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Recently, the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries made an important announcement revealing that the green economy will be one of the key sectors prioritised by Government to assist with the country’s economic recovery following the devastating onslaught of COVID-19.

This follows shortly after the South African Cabinet has approved the revised National Waste Management Strategy 2020 (NWMS) which is based on the principle of the circular economy and aimed at promoting waste management not only as a community service, but as a viable economic activity.

Welcoming these industry initiatives is ITB Flexible Packaging Solutions (ITB), a division of Novus Holdings Limited.

“Sustainability is a key part of our business strategy and as a product manufacturer, we have our part in contributing to the circular economy by continuously building on our sustainability efforts and services,” says Michelene Locke, sales director at ITB.

ITB’s sustainability committee regularly analyses external trends and matches these to the company’s internal capabilities in order to achieve its own sustainability goals set for 2023, which include ensuring that all products produced by ITB are recyclable and that the company recycles all in-house production waste, resulting in no waste production leaving any of their premises.

New approach to achieve the elimination of waste generation

This year, Government embarked on an extensive consultation process to kickstart the Extended Producers Responsibility (EPR) for various products, including paper and packaging. Charting the new approach to the management of waste in South Africa, the EPR gives effect to Section 18 of the National Environmental Management Waste Act, 2008.

“The Extended Producer Responsibility policy approach has provided us with the opportunity to close the gaps in the circular economy by giving us the necessary platform to be innovative and find solutions to ensure the final product is re-used as many times as is possible, and is then recycled responsibly. By removing waste from the system the cost to the environment will be reduced,” says Locke.

Developments in the sustainable packaging industry

According to Locke, increasing the recyclability / re-use of existing packaging solutions is currently one of the easiest and best sustainability options. “The simple re-use of a product even two to three times has a tremendous positive effect on the production chain and can significantly contribute to reducing the impact on the environment. For example, if still intact, the packaging bag for uncooked pasta can be used to plant and grow a vegetable from a cutting– reducing the need for it to be planted in a pot.”

“The re-use of original packaging is paramount to the success of sustainability programmes. Each time packaging is re-used, it has negated the need for materials to be harvested from the environment to make a product in order to perform the function, so not only does the virgin material remain in the environment but the carbon footprint of the manufacturing process of making that product is no longer required. This provides a knock-on effect of savings for the environment and each time the product is re-used, this savings knock-on effect is felt,” says Locke.

She adds; “The challenge for us in the industry is to make the larger, behind-the-scenes waste more tangible so that people can appreciate the full impact of their choices. The food system presents just one example of how consumers’ intuitive reaction by overestimating the impact of visible packaging while underestimating the impact of less visible waste system, can lead to poor choices and misplaced blame.”

Working with customers on practical sustainable packaging solutions

As more companies with a moral conscience are looking at ways of making their packaging sustainability-friendly, ITB does regular research on relevant initiatives and shares education programmes with their partners and customers. The company has assisted many of its customers drive their sustainability efforts from the knowledge it holds and is committed to continue guiding them on what the best environment-friendly packaging solutions are.

One of ITB’s most popular products is its ‘No Problem’ 100% recyclable carrier bag which features moulded handles made from 100% recycled material.

Consumer education is fundamental

Identified as one of the three key pillars of the NWMS is efficient and effective waste services and awareness raising. “The need for education programmes cuts across the spectrum of users right to the end-users being the consumer.  Consumers are a critical part of the chain due to the significant impact they have on the knock-on effect of the circular economy, simply by re-using the product for as many safe uses as possible, then handing it in for responsible recycling. In order for consumers to feel part of the solution, many brand owners are now including educational information on packs and websites,” adds Locke.

The impact of COVID-19 on plastics and flexible packaging

Plastics have been at the heart of innovative cross-industry collaborations to combat the virus, as well as the bedrock of medical protective equipment for frontline workers with demand going through the roof for masks, gloves, screens and disposable bags. Plastics became indispensable during the pandemic, primarily because of its versatile, affordable and hygienic properties.

A report by fund manager Schroders suggests that the best optimal long-term solution lies not in moving away from plastics use altogether – but in fixing existing problems in the plastics economy with the focus on reusability and recyclability. Another study conducted by Trucost found that the environmental cost of using plastics is nearly four times less than the costs of using other materials. Substituting plastics with alternatives that perform the same function is estimated to increase environmental costs from $139 billion to $533 billion annually.

“A zero-plastic future is extremely unlikely. We need to address behavioural barriers and the perception of reusing and recycling plastic products. Plastic is not inherently bad or evil; it is our behaviour around plastic that needs to change and understanding that it is about how we manage the use of it,” says Locke.

Gaining momentum in popularity prior to the pandemic, COVID-19 has also fuelled the demand for flexible packaging solutions which is expected to continue as the requirement for flexible, food-safe packaging remains high. Packaging companies have thereby been given the opportunity to demonstrate the inherent advantages of flexible packaging across all FMCG sectors which will help contribute to consumers embracing it as the packaging solution of the future.