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Reducing Our Massive Packaging Plastic Footprint: New Solutions Needed For A Sustainable, Circular Economy

By Ben Grant, Co-Founder and CEO, Grounded Packaging

According to Plastics NZ, every New Zealander consumes around 31kg of plastic packaging every single year, and recycles only 5.58kg of this. It’s thought that as much as 20% of the landfill space in New Zealand is filled with plastic. And we’re not alone.

In fact, only 5% of all plastic packaging globally is recycled, and as a result, each day eight million tonnes of plastic ends up in our oceans.

Plastics are dramatically overused. While some businesses are making efforts to reduce their use of plastics, many feel the task is too complex, or too expensive to make significant changes.

This is particularly true in industries such as food manufacturing and consumer packaged goods, where plastic alternatives are extremely expensive and lack the same functionalities and protection qualities of plastic.

More often than not, plastic is seen as the only viable option.

The promises of the circular economy model

Moving to a circular model and developing more affordable, sustainable plastic alternatives is essential to driving positive impacts across entire industries.

We need to move away from the traditional, linear economic model based on a “Take - Make – Use – Waste" approach. Ultimately, we need to move to a circular system where materials are recycled, re-made and re-used; central to this model is the development of a functioning recycling system, whether that be mechanical or organic (composting).

Put simply, a circular economy would rely on all packaging being reusable, recyclable, made from recycled materials, or compostable. The basic premise is that the longer materials and resources are in use, the more value is extracted from them.

Challenges with today's traditional plastic alternatives

In order to come up with new solutions that comply with the model of a circular economy, it is important we first understand the current challenges faced by brands wanting to reduce their environmental impact. Many plastic alternatives exist today, however they have their limitations. For example:

  • Some materials can affect shelf-life and durability of goods
  • In most cases, the materials carry a much higher cost than commodity plastics (2-4x on average)
  • Some materials have supply limitations given the relatively immaturity of the industry, which can affect things like lead time and minimum order quantities
  • Presently, there is a small base of suppliers.

To add to this, the packaging industry has become saturated with meaningless jargon, false claims and “greenwashing”, misconceptions, unclear supply chains and broken recycling systems.

We need to invest in research and product development to find new solutions that can address these challenges, while also making non-plastic more affordable.

The new material revolution

The good news is that the field of alternative materials is making significant advances, and there are an increasing number of solutions available to businesses that are either recyclable or compostable.

Recently as part of our materials program, Grounded has developed a new recyclable and carbon-negative packaging material that presents an exciting opportunity to alleviate some of the challenges faced by the food supply chain industry.

Known as BioPE, the sugarcane-based material uses up to 80% less fossil fuel to manufacture than traditional plastic and is only 1.5x more expensive – making it much more attainable than most compostable materials that typically carry a price premium of 3x standard plastics. In addition to being carbon-negative, it uses non-toxic inks and can be recycled in both dedicated PE recycling and general soft plastic streams.

As a high-barrier material, it can also hold food and liquids that previously required plastic. It is an alternative solution for everything from coffee to cuts of meat.

More opportunities – and responsibilities – coming

The use of sugarcane is only one example of innovation creating solutions for a functioning circular economy.

With sustainability fast becoming a high priority for consumers, and sustainable packaging emerging as a ‘must have’ when purchasing a product, there is no doubt that greater investment will be made in the field.

With new materials now available, it’s up to businesses and governments to build and enforce dedicated packaging strategies that meet the needs of the circular economy. Additionally, they must play a role in supporting the end-of-life infrastructure required to reduce the impact of plastic on our rapidly changing planet. The goal is simple: reusable, recyclable, made from recycled materials, or compostable.

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