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19 May 2022

Transcript: Consume This podcast, Episode 3 - Bamboozled: Can We Kick the Plastic? (Part 1)

Why is it so hard for us to stop using single-use plastic packaging? This episode, we follow Elysian Foods owner Toby Green on his quest to ditch the polymers.

Producer Tom: Uh, okay we are rolling.

(The sound of a sledge hammer smashing a jib wall.)

Jon Duffy: So here I find myself covered in gib dust. Panting more than I'd like to actually, and showing my age, demolishing a wall in a factory. And you're probably asking yourself, what on earth has this got to do with plastics? Well, the answer to that question will involve us going back in time a little bit.

(The noise of a busy factory fades in.)

Toby Green: So yeah, this is the Elysian warehouse. So you can see it's quite a small building, but great location.

Jon Duffy: This is Toby Green. He's showing us around a small factory in Miramar.

Toby Green: We can go into the kitchen if you like.

Jon Duffy: Via a small roller door you enter a 10-metre square warehouse. In case you're not familiar with commercial warehouses, that is tiny. We take a left pass the walk-in fridge and enter the kitchen. It's a tiny room with a sink, some bench space, and a couple of chefs. When we arrive they're chopping cucumbers, peeling garlic, and busily filling pots of tzatziki.

(Music is playing from a small radio)

Toby Green: Sorry, turn the music off.

(Music stops)

Toby Green: There we go. So yeah, we've got these plastic pots uh, everything goes in there by hand. And then everything gets packed by hand into cardboard boxes.

Jon Duffy: This is the current home of Elysian Foods. They manufacture Greek foods like olives and dips like tzatziki and taramasalata. If you're thinking Toby doesn't sound very Greek... Well, you're right.

Toby Green: I've always been a very passionate consumer of taramasalata in particular. When I moved to London after university, it was really popular. I suspect it probably still is. Elysian Foods is the only company in New Zealand that makes taramasalata. I saw this company was for sale and I came to talk to them. Basil and Martha were in their seventies. They were running the business and they'd been trying to sell it for a few years and no one wanted to buy it.

And I can kind of understand why, because it was so small... Very much a family business. Basil hadn't been on holiday for 20 years. He hadn't written the recipe down. Didn't really weigh things out. Did most of the stuff by sight.

When I first came to see it, I was like oh no, it's just really too small. It's not really a viable business. And then he was like, oh, if no one buys my business- I've been trying to sell it all these years and I want to retire. And if no one buys it by the end of the summer – this was October 2017 – if no one buys it by the end of the year, maybe, he said, I'll just close it down. I was like, oh right. Well, that changes things considerably. So I gave up my corporate career and go into making taramasalata instead.

Jon Duffy: So basically, Toby bought the business for a love of food. But as we're going to find out, the lack of recipes, holidays, and profit weren't his only concerns.

(🎵🎵🎵 Music Plays)

Jon Duffy: Hello, I'm Jon Duffy, and you're listening to Consume This. Today's episode isn't about dips or delicious Greek food. It's about the packaging they come in. Plastic packaging.

Toby Green: So we don't want to be producing, personally – Elysian Foods, myself – I don't want to be running a company that's producing tons of plastic that could potentially end up floating around, washed up on the beaches, out in the Pacific Ocean.

Hannah Blumhardt: Plastic packaging uses up 2% of the oil globally extracted each year. And it's projected to take up 15% of the remaining carbon budget by 2050 if we carry on projected growth rates.

Jeff Vickers: Most of the time, the impact of the product is, say, 10 times the impact of the packaging. But the packaging is this hot button issue, right?

Because it's the thing that consumers have to dispose of. You know, they might eat the product, and so that gets forgotten about. But the packaging, they have to somehow do something with it. And so they're forced to make a choice. Which bin do I put it in? Or can I compost it or can I do something else with it? Or can I reuse it?

Jon Duffy: I'm sure you're familiar with the issue. Maybe you always pick the item that comes in a glass jar, or even head down to your local refillable store. And if I reflect on my own situation, absolutely I would always opt for a glass bottle over a plastic one, because the perception is the glass recycling scheme is really reliable here in New Zealand.

And you know, in my mind, the plastic recycling scheme is really patchy. In some areas you can recycle, in some areas you can't. But if I want the things I'm used to in my life, there's only so much that I, as a consumer, can do to reduce my plastic footprint, because so much comes packaged in plastic.

Is it just that we need manufacturers to stop producing stuff in plastic, then we can switch to alternatives?

Well, over the next two episodes we'll discover it's just not quite that simple. But as for the new owner of Elysian Foods, Toby, he doesn't know that yet.

Toby Green: So when I bought the business four and a half years ago, I always had reservations about the fact that we were packing our products into plastic pots. I was always conscious that we should come up with a better alternative. That putting things into plastic was not in line with my life values shall we say.

A few years ago, probably pre-COVID, I remember saying if we haven't solved the plastic pots packaging problem by the end of the year, we should close up the business. That's how serious I was about it. And then COVID came along an obviously there were lots of different things impacted and that kind of went away for a little while. More recently, I realized that we'd got to a point where we'd already sold a hundred thousand plastic pots of products, which was two tons, because each one weighs 20 grams, including the lid 22 grams. And I was like, oh my God, two tons of plastic. I am personally responsible for injecting two tons of plastic into the environment, just in the first 10 months of the year. And I was like right, I should do something about it.

So that's the background to the quest for trying to get rid of plastic packaging.

Jon Duffy: We need to get technical for a second. Plastic isn't just one thing. There are lots of different types. They have different properties uses and end of life options.

Some can be recycled and some can't. And even within the recyclable types, some are more recyclable than others. The most common types of plastic used by the packaging industry here in Aotearoa are …

PET, it's also referred to as #1 plastic. That's what soft drink bottles are made from. It's also the easiest to recycle in New Zealand. The majority of it goes to a place called Flight Plastics, where they turn it back into food and drink containers.

Then there's #2 plastic. High density polyethylene, aka HDPE. Think milk bottles and cleaning products. They're also quite recyclable. And finally plastic #5, otherwise known as polypropylene.

Toby Green: So we use number five for the pots and the lids are... I'm not quite sure, but they're not really super recyclable.

Jon Duffy: #5 Plastic is common for chilled dips. Imagine a hummus container and you're there. Theoretically they can be recycled in New Zealand, but in practice not all councils do. If you're in Taupō you can chuck them in your recycling bin, but head down state highway five to Napier and it's straight into the rubbish.

Another issue is that they don't get recycled into the same type of container. They're downcycled into things like wheelie bins and fence posts. That's not really very circular. Crucially, it doesn't do anything to prevent more virgin dip containers from being manufactured. So the plastic pile keeps growing.

Back to Toby.

Toby Green: One of the first people I talked to was this couple called Hannah and Liam – I think they are from The Rubbish Trip. I emailed them and Hannah replied straight away going, oh, it's not that straightforward. And really the only environmentally-friendly solution to packaging is reusable.

Hannah Blumhardt: You would probably look at what ABC does with their swap-a-crate system. They service the major breweries and they have the longest running reuse system in New Zealand. And they've been going for a hundred years. They own all the bottles, and the thing is that DB and Lion don't get to choose the shape of the bottle. They just get to choose their label. And they have to use a label that's easy to wash off. The ABC collects the bottles back, takes it to Lion and DB. Back in the day ABC used to wash them, but they don't wash them anymore, so Lion and DB do that.

But so basically, what you would need is not a solution for Toby, you would need a solution for the dip, like here are five different jar sizes. I'm an independent packaging company called Hannah's Reuse. You want 500 jars you call Hannah's Reuse. She sends them to you on a pallet and they arrive. You fill them. They go out to the market and Hannah's Reuse is in charge of getting them all back, washing them, putting them back on pallets.

So that's what we need is reusable packaging companies. We don't need individual companies like Toby inventing their own system because it's not efficient.

Toby Green: It seems common sense again suggests that's the best option. The true cost of reusable containers may not be that attractive. But it's just simply not possible at the moment.

Hannah Blumhardt: The reason that switching from single use to reuse would be more expensive now is because we have all of our systems set up around single use. Actually, reusable packaging is cheaper overall to run, but it's really difficult to unpack. Because at the moment it won't be cheaper for companies, because the costs of the single use packaging system are externalized. Councils manage waste and recycling.

And so there's a product stewardship scheme in discussion at the moment for plastic packaging, which in theory should internalize the costs. But a reuse system automatically internalizes the costs. And so it's much more expensive to try and recycle a bottle than it is to wash it. But it's much cheaper for a company to do neither.

Jon Duffy: Toby is supportive of reusable packaging. There's a fill-your-own store around the corner from his current factory, which he supplies. He also encourages locals to pop by the factory and fill their own containers. But the reality is Elysian Foods is too small to pressure the supermarkets, or the government, to set up a reusable packaging scheme just for dips. For now at least, he still needs one way single use packaging.

His goal is to find the packaging with the smallest environmental footprint. And that's where things start to get complicated.

Jeff Vickers: The environment, quote unquote, is not just one thing. Depending on whether you're talking about carbon footprint or how circular something is or how recyclable it is, those are all quite different things. And they aren't necessarily aligned.

Jon Duffy: This is Jeff Vickers. He's the technical director of ThinkStep ANZ - a sustainability advisory firm. Their key focus is helping organizations quantify their sustainability goals with evidence and hard numbers.

Jeff Vickers: One of the challenges you've got is when you say we want to make something more sustainable or reduce its environmental impact. Part of it's about - what impacts are we talking about? Because every product has an impact. And I would also say that reusable packaging has an impact too. To assume that one particular packaging format is more sustainable than the other one, even to be able to calculate that it's difficult because it depends what you include in the scope you know.

Is it low-carbon? Is it highly recyclable? Is it more circular because it's highly recyclable? Is it reusable? Is it bio-based? Biodegradable? Is it whatever. And there's all these different terms and they all have slightly different meanings and it's trying to understand, well what's important in your context? I think that's probably the most important thing.

Jon Duffy: To put it simply, what Jeff's saying here is that it really depends what you care most about. There are two main factors: The first is litter potential. This is the combination of how likely it is that your ice cream wrapper is going to end up stuck to your thigh when you sit down on the beach, i.e. out in the environment. And of course, how it breaks down when it gets there.

The second issue is harder to quantify: carbon footprint. That's how much something is contributing to the climate crisis. There are always going to be trade-offs, but the ultimate goal is to find packaging that has a low impact on both fronts.

Jon Duffy: So what are the options? Toby could switch from the #5 polypropylene he’s currently using to a #1 plastic.

Toby Green: The recycling facilities for #1 plastics are much more widely available and cheaper and easier. Most councils in New Zealand accept it, but I feel like that's a bit of a cop-out.

You're still going to have that problem of plastic in the environment. If it's able to be recycled, it's got to be picked up. It's got to be washed. It's got to be taken to a factory. It's got to be melted at high temperatures and then re-cast into a new plastic pot and all these sorts of things. Is that really that great?

Jon Duffy: There's glass. But that presents its own issues...

Toby Green: There's four times the amount of greenhouse gas units in a glass jar, compared to the same size plastic pot.

(Glass breaking sound)

Jon Duffy: Glass production actually has a lower carbon footprint per kilo, than plastic. The issue is it's much heavier. It takes a lot more material to make the same size container. And on top of that the extra weight means that the carbon cost of transporting the products also jumps way up compared to the plastic that Toby is already using.

Toby Green: And it kind of makes sense. There's also the consideration that using glass in a food industry is really difficult and it requires a whole lot of extra investment. Glass is so much more dangerous. If it chips, chips of glass in the product and you get recalls. And so that kind of excluded glass from the outset.

Jon Duffy: Another potential alternative is the new breed of compostable packaging. It's been slowly creeping its way onto our supermarket shelves over the last few years.

Toby Green: We were in lockdown and my partner, Sarah and I decided, uh, when we got to level three in Wellington that we should order some takeaways. And it came in these pots, which I subsequently found out were made of bamboo.

Jon Duffy: I know what you're imagining. No, it doesn't look like a big stick of bamboo with the ends chopped off. It's not that exciting. It's a round tub. It looks like it's made out of brown cardboard.

Toby Green: I thought, well, that's nice. That is pretty cool. It doesn't come in plastic, like all the Hello Fresh-type family meals that we get sometimes.

The reason it triggered my interest is I put it in the sink in the garage. I washed it out and left it full of water in the sink and then must have got distracted and came back to it a week later. And I noticed that the pot was completely unaffected. Like there was no sign of any seepage. I thought, oh, maybe that’s something that we could use.

I've never seen a food company package dips of any description in a bamboo cardboard pot. Anywhere in the world, as far as I can tell. So that kind of put me off a bit, but I was like, well, we should look into it. Why not?

Jon Duffy: Toby followed the trail and tracked down the source of these bamboo containers. It turns out they're produced by a huge multi-billion dollar Finnish company Huhtamäki.

Toby Green: And I contacted them and I said what I was proposing to do. And they were like, no one's ever done that before mate. That sounds crazy. So they sent me some samples. We filled these up with dips and covered them with clingfilm. Put the lids - they come with a cardboard lid and put them in the chiller because we wanted to see shelf-life test basically.

So we tested them and they seem to be okay, given that we hadn't put the clingfilm on particularly well.

Jon Duffy: One of the big advantages of the plastic that Toby and Elysian Foods are currently using is that it has a soft lid. Once the pot is full, you push it down and that creates the seal. The whole process is done by hand.

Toby Green: They were really good for small food manufacturers, small volumes. But these pots, you would need to put a film on, which would be heat sealed onto the top of the pot. And that requires a piece of machinery that we don't have. And that's quite expensive.

Jon Duffy: The cheapest machine Toby could find to apply a heat-sealed lid was around $30,000!

That's not a problem anymore. Over the last four years the company has grown to a scale where Toby feels comfortable investing this kind of cash. But there is one issue... Remember right at the start of the episode, when I was demolishing a wall?

(Wall smashing noise)

Jon Duffy: The new packaging machine is large. And Toby's current kitchen is not.

Toby Green: So then it was like, okay, well we need to move to a bigger premise. If we're going to go down this journey of moving away from plastic packaging, we're going to have to move to a bigger premise in order to buy the machines and set them up so that we can do that. So that's becomes a huge decision then.

That's the process that we're going down at the moment. Just so that we can have the space to bring these machines in and hopefully move away from plastic packaging.

(Demolition noise)

Jon Duffy: By now we're getting a sense of why it's so difficult for businesses to stop using plastic packaging.

I mean, Toby is buying and fitting out an entirely new building to make the transition. Even with me helping on the sledgehammer duties, that's a mammoth undertaking.

(Building and demolition noise)

Jon Duffy: So Toby, you're in your new factory. It's day one. Tell us what's going on.

Toby Green: Well, uh, we started the demolition work this morning, eight o'clock and we're focusing on getting the kitchen done first. It should take about six weeks. Then we can move from Miramar into here.

Jon Duffy: His business Elysian Foods also exists at a sweet spot for this transition. It's grown large enough to make investing in new packaging equipment worthwhile. It doesn't have thousands of dollars sunk into legacy systems. And crucially Toby is really passionate about doing what's best for the environment.

Toby Green: I like to make sure that that you're doing things for the right reason. You don't want to be accused of greenwash and all this sort of thing.

These bamboo pots with the lid on weigh 17 grams. That's 17 grams of once earthy material in there. Are they better for the environment than 22 grams of plastic, which is the current weight of the plastic pot and the lid?

And for me, that was just a no brainer. I was like, of course they are. Yeah, I barely need to check this. I mean, it's just so obvious. But the first part of that journey was like, who do I ask? Surely the people who know this sort of information, and it turned out to be incredibly difficult to find people to talk to.

Because I don't want to go down this path and then someone goes, oh, bamboo, you know, it's the new palm oil of 2025, whatever, it's suddenly becoming a great scar on the Amazon rainforest. You definitely want to make sure you ask the right questions, even if they appear really common sensical, that the answers should be XYZ. You don't want someone to come in and say, oh no, you've made this huge investment and now, you know, you're being pilloried by consumers and the press for trying to do the right thing because people are very critical, very quickly.

Jon Duffy: On top of building a new factory and investing a ton of money into new equipment, this is the other issue small businesses face: the lack of information. There isn't a New Zealand-specific tool that makes it easy to compare the impacts of different types of packaging. As part of its Rethinking Plastics in Aotearoa report, the government has committed to creating tools to help with this problem, but they're unlikely to arrive much before 2025.

So, how do you work out whether 17 grams of bamboo is a lower impact option than 22 grams of plastic?

(🎵🎵🎵 Music Plays)

Jeff Vickers: I'm Jeff Vickers and I'm technical director at ThinkStep ANZ. One of our specialist areas is the measurement of sustainability and helping people to measure how they're tracking against their goals. Trying to unpack some of the numbers rather than it being kind of a fluffy, all-encompassing concept. So I have a PhD in environmental engineering focusing on sustainable product design and life cycle assessment.

Jon Duffy: The key thing Jeff mentioned here is lifecycle assessment. Before we go any further, we need to know some more about that.

Jeff Vickers: Lifecycle assessment is a way of trying to assess the environmental footprint of a product.

And so what you're trying to do is you're looking at all the different lifecycle stages. So we start right from the point of where materials come out of the ground. If they're virgin materials and the being extracted from the earth, whether that's from mining or whether it's from forestry or some other form of agricultural operation. We look at all of the transport, all of the processing that happens to get them to semi-finished products, right through to final products that are ready to be sold to the customer.

We look at packaging and we look at distribution of the final packaged product to the customer, warehousing, retail distribution. Finally, you know how you get- at home, what you do with the packaging, the actual use of the product over its life. So if it's an energy-using product like a refrigerator we also account for the electricity being used and the production of their electricity.

And finally, we look at the product’s end of life, which could be putting it in a landfill, or it could be sending it for recycling, or in some countries, incineration. Or depending on the product type, it might be composting or whatever else.

We look at all the different kinds of options that could happen for that, and we're trying to calculate that kind of full picture of the product through its life. And the goal of lifecycle assessment is really to try and avoid burden shifting. So you're trying to stop moving problems from one place to another or one time to another.

So we always account for the full supply chain. It doesn't have to be in New Zealand, it could be internationally. And we're trying to account for all of that supply chain and all of the downstream stages so that we can say, okay, what is the total impact? And therefore, what is the significance of any one life cycle stage, to the total impact?

Usually packaging isn't the biggest contributor to the life cycle of the product, but we only know that because we calculate the rest.

Jon Duffy: Life cycle assessments are the gold standard of this kind of work. You can spend tens, even hundreds of thousands hiring someone like ThinkStep. They'll undertake a review of your product and packaging, look at a range of different options and spit out a peer-reviewed study. That kind of investment is still out of reach for Elysian Foods.

But there are some things we can learn by looking at another study. One ThinkStep have recently conducted for NZ Post.

Jeff Vickers: Yeah. So the NZ Post study, what NZ Post was hoping to do is choose the lowest carbon and the lowest impact courier bag.

So they're starting from the point that they could use a lot of different options and they were getting a lot of pressure from the market. People wanted them to get out of plastic bags and move to something. There were lots of different options of what that something could be.

So they could have a paper envelope-style thing. You could have a padded paper envelope, a home-compostable courier bag. But then you could also have plastic bags that are still plastic, but have a lot more recycled content in them, which brings their carbon footprint down. And so if you're starting from that point, we have all these different options. How do we evaluate which one is environmentally preferable?

They commissioned us to produce a lifecycle assessment study. The goal was to make it publicly available, because for them, the communication of this information to the final consumer and also to business customers was really important.

Jon Duffy: NZ Post's situation is actually very similar to Toby's. They started out packaging-agnostic. And I guess the best result from a marketing point of view would be to get rid of the plastic. That's what we, the customers, want. But their overall goal is to minimize their environmental footprint.

Jeff Vickers: And so what we did is we looked at all those different options. We went into the supply chain, we worked with the their suppliers, to work out... What is the material composition of each bag? Where are the things coming from? Where are they being sourced from? How are they being made?

And we use that information to build up an environmental assessment. The life cycle assessment of the products. We captured the manufacturing stages. We captured the transport through NZ Post network, and we captured the end-of-life – so whether it was going to landfill or composting or whatever.

The biggest impact you've got is actually in the making of the bags originally. And then also what happens to them at end of life. The challenge that you've got is that if you have a paper bag, for example, then it can biodegrade. And if people would do the right thing and put that into recycling, then that's great.

But if they don't and they put it into landfill, then you have this problem where it's breaking down in the landfill. It's potentially releasing methane. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and there's an impact of that. Some of that's being captured and burnt by the landfills and turned into energy. And that's cool. But in the cases where that doesn't happen, you're releasing methane to the atmosphere and that has a significant warming effect.

In the case of other bags, like a plastic bag, it's chemically inert. If you put it in a landfill, not much happens. And so you end up with quite big differences at end of life, depending on what the product is.

I think maybe one of the surprising findings, of this is that home-compostable bags didn't look that great. And part of the reason for that is that, um, they often use a fossil-derived biodegradable plastic. Those are the plastics that will be used for home-compostable bags. So what happens is when that breaks down in the landfill, you're actually releasing fossil fuel to the air. It's not really dissimilar to just sitting it on fire.

So if you took the bag and you lit a match and burnt it, it's actually very similar to you actually composting it. Because you're just putting all of the carbon dioxide that was in that, effectively fuel, which came out of a hole in the ground, because it's out of an oil well. You’re just basically burning that, and that's actually not a hugely desirable outcome.

Jon Duffy: As you can see, this starts to get really complicated. It's not as simple as switching from plastic to paper, despite the fact that that would look like an easy win. In its study, NZ Post compared virgin plastic, recycled plastic, paper and compostable plastic. If you'd been into a post office recently, the results of the study probably won't be a surprise.

Jeff Vickers: Yeah. So the key findings from the New Zealand post study was that the recycled plastic bags outperformed all the other bags and the study. So they're significantly better than the original bag. The carbon footprint was about 60% lower than the original bag. And we found that recycled bags made in New Zealand, using New Zealand recycled plastics, had the best performance. We also considered recycled bags made in China. The reason that New Zealand ones perform better, it's partly transport distance, but more importantly, it's actually our renewable electricity mix. So recycling plastics requires a lot of electricity. New Zealand’s electricity mix is pretty clean and green and very renewable. Largely, that means that the carbon footprint of recycling in New Zealand is actually very low. And so we found that the recycled plastic bags outperformed everything else.

The worst performers, ironically, were the paper bags. It's not because paper is a bad material, but it's because paper packaging is inherently much heavier. And that's the main problem. You need a lot more material to get the same performance that you would from the plastic.

Jon Duffy: Ask yourself... Are you surprised by that? We know about the issues with plastics. They have been heavily publicized for years, but we also can't ignore the climate crisis or the need to rapidly decrease our CO2 emissions. Ultimately, despite the public pressure to move away from their plastic courier bags, NZ Post decided that minimizing their carbon footprint was more important.

(🎵🎵🎵 Music plays)

Jon Duffy: So what about Toby? He started this journey several months ago, determined to stop using plastic packaging. He's bought a new building and a new packaging line to facilitate the change. But as we found out, there are a lot of other factors to consider.

Toby Green: That's right. But at the end of the day, it's still come back to the fact that, Would I rather be putting two tons of plastic into the environment or two tons of bamboo waste? At the end of the day, it just seems common sense to suggest if you can go down the two tons of bamboo waste, this is going to turn into organic mulch. Surely that's got to be better for the environment.

Jon Duffy: Well... We'll find out on the next episode of Consume This.

Is 17 grams of bamboo more environmentally friendly than 22 grams of plastic? Or have we all been mis-sold? Is our move towards plastic-free pantries doing more harm than good?

That's on the next episode.

You've been listening to Consume This. This episode was hosted by me, Jon Duffy, and produced by Tom Riste-Smith. Our executive producer was Gemma Rasmussen.

Consume This is brought to you by Consumer NZ. We're proud of our independence, which we can only achieve because we're a not-for-profit supported by our members.

See you next time.

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