The future of packaging

by Michelle Dunner
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At the recent Australian Packaging Covenant Awards in Sydney, there was much cause for celebration. Not only did the evening showcase some innovative examples of waste reduction and resource efficiency among the APC’s signatories, but also a renewed sense of optimism for the future.

It was only in May when the then Federal Minister for the Environment Greg Hunt confirmed the Government’s ongoing support for the APC as a major plank of its national waste policy. A new chief executive in Trish Hyde and a change in governance structure for the APC followed soon after.

For many in the industry concerned about a lack of stability in the covenant and its future, the announcement that the APC would continue offers hope for a new era in tackling waste management issues and, perhaps, greater harmonisation with other product stewardship schemes.

The APC is launching an enhanced covenant with signatories, due to commence next January. Extensive stakeholder engagement is being sought to underpin a new five-year strategic plan that is expected before the end of this year.

In reaffirming the Government’s backing for the APC, Hunt (now Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science) said it was a “central tool in addressing the issue of environmental impacts of consumer packaging”.

But, unlike some other areas of extended producer responsibility, where manufacturers are levied to provide their own end-of-life solutions, the APC has received and distributed significant government funding to its signatories for a range of recycling and resource efficiency projects. In the past two financial years, the APC funded 54 projects. While a dollar value isn’t yet available for 2015/16, the 2014/15 value of the projects was $12 million, with an APC investment of $4.7 million.

Hyde took the reins at the APC in March this year, having had long experience with trade and member associations. Her view is that the APC needs to take a more holistic view of what’s required to meet optimal waste outcomes.

“We do tend to focus on packaging in an end-of-life context, especially because of the litter implications,” Hyde says. “But we need to focus on the whole process – companies need to optimise the entire value chain in terms of resource efficiency.”

It comes back to a question of what constitutes ‘waste’. Hyde says it’s important that signatories to the covenant are recognised for the efficiency with which products are landed and transportation costs minimised and spoilage or damage avoided. “In very practical terms, you lose the efficiencies when you don’t optimise the space in a container, or pay over the odds on transportation. Wastage of a product in transit also has a resource efficiency impact.

“It all comes back to good, basic business principles,” she says. “It’s more than just about waste; it’s about showing how optimal processes drive great outcomes.”

Hyde cites the example of nutrition giant Blackmores, which took a major sustainability analysis of its materials handling. “Like all the initiatives we showcased at our awards recently, every one of
our members said it wasn’t being greener or more sustainable for the sake of it, but because it came back to a solid business case.

“Blackmores identified a way to reduce its tertiary packaging and that had a materials handling impact, which, of course, had positive outcomes for the company through lower costs. The reduction in packaging was a great thing, but it goes hand in hand with looking at the whole process.”

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A DIFFERENT APPROACH

While the APC has historically funded discrete projects, Hyde says the future is about getting members to collaborate more with ideas and initiatives that help them close the loop.

“We need to facilitate member to member collaboration, so that organisations can learn from each other what best practice looks like and how to position a sustainability project to maximise its chances of uptake,” she says.

The APC requires annual reporting by its signatories. “Some companies are excelling; they’re at the top of the top. Others are still on the journey and that may be because they’re less networked globally, or have fewer internal resources to apply.

“Among our signatories there’s definitely a bell curve – not everyone is right at the top. But the presence of the covenant, since it came into being in 1999, has changed the dynamics. Before then, waste management and resource efficiency wasn’t even a conversation.”

Hyde concedes commercial sensitivities and protection of intellectual property are potential barriers to collaboration.

“When we had our award ceremony, we spent half a day presenting case studies and sharing knowledge and practice. That was tangible; it cut through what would normally be seen as silos. There are things our members can share, such as the methodologies they’re using, that go beyond competition.

“We also held a series of workshops, designed for people to talk about the issues they’ve encountered on their sustainability journey, such as gaining knowledge on processing end-of-life for a particular material type or packaging design problems they’re looking for more support on. This is a way for many of our members to understand the whole footprint without necessarily going through a costly assessment process.

“If we can identify the big ticket items for industry, by sectors, and map across those what will have real outcomes, then this will be a big achievement. We must prove and demonstrate our value commitment to sustainability. That said, the projects we focus on are likely to involve other parties, such as working with a jurisdiction or academia. That’s what has to be done to make sure we get the right outcomes.”

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DO WE NEED MORE PACKAGING STEWARDSHIP?

Hyde says there’s no single answer to that question. “We work to the waste hierarchy; first eliminate, then reduce and then all the way through to the last option of disposal.

“At the same time as we assess that process, we also need to look at the product integrity. Does single-serve packaging mean there’s less food waste? If so, that option is environmentally supported.

“I see packaging as slightly different from product stewardship generally, because we need to make a whole-of-life assessment and [ascertain] how to best manage the resources in total.

“I was at a conference recently talking to community groups about packaging and getting a feel for what
they liked, and what they liked less. It was an amazing journey. Instantly, people were negative about single- use packaging, but we discussed aspects such as medical equipment. There, single-use was regarded as an essential because of the need for sterility.

“Then we discussed button batteries and the dangers they pose to children swallowing them because
they seem so attractive. After a coroner’s inquiry in Queensland, packaging of those has actually increased. It’s important to look at all the aspects that must be balanced in a company’s decision-making on packaging.

“The choices are not always optimal, but the issues are on the table. That’s why it’s so important to share knowledge so that decisions are backed by good information.”

Hyde says there will always be free riders. “We try to cover the whole supply chain with brand owners, consumer facing companies, packaging manufacturers and recyclers. That does give us some perspective on where the issues might lie. But there will always be a proportion of companies that will remain outliers. I think we have a strong group of signatories who are committed to the covenant and passionate about its success and that’s what we have to focus on.

“We are heading towards 1000 members and, because of our size and mass representation it will bring others along for the ride. The outliers will need to turn their attention to sustainability to remain competitive with others in their sector.

“We certainly have plenty of case studies to share because we understand that there can’t be a one- size-fits-all solution. We try to champion what each company is doing that is making a difference in design, stewardship and resource efficiency. Sometimes what they do is help other companies make a difference – like Australia Post, for example.

“We have to help share the messages and the knowledge about what companies are doing so that we can see more organisations coming up with their own plan.”

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