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‘Cardboard good, plastics bad’ – take a closer look

Consumer insights

Written by Dr. Hugo Britt, DisContent,  for the Autumn 2022 AFG magazine

Advances in soft plastics recycling are rewriting environmental impact assessments and challenging assumptions.

With the federal government committing to net zero by 2050, the international community coming together to fight climate change at COP26 and Australian supermarkets now competing in terms of sustainability, discontent with single-use plastic packaging will inevitably lead to new standards and consumer expectations.

For a glimpse of possible future legislation in Australia, we can look to France where plastic packaging on nearly all fruit and vegetables will be banned from January 2022. This move will remove an estimated one billion items of unnecessary plastic from landfill every year.

Meanwhile, PwC estimates that moving from a linear to a circular economy will generate $1.9 trillion in economic benefits for Australia over the next 20 years. Australians generate 74 million tonnes of waste per annum, with 91 per cent of raw materials failing to find their way back into the economy. Research has found the density of plastic in Australian waters is as much as 40,000 pieces per square km.

 

Is cardboard packaging more sustainable than plastic?

Most shoppers who want to do the right thing at the supermarket will reach for a cardboard punnet rather than plastic packaging in the belief that it is the more sustainable choice. However, the answer isn’t quite so black and white.

Packaging expert Ian Hayes from PackPro Consulting says that from a manufacturing point of view, the plastic format will have a lower carbon footprint than cardboard. “This is driven by weight – you only use about five to seven grams of plastic in most formats, while some of the cardboard solutions for a similar size pack will have up to seven times the amount of material,” Ian said. “Additionally, cardboard is heavier on land use: there’s the need to grow trees and water them, while new cardboard uses lots of water in processing.”

New cardboard requires double the amount of water to manufacture than plastic (350 litres of water for 1kg of cardboard), although using recycled materials can reduce water consumption significantly.

Australia Post’s 2020 Life Cycle Assessment compared virgin plastic, recycled-content plastic, compostable and cardboard boxes over their lifecycles. The findings surprised many readers when it became clear that recycled plastic satchels had the least environmental impact overall, while the other options generated higher greenhouse gases due to being more water and land-intensive.

When a full lifecycle assessment is taken into account, virgin plastic will invariably have a larger footprint. “Plastic is great, right up until it goes in the bin,” Ian said. “The challenge we have with soft plastic is that it’s virtually impossible to mechanically recycle back to food-grade quality.  Recycling works for soft drink bottles and milk bottles, but you can’t simply wash soft plastic: there’s too many contaminants such as inks and pigments.”

What about programs like RedCycle? Ian said that while around 350,000 tonnes of soft plastic is put into the market per annum, only about 8,000 tonnes currently goes to RedCycle. From there, it is not recycled into food-grade plastic, but turned into innovative materials like plastic benches, walkways and signs through partnerships with companies like Close The Loop, Replas, and Plastic Forests.

While these re-purposing programs are admirable, the question still remains: how can soft plastics be recycled back into food-grade material?

 

Advanced soft plastics recycling

“The challenge”, Ian said “is to move away from mechanical recycling into advanced or chemical recycling. The exciting news is that advanced recycling is becoming more established and finding a home here in Australia, which means we should see more plastic-to-plastic recycling, creating food-grade quality plastics for a genuine circular economy.”

Leaders in the space include Qenos, which is partnering with Cleanaway to build two advanced recycling facilities in Australia by 2025 to convert up to 100,000 tonnes of household soft plastic waste and mixed plastics back into circular polyethylene. Similarly, Brightmark will construct an advanced plastics recycling plant capable of processing 100,000 to 200,000 tonnes per year by 2025. Another major player, Licella, has proposed a plant in Altona, Victoria, while smaller players including APR Group are also investing in a compact version of the technology.

Known as pyrolysis, the technique involves burning the plastic material in a sealed chamber without oxygen at approximately 400 degrees Celsius. The raw material is broken down into the oil from which it was made, then can be repurposed into new products including food-grade soft plastics. A 2021study found that using the oil created from advanced plastic recycling, in the local plastic packaging supply chain, delivers a 64 per cent CO2 reduction compared to virgin plastics.

“There are 50 to 60 different technologies within the advanced/chemical recycling space,” Ian said. “The recycled polyethylene is virtually indistinguishable from new plastic in terms of grade and performance. This changes the whole lifecycle equation.”

With “cardboard good, plastic bad” firmly embedded in the minds of most customers, there will need to be a concerted effort to educate customers about the sustainability benefits of advanced plastic recycling, along with unrealistic perceptions about cardboard.

 

Pre-packs are popular with retailers and customers

Why do we use pre-packs at all? Why not sell everything loose? According to APAL’s Head of Group Quality & Commercialisation, Andrew Mandemaker, pre-packs will have an ongoing role in the retailer’s mix. “Some fresh produce can last much longer when pre-packed, but this isn’t a significant reason for apples or pears. Rather, pre-packs have a place because they offer advantages across the supply chain”, he said.

“First, there’s the grab-and-go convenience for customers and an enhanced perception of hygiene with fruit untouched by staff and other customers (particularly during COVID). Pre-packs provide protection for the fruit with less bruising or damage both prior to purchase and after. Retailers like pre-packs because they help lift the average weight of purchase to 1kg, they are easier for store staff to handle, and they have greater scan integrity. They are also an outlet for smaller sizes that don’t work in a loose display.”

Finally, packaging gives growers an opportunity for branding and brand messaging, while the best-before data on packaging helps provide a perception of freshness.

In a discussion of this issue in the Autumn 2021 edition of AFG, Tristan Kitchener pointed out that research shows Australian consumers are increasingly sensitive to unnecessary and excessive packaging and food waste. However, retail data reports consumers steadily increasing their purchasing of plastic pre-packed fruit for the past three to four years.

Types of packaging used for pre-packed apples and pears 

Pre-pack apples

Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) (Code 1): PET is a clear, tough plastic used in water, soft drink, and fruit juice bottles. It is also used in fruit punnets for products including berries, and pre-packed apples and pears. PET can be recycled in household recycling bins.

Retailers offer 1kg pre-packed apples and pears in a PET tray within a Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE) wrapper.

 

 

Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE) (Code 4): LDPE is a soft, flexible, translucent plastic used in typical plastic bags, garbage bags, and plastic wrap. At present it can’t be put in household recycling bins, although retailers invite customers to return LDPE plastics to the store to be recycled (although not into food-grade plastic) through programs such as REDcycle. Otherwise, most LDPE ends up in landfill. This situation will begin to change as advanced recycling plants come online from 2025.

Apples and pears in LDPE are typically secured with a non-recyclable plastic clip which also goes to landfill.

 

 

Cardboard punnets: Although some products use cardboard punnets, many are lined with a plastic seal and are still packaged within LDPE wrappers. Montague is currently trialling a new, fully-recyclable fibre board JASA sleever pack using sustainable cardboard sourced from VISY for its Jazz apple range. Montague has raised the price of these packs by $0.20 to account for the “significant” cost involved in making the change.

Proactive marketers have introduced innovative cardboard punnets (above) and compostable film (below) in response to current concerns over soft plastics.

 

Compostable wrap: Plant-based, fully compostable plastic bags show potential as an alternative to traditional polyethylene plastic wrappers. Adelaide-based BioBag, for example, has seen a positive consumer response to its 100 per cent compostable cucumber wraps made from a compostable resin named Mater-Bi, described as “an innovative family of bioplastics that uses substances obtained from plants such as non-genetically modified corn starch and biodegradable, compostable polymers.” Similarly, R&RSmith became Australia’s first organic company to use 100 per cent home compostable film used in products including Woolworths’ Macro certified organic apples.

 

Compostable stickers: Another plastic item that will inevitably be replaced by a compostable alternative is the humble apple sticker. In Europe, a ban on apple stickers could stop 100 million pieces of waste per week, while the New Zealand government wants to phase out plastic fruit stickers by mid-2023.  Bostock, New Zealand’s largest organic apple grower, have introduced compostable PLU apple stickers but have noted they cost around 50 per cent more than traditional plastic stickers. Apple stickers are unlikely to be eliminated altogether due to the growing importance of traceability information.

If (or when) the shift to compostable packaging gathers pace, supply chain managers will need to take into account the rate at which packaging breaks down, and the challenges this will present when compostable packaging is stored in suboptimal conditions.

Ian Hayes warns that compostable plastics present several issues: “Some don’t really compost well, they can contaminate the recycling stream, they release CO2 when they break down, and compostable streams will need to be created. Compostables are a popular solution in the minds of customers, but they will be difficult to introduce.”

 

Pink Lady Europe’s packaging commitments

As part of a wider suite of sustainability commitments, Pink Lady Europe® has committed to eliminating non-recyclable or non-compostable single-use plastics. This includes:

  • The gradual implementation of plastic-free solutions from the 2021 season onwards.
  • The creation of 100 per cent cardboard punnets that are 100 per cent FSC certified from sustainably managed forests.
  • Widespread use of certified home-compostable and recyclable films.

According to Thierry Mellenotte, GM of Pink Lady Europe, the driver for making the packaging change came from growers being tired of accusations of environmental damage. “They are proud about what they are doing and want to tell it to society,” says Mellenotte. “The sustainability commitments are also an answer to changing expectations from clients and customers around sustainability and the environment. Pink Lady has to be aligned with that to keep being different and more attractive than its competitors.”

Pink Lady Europe’s focus now is to develop the commitment of all of its 3,100 European grows behind the positive character of the brand.

From a marketing point of view, Mellenotte says the commitment will “reassure the consumer about the way Pink Lady apples are grown and how the sector works. It’s also a story we want to tell consumers. It’s no longer just a good or a beautiful apple; it’s also a sustainable apple! And now we can explain why.”

 

APCO Targets

The Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) is a key resource to follow for sustainable packaging targets and progress.

The 2025 National Packaging Targets apply to all packaging made, used and sold in Australia. By 2025, the intent is for 100 per cent of Australian packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable, 70 per cent of plastic packaging will be recycled or composted, and 50 per cent of packaging will be recycled content. The targets include the “phase out of problematic and unnecessary single-use plastics packaging”. Read APCO’s 2025 National Packaging Targets Framework here.

 

A turning point for plastics in Australia

“It’s a really exciting time to be working in the space,” Ian said. “Industry is now on board and looking for solutions rather than hiding from them. Pryolosis has been around for a long time, but suddenly it has become clear there is going to be a shift. Food company MDs are now saying they need to spend money in this space. At the same time, we’ll see REDycle-type schemes expanded to households to feed the new advanced recycling equipment that’s coming on board by 2025.”

With so many advanced recycling projects expected to be operational within three years from now, Australia’s 2025 National Packaging Targets are suddenly looking a lot more achievable.

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