Are you using plastic-free packaging? What happens to packaging once it’s in consumers’ hands? How can you help reduce food waste? As sustainable manufacturing gains momentum, these are just some of the questions facing manufacturers.
What is sustainable manufacturing?
There is no single common definition of sustainable manufacturing, but the OECD sums it up as the “creation of manufactured products through economically sound processes that minimise negative environmental impacts while conserving energy and natural resources”.
In other words, it’s about being economically sound, and environmentally and socially responsible.
Where once sustainable manufacturing was seen as an expensive endeavour for manufacturers, something that was “nice to have”, it’s increasingly recognised as a business imperative. (I wrote about consumer expectations with sustainable manufacturing a few years ago.)
The big guys are leading the way. Nestlé recently announced its ambition to make 100% of its packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025. This follows Unilever’s commitment in 2017 to ensure 100% of its plastic packaging was fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. McDonald’s has announced it will eliminate foam packaging from its worldwide supply chain by the end of 2018, and even Buckingham Palace has joined the war on plastic with the Queen banning straws and bottles from the royal estates!
But it’s not only global corporations who are taking sustainable manufacturing seriously. Local manufacturers are leading the way in tackling sustainability challenges, too.
Here’s how local manufacturers are leading the way in tackling sustainability challenges:
Sustainability Challenge: Stop single-use plastic
Today, only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling. The rest of it goes into the ocean. Research by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) found that the equivalent of one dump-truck’s worth of plastic enters the oceans every minute.
These confronting statistics are enough to make Coles and Woolworths say goodbye to single-use bags in 2018.
But while some organisations are pledging to reduce plastic packaging, others are busy creating an alternative. Australian-based Plantic Technologies, last year’s winner of the AIP award for Retail Primary Packaging, innovated to create ultra-high barrier bio-plastic materials for packaging. The PLANTIC™ R combines the best of bio-based, high-barrier material with PET to create a recyclable material that is not only suitable to most thermoforming and tray-sealing applications, it also increases the shelf-life of packaged meats (it’s already being used for the Coles’s own-label lean beef mince). Plus, it only uses around half the energy to product than traditional fossil fuel plastics.
In the northern hemisphere, another company showing how it’s possible to supply packaging solutions that are effective and 100% compostable is Sirane. The UK-based food-packaging company recently launched a plastic-free compostable food pouch – Earthpouch. It is made from a paper with a 100% plastic free heat-sealable coating, which is then formed into a preformed stand-up pouch. While it provides total food security for dry and moist food products, it can also be recycled with paper and is compostable.
Sustainability Challenge: Educate consumers on packaging recycling
It would be easy to say that, as soon as it’s in the consumer’s hands, your packaging is no longer your responsibility. However, there’s a growing belief that manufacturers and producers are responsible for the products they make or sell, and any packaging, when they become waste. It’s known as extended producer responsibility, or EPR. (We spoke about extended producer responsibility in this blog on the circular economy and Australian manufacturing.)
At the Plasticity 2017 conference in Sydney, industry experts discussed how rolling out an EPR scheme could mean giving producers an incentive to change product design, making it easier to reuse or recycle products.
Consumer education is a critical element of this process. Research shows that customers are often unsure what packaging can and cannot be recycled. That’s why the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) developed the new Australasian Recycling Label (ARL) – it highlights what needs to be done with each piece of packaging to ensure the right elements end up in recycling. Woolworths was the first supermarket to adopt the ARL across its own-brand product range in late 2017.
The system also helps guide manufacturers in making the right choices, with Brooke Donnelly, the APCO’s CEO, telling the ABC, “It’s a first in Australia, the ability to be able to evaluate a packaging format in the design phase and make a very conscious choice to create packaging formats that are designed for recycling or reuse.”
Sustainability Challenge: Reduce food waste
Food waste is a colossal challenge. It’s estimated to cost the Australian economy $20 billion each year, with Australian consumers throwing away around 3.1 million tonnes of edible food a year.
But consumers aren’t the only ones throwing food away; UK-based research found that the food manufacturing sector is responsible for the bulk of edible food wasted. Closer to home, the story isn’t any better; it’s estimated that as much 40% of fresh produce from Australian farms can be rejected before it arrives at the supermarket.
Some manufacturers are tackling the issue right at the source by using by-products to create other value-added products.
Tasmanian business Hartshorn Distillery is using sheep whey (a by-product of cheese making) to produce alcoholic beverages, including gin, vodka and a vanilla liqueur. Owner Ryan Hartshorn told Food & Beverage Magazine, “We’ve been trying to use our waste almost from the beginning. We do a few other little lesser-known products like making fudge from whey. We also make some of our older sheep into a sausage that we sell through our cheesery. And we make a fruit paste that goes with our cheese made from the waste of wine making.”
They’re not the only ones: banana farmers on the Far North Queensland Tablelands have created a product that turned their banana seconds into a range of gluten-free, green banana flour products. And Scenic Rim vegetable producers Kalfresh are processing “waste” carrots into pre-cut bagged shredded, circle and stick alternatives.
As sustainable manufacturing takes its place under the spotlight, the pressure is on manufacturers to be proactive with solutions. If there’s one thing we can take away from the examples above, it’s that we cannot drive sustainable business by doing the same as we always have. Australian manufacturers need to think creatively, innovate and develop new ways of working.
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Image credit: iStock / Pogonici