With environmental sustainability and climate change key concerns in food production, it was appropriate to have invited Chandru Wadhwani, joint managing director of PET bottle-to-bottle recycling company, Extrupet, to make a keynote address.
Apart from a swathe of truly gloomy facts and figures on the impact of the Anthropocene Epoch on the planet, here are some points discussed by the urbane Chandru during his presentation aptly titled ‘Going around in circles’.
As someone who deals daily with the realities of actual recycling, Chandru is, rightly, deeply sceptical of the layers of greenwashing doled out by brand owners. One of his bugbears is ‘pilot-washing’, a marketing or PR strategy that creates the appearance of environmental or sustainability efforts without making substantial changes or commitments, his example being $500 trainers made from recovered fishing nets.
Waste management realities
Every industrialist and consumer should be cognisant of how our waste management systems work, especially in SA, where such resources are much challenged, and more waste is produced than can currently be managed.
And it follows that, when we judge products by their ‘green’ or ‘R’ claims, we need to be mindful about where they end up. What might be theoretically or technically recyclable, is meaningless if there’s no collection system for recovery.
A fabulous earlier talk by Woolworths’ senior packaging technologist, Don Mac Farlane, outlined the retailer’s admirable conversion of numerous SKUs from multi- to mono-layer flexible packaging – but where in South Africa are these discards destined for anything but landfill?
While there are some as ‘separation at source’ pilot projects in SA, the reality is that 80 to 90% of recycled waste originates on a landfill.
Circular economy and the four ‘Rs’
It’s important to truly understand ‘this thing about the circular economy – an issue that, much like sustainability, in my experience, is poorly or not fully understood. In essence, it’s rethinking how resources are managed to create financial, environmental and social benefits, both in the long and short term. It’s about how we can design products that in their next life can actually become what they were in their first life’.
As the world is quickly awakening to the perils that lie ahead for the planet, there are positive trends and moves afoot. Newer generations are far more mindful about how they consume, with sustainability becoming further embedded in purchase decisions. Gen Z, for instance, in the next 10 years will be the largest purchasing-power block globally, with an abhorrence of our current linear, extractive economy.
We might have all become familiar with the hierarchy of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’. Another ‘R’ that’s gaining a lot of traction is ‘refuse’. The problem starts with consumption – and there’s growing mindfulness about refusing to buy what’s not climate-smart resourced, produced, consumed and end-of-life caretaken.
Food waste, regulations and fit-for-purpose design
If food waste was a country, it would have the third highest emissions after the US and China, and overall, a third of food is never eaten. It’s an imperative to think about and change the extractive and wasteful nature of our food chains.
As we extract more than we can sustain, governments are starting to get involved in our lives more and more, with legislation and taxes, and to influence behavioural change. ‘And from my perspective, that’s a little dangerous when Big Brother is telling us how to eat, drink and live’.
He urged brand owners to really rethink product and packaging design, warning that in future, if they don’t have an end-of-life solution for their pack, chances are it’s going to incur levies and costs. ‘And ultimately, it’s a case of do we want to change by disaster, or would we prefer to change by design?’
Chandru also highlighted his two packaging bugbears. The first is the dairy industry’s use of opaque PET bottles for UV stability. But the reality is once you add that colour into that bottle, it’s going straight to the landfill. ‘It’s actually what we call designed to fail.’
His second and personal favourite bugbear as a bottle that claims to be ‘biodegradable, recyclable, reusable’. ‘Snap your fingers, it will disappear, and everything will be okay in the morning. I think we must be very careful about claims, especially on biodegradability and compostability. There isn’t a single industrial compostable site in South Africa.
So, where are all those compostables meant to go, I have no idea. And what do they biodegrade into?’
Ed’s note: Next month, PPM reviews Woolworths’ senior packaging technologist Don Mac Farlane’s presentation at SAAFoST, titled, A circular solution for flexible packaging.