The pandemic has undoubtedly caused world-wide disruption in every sector, one of which is the Circular Economy where numerous sustainability initiatives have slowed down or ground to a halt. One area that has expanded, however, is Polypropylene (PP) single-use containers as global take-away food demand has soared.
In Australia alone PP imports have practically doubled since 2015. According to The Australian Bureau of Statistics 219,658 tonnes of PP waste were recorded in 2018-2019, of which 62,632 tonnes from households with a mere 28,128 tonnes actually recycled.
Estimates show almost 500 million PP takeaway food containers and lids are produced in Australia accounting for some 16,400 tonnes per year.
Alternatives such as compostable packaging have not gained traction as a real option due to a number of factors, from limited collection infrastructure, to the fact that most of the “compostable” packaging requires industrial composting at 60C and that some food products are not suitable for compostable packaging.
Many in the catering sector have shifted to brown cardboard containers in a bid to move away from plastic. As it turns out much of this brown cardboard packaging is lined with resins or PFAS (poly and perfluorinated alkane substances), which, have been thought to reduce the effectiveness of the immune system and are referred to as “forever chemicals”. These PFAS have been banned in Denmark and are currently being reviewed in the EU. However, when it comes to wet food caterers are reliant on PP take-away food containers, yet some customers comment when receiving plastic containers as the still feel guilty doing so.
It is interesting to note that plastic’s ‘bad rap’ often leads well meaning retailers and restaurant owners to inadvertently opt for a less sustainable option. Plastic plays a vital role in preserving food and therefore reducing food waste, as such, if we are to meet our carbon targets, we should be honing our focus on managing post consumer PP plastic in a way it has never been managed before - as a resource rather than waste. This requires significant and systemic changes across the plastics ecosystem, and the take-away food sector is a perfect place to start.
The combined challenge of dealing with an increase in plastic packaging waste and managing water supplies in Australia has led to a group of experts establishing a pilot project to solve these two problems with one strategy.
Waste Saving Water (WSW) project’s model is straightforward and impactful; turning PP food containers into underground water cells that create aquifers.
PP is an ideal material to produce sustainable man-made aquifers to capture the rainwater that can be pumped to the surface when required for agriculture, fire services, or even potable water.
Our current water management is archaic - rainwater is carried miles in costly pipes and poured into the sea. In the dry season sea water is pulled back through billions of dollars’ worth of desalination plants and pumped through massive pipes back up to the mountains. This not only incurs a huge amount of energy but the end result is now brackish water being returned to where it originally fell.
Man-made aquifers would enable us to percolate and filter rain water through soil, sand and geotextile into underground aquifers. When scaled this system helps to conserve water, energy, funds and recycle polypropylene. It also mimics a natural way to create water conservation at a local level by building resilience and saving money on infrastructure costs and creating local water catchments.
The Earth Champions Foundation has teamed up with Atlantis to make the water cells and water tanks, LyondelBasell, the global PP manufacturer, and Nextek, the recycling and ocean plastics experts.
A scalable collection programme has already started at beachside café’s in the Bondi beach area and the Northern beaches of Sydney, and uptake has been very positive. Most of the public assumed the plastic take-away food containers were recycled, when in fact they were going straight to landfill. This project asks local café’s and restaurants to invite customers to return their washed PP containers into a deposit box to close the loop on what should be turned back into valuable waste. As the programme evolves it will expand to community groups and schools interested in participating as collection stations.
Whilst our aim is to convert this recycled PP into underground water tanks we could be looking to also recycle this material back into food-grade rPP as we continue to expand our collection points. Certainly, our goal is to generate new resources that will save rainwater and slow down flooding. Each ton of rPP collected and recycled will equate to a minimum of one ton of CO2 saved.
Creating a Circular Life Cycle for materials is about mirroring nature - something we are committed to doing as we continue to re-purpose plastic and save water with this unique Pilot project.