nature of the work in getting this guideline out has been outstanding. The guidelines look up and down the value chain, at where the raw material comes from and also where the finished packaging will go to, such as organics recycling, in the future,” he said. 

“The ABA, as custodian of the only verification scheme for claims of certified compostability to the Australian Standards, welcomes the advent of the guidelines and looks forward to continuing collaboration with APCO, AORA and industry stakeholders.” 

AORA Chair Peter Wadewitz said as a suitable alternative to non-recyclable packaging, AORA supports the use of AS4736 certified materials for the source separation of food waste in the home or in commercial settings.

“Compostable coffee cups, capsules and compostable bags can all be successfully utilised through normal organic recycling processes, without concern of contamination,” he said. 

The full report is available to download on the APCO website.

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APCO launches weekly sustainability webinar series

The Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APOC) has launched a new sustainability webinar series to help industry professionals stay connected.

APCO CEO Brooke Donnelly said the weekly APCO Community Meeting events are designed to bring together sustainability experts from across the business, government and environmental communities to explore ideas.

“These include packaging specific topics – such as sustainable packaging design and strategy, recycled content and labelling for resource recovery and also broader sustainability ideas, including building a circular economy in Australia, recycling in remote and regional communities, and how to communicate your green credentials,” she said.

According to Ms Donnelly, the APCO team have worked hard to build a community that works collectively to address “significant and pervasive” sustainability issues.

“In this new and changing world of work, we want all those who belong to the APCO community to know they have the support of this collective group, and to make sure no one is left feeling disconnected or isolated,” she said.

“We are now up to our sixth webinar in the series, and it has been so rewarding to be joined by hundreds of professionals every week who are equally as engaged and passionate about this space. We look forward to seeing even more of you in May.”

Webinar schedules will be released monthly. May’s schedule, including links to register, is available below:

6 May: Launch of the Compostables Guidelines

Certified compostable packaging will play a small but important role in the delivery of the 2025 National Packaging Targets. But it is also an area that poses significant confusion – for industry and end consumers.

‘Considerations for Compostable Plastic Packaging’ is a new APCO resource, providing clear direction forward on the role of certified compostable plastic packaging in Australia.

Speakers: APCO’s Lily Barnett, AORA’s Peter Wadewitz and Rowan Williams from the Australasian Bioplastics Association.

To register click here.

13 May: Deep Dive: PREP Assessment

This week will take a deep dive into the Packaging Recyclability Evaluation Portal (PREP) – the online verification tool that assesses how packaging will behave in the Australian and New Zealand resource recovery systems, and powers the Australasian Recycling Label.

In this session tailored to users assessing their packaging, such as packaging technologists and developers, the discussion we will explore some of the common technical queries that emerge when conducting an assessment.

Speakers: Australasian Recycling Label Program Manager Lily Barnett and PREP Founder Anthony Peyton.

To register click here.

20 May: The Importance of a Packaging Sustainability Strategy and Action Plan  

This week will address how and why having a packaging sustainability strategy and APCO Action Plan can help support organisations on their packaging sustainability journey.

To register click here.

27 May: Promoting Green Credentials

Research demonstrates that sustainability issues are among the fastest growing concerns for consumers worldwide. 2019 research from Monash Business School found 92 per cent of consumers believe sustainable business practices should be standard, and not the exception.

This session will explore why it is important for brands to effectively communicate their sustainability achievements, and the practical tools and processes for getting started.

To register click here.

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Sustainability Victoria opens packaging investment grants

Sustainability Victoria is offering grants of up to $50,000 to support organisations in Victoria to reduce packaging waste disposed in landfill.

According to a Sustainability Victoria statement, significant policy shifts in key markets for Victoria’s packaging waste have had a considerable, negative impact on the markets for these materials, primarily impacting plastics, paper and cardboard.

“The Investment Support Grants – Packaging will support small to medium sized enterprises, not-for-profits and social enterprises to overcome financial barriers associated with investing in projects that lead to packaging waste reduction, recovery and reuse,” the statement reads.

“To reduce the amount of packaging materials disposed of in landfill, we are supporting generators, recyclers and those that reuse packaging waste in Victoria to reduce waste generation, increase the quality and quantity of materials recovered and to grow demand for reuse.”

Eligible projects must be completed within 12 months, with a financial contribution ratio of 1:1.

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Atritor Turbo Separator: Wastech Engineering

The Atritor Turbo Separator was developed to separate products from their packaging, releasing them for recycling or disposal.

Available through Australian distributor Wastech Engineering, the Turbo Separator enables up to 99 per cent of dry or liquid products to be separated from their packaging with minimal contamination. This allows the contents to be used for compost, anaerobic digestion or animal feedstock.

The Turbo Separator can be manufactured in a range of throughputs up to 20 tonnes per hour.

Additionally, the process is so efficient that it leaves packaging relatively intact and clean to facilitate downstream recycling. According to Wastech, when compared to other methods of packaging separation, the Turbo Separator achieves higher separation efficiencies with lower power consumption, resulting in reduced operating costs.

The Turbo Separator is ideal for separating out of specification, out-of-date and mislabelled products from a variety of packaging, including cans, plastic bottles and boxes. The diverse range of applications includes the separation of paper from gypsum in plasterboard, general foodstuffs from their packaging and liquids from their containers.

It is available complete with in-feed and out-feed conveyors and liquid transfer pumps. The Turbo Separator, with its durable construction and adjustable paddles, enables the separation of a wide variety of products.

Each Turbo Separator installation can be configured to suit multiple applications and a variable shaft speed enables enhanced separation efficiency. The machine is available in mild steel and stainless steel to suit the application.

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