|Plastic packaging : Get it right to recycle more ... and keep consumers loving your brand|
Generally speaking, consumers want recycling to be made easy for them.
They don’t want to travel too far, if at all, and they don’t want to have to spend time becoming experts in recycling science or recycling markets before they buy a product.
Increasingly, consumers are basing their purchasing decisions on brand image and the brand’s sustainability credentials. They want clear, unambiguous information regarding a product’s environmental impact and this can be very difficult terrain for companies to traverse. As we have seen in the media recently, getting it wrong, even with the best of intentions, can be expensive and can easily erode the consumer’s trust in a brand.
Packaging recycling, and plastic packaging in particular, is a complicated story. Most local councils collect glass, cardboard, paper, and steel and aluminium cans. However with plastics, there are six main types of plastics packaging plus a miscellaneous category (the so called ‘number 7s’) and there is no consistency in which plastics types are collected across the country.
This is where Charlie’s recently came unstuck when its Honest Water Bottle was sold at a recent outdoor event in Wanaka. Unlike conventional plastic water bottles, which are made from petrochemicals (PET, plastic type 1), this bottle is made from polylactic acid (PLA, plastic type 7) derived from corn starch, which is a renewable resource and compostable in commercial composting facilities – but not in Wanaka. So local community recyclers Wanaka Wastebusters found itself with 50kg of empty Charlie’s Honest Water Bottles, which it wasn’t expecting and for which it didn’t have a market locally. Its solution was to bale them up and send them back to Charlie’s, which made a great story for Campbell Live, particularly when the label says ‘Please recycle’.
This debacle could easily have been avoided if the event organisers, the caterers, and the contracted waste and recycling companies had collaborated better before the event with the brand owner to ensure that appropriate composting or recycling options were in place and the brand-owner wouldn’t end up as the fall guy.
To minimise waste at any event, all it takes is five key steps: understand your waste, create a shared vision, design waste out, communicate and share success: for example, see (www.zerowasteevents.org). Love NZ is another organisation which can assist with public place recycling.
Another recent example of poor communication that has led to consumer confusion involves plastic shopping bags. A recent Fair Go story featured a number of retailers, including Farmers, who have switched to providing ‘oxodegradable’ plastic shopping bags believing that they will break down in the environment on disposal.
The problem is that there are different environments. The oxodegradable chemical additive is activated by exposure to oxygen, so although an oxodegradable plastic bag blowing around as litter in the environment will eventually begin to break down, an oxodegradable plastic bag in a landfill environment will not as there is no oxygen in a landfill. Traditional petrochemical plastics bags are accepted by a number of recyclers in New Zealand, but these recyclers don’t want oxodegradable plastic bags as the oxodegradable additive can adversely affect the performance and life of any new products made from the plastic bags.
Both stories illustrate the grey area between what is technically correct and what happens in the real world. From the consumer’s point of view, all plastics are the same and they want clear, concise, factually correct information to help them decide whether to purchase a product in traditional plastic packaging, where there is mature infrastructure in place to recycle it, versus new plastic materials where the infrastructure is either still in its infancy or not available.
Brand owners need to take responsibility to deliver this information and there is help available to navigate this technically complex minefield.
The Packaging Council of New Zealand has a Code of Practice which can assist companies in the design, manufacture and end-of-life management of packaging to minimise its environmental impact and is based on the fundamental principle that good packaging design should prevent more waste than it creates.
Plastics New Zealand also provides a free guide on its website to help consumers, manufacturers and brand owners understand how degradable plastics will perform and the impact they will have on the environment.
By taking a collaborative approach and using the expertise and wider networks of established industry organisations, all companies involved in the life of packaging can make the right decisions ,which should enhance their reputation and minimise packaging waste.