By Natalie Martin, 3R Group materials innovation manager
Globally and in New Zealand many players in the food and grocery industry have committed to making their packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025.
The commitment is both commendable and ambitious. So, what’s been achieved, will they get there, and will there be sustainable outcomes for such packaging?
Producers are increasingly opting for packaging materials such as PET and HDPE plastic, glass, fibre and compostables. The challenge remains the sheer volume, capacity, and infrastructure to collect, recycle, reuse or compost it and, importantly, who is responsible for this.
Glass has a good recovery rate in New Zealand, but contamination and recycling capacity remain a challenge while its manufacture is emissions-heavy compared with other options.
Recyclability of fibre makes it a popular choice, yet recovered volumes outstrip onshore recycling capacity by some 50%. The rest is sent overseas – where processors are becoming more stringent about the quality of what they accept.
Compostable packaging has potential, but also lacks onshore processing and collection infrastructure, has no New Zealand standard, and there have recently been concerns around PFAS chemicals.
The challenges with plastic are well known but its low weight, low cost and durability mean it may never be replaced as the most used packaging material. Using plastic types which can be recycled onshore, and minimising packaging are therefore current focal points, along with the use of recycled content in new packaging.
Government is backing change with the $50 million Plastics Innovation Fund announced in late 2021. It offers funding for projects to reduce plastic waste as well as make it more reusable and recyclable.
Overseas we are increasingly seeing product stewardship being made mandatory for industry. This makes the supply chain responsible for not just their choice of packaging material, but its outcomes.
In New Zealand, this has only been applied to single-use plastic packaging, and a proposed container return scheme. However, as signaled in recent consultation on new waste legislation, we can expect more if industry doesn’t step up voluntarily.
So, will the industry meet it’s 2025 pledge? I think it’s possible – the drive, investment and public pressure is growing – but the clock is also ticking. Industry must collaborate with each other and government on the bigger solution of product stewardship to achieve truly sustainable outcomes.
Natalie Martin is the materials innovation manager at 3R Group in Hawke’s Bay. She has a background in food technology and over 10 years’ experience in new product development for FMCG and still supports the industry as a consultant. At 3R, Natalie works in new product development for various waste streams, including packaging.
The information and opinions within this column are not necessarily the views or opinions of Hot Source, NZ Food Technology, or the parent company, Hayley Media.