Upstream choices As in every sector, innovation and the desire to delight consumers, abounds. But, as we become more aware of the greenhouse effects, sustainability and recyclable opportunities, the packaging industry has to juggle cost, functionality, efficiency, logistics, end-of-life options and waste with shelf appeal and consumer trends. Across the globe we are moving steadily towards re-thinking, reducing, recycling and reusing consumables - the packaging industry is no different, although Packaging Council of New Zealand’s (PAC.NZ) executive director, Sharon Humphreys says it is a complex balancing act. “It is not as simple as it first appears. Cost is always a powerful argument and while being eco-friendly is of prime importance, price normally wins out.” New technologically advanced materials will inevitably cost more to produce until volume and demand builds, she says, especially in a small market like New Zealand. “Making choices about what type of packaging to use is also a brand issue, for example it does not make economic sense to package a ‘budget’ brand in expensive packaging.” Advanced materials are at the forefront of research and development, examples being modified atmosphere packs, which keep produce fresher longer, and smart materials which have the ability to change colour as produce goes off. “As newer materials and niche products become more mainstream, and the volume builds, the cost will come down. But, as a consumer - are you prepared to pay the extra for the latest technologically advanced materials encasing the goods you buy?” There is also the complex balancing act to consider between using new ‘smart’ materials, which can be a complex mixture of raw materials rendering them ‘unrecyclable’ vs ‘traditional’ materials, which may be less efficient but have mature recovery infrastructure. Another upside to the adoption of newer packaging technology and materials is more efficient production lines, which use less energy and water and have less production wastage. Sharon adds that a simple change in the shape of a package can result in smarter space utilisation in containers, and light-weighting of packaging, or switching the packaging to a more lightweight material, can enable more packages per container load. These changes enable significant logistic efficiencies per load in turn providing a net environmental gain. Replas is a New Zealand company that takes post consumer waste of many kinds and recycles it. In the case of the dairy industry, they take the plastic milk bottles, re process them, turning them into slipsheets which are then sold back to the dairy (and other) industries. Replas managing director Harry Burkhardt says the slipsheets are a great example of a closed loop solution where the recycled product is later on-sold to be used in place of wooden pallets to pack large volumes of dried dairy product for transport. “Our product weighs much less than wooden pallets, is a standard size, designed to maximise the space in a container and does not waste space like a pallet does.” This space savings average 12 - 15 percent, loading times are reduced by up to 60
percent, product damage is reduced, and the plastic is more hygienic than wooden pallets. But best of all - the product is made of 100 percent recycled material produced within that industry and then used again within that same industry.” Packaging waste is as much a social issue as it is an environmental issue, says PAC. NZ. Incorrect and/or lazy disposal habits lead to littering, which devalues the role of packaging by associating packaging with waste instead of understanding the primary role of packaging, which is to prevent waste. “A change of attitude is needed if we are to satisfy the call for less packaging waste to landfill; used packaging is in demand as a raw material with the caveat of a requirement for quality – that is well separated and uncontaminated material. “To achieve this level of quality we need the right education, so that consumers understand that their disposal actions are a crucial first step in determining if the packaging can be recycled or will be destined for landfill. We need recovery infrastructure which delivers used packaging in optimum condition for further processing. And we need markets for the post-consumer packaging material to drive the economic sustainability of recovery and recycling,” Sharon says. Waste Management NZ is committed to recovering valuable resources from waste materials, even if it has been discarded to landfill. While the company recycles as much as possible, the material that can’t be recycled goes to Redvale Energy Park and Landfill north of the city. Then, through the company’s $200 million investment in clean–tech technology, benefit can still be extracted from the waste within the landfill in the form of electricity generation. Ninety five percent of the landfill gas generated from waste materials is captured, processed and directed through generators to supply renewable electricity to the local grid. Landfill gas is an inevitable by-product of the anaerobic biological decomposition process that occurs within landfills. The gas typically contains between 40 to 60 percent methane, which provides the gas with its energy content. The current generation rate would power approximately 12,000 homes, a figure that is expected to increase to 30,000 homes by 2025. Lowe Corporation is another company providing end-of-life options for packaged food products. It takes in products which are either out of date/expired, out of specification, out of cool chain temperature specification, damaged, or wrongly labeled and would have been sent to landfill for documented destruction. It de-packs the product, separating the packaging into categories for recycling. The food products are then sorted and securely transported to each end use such as rendering, stock food or composting.
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