John Hensley Talks to the Ellen Mac Arthur Foundation

John Hensley, Cyberpac/Harmless
Rethinking: Packaging

Idea: Reducing the world of harmful waste created by packaging. This is the future of packaging; here today, gone tomorrow leaving no discernable trace – Harmless.

Creating a range of truly compostable packaging. There are so many products nowadays claiming to be environmental champions, but to be fair everything will biodegrade eventually, it just depends on how long you are prepared to wait. We wanted to provide a replacement plastic packaging with compostable, like-for-like equivalents that perform up to, if not better, than existing packaging whilst respecting the environment.

What is the situation currently with packaging?
Packaging gets a bad rap from the general public. People dislike the amount of energy used in producing packaging, the consumer says they have difficulty in unwrapping products because there is too much packaging, as well as the ultimate abhorrence of how to dispose of it all.

Plastic seems to be the focal point of the hate campaign. Probably because traditional plastics, including polythene will sit in landfill forever – literally. Images of landfill sites overflowing with waste are commonplace now as the Government focus on reducing the amount sent to landfill. As well as the more emotionally charged pictures of plastic bags floating in the sea or wrapped around marine life, which heighten our guilt about the way we dispose of plastic.

Combined with these consumer sentiments, businesses are also becoming increasingly aware of the need to change their practices to address these concerns. Whilst the most obvious and measurable ways of accomplishing this are through reduced energy consumption, a company can reduce their impact on the environment by changing their thinking about packaging.

There are two changes we can make as an industry to reduce the negative impact packaging has. We know we need packaging and the information that is conveyed on it – and so does the consumer – but we can be smarter about how we manufacture, use and dispose of it. We have made some progress in reducing the amount of packaging we use, for example, a one litre plastic detergent bottle is 58% lighter than in 1970, but we still need to go further. We must also look to a more sustainable source of material to manufacture packaging. This way we can ensure products continue to be suitably packaged whilst at the same time using packaging that is free of toxins and can be disposed of safely.

At the end of the day, disposal of packaging is all rather confusing for the consumer; a matter raised by WRAP, the government backed waste resource and action programme. The packaging industry should make it a priority to clearly communicate to the consumer to ensure that packaging is disposed of in the right way.

How is Harmless changing that?
Many traditional, fossil fuel plastics like polythene can be made degradable by including a special additive in the mix. However, when discarded, this mix will still be environmentally damaging. Harmless Packaging by contrast works with renewable and sustainable resources for its products. Once Harmless products have reached the end of their useful life, they can be industrially composted to allow them to re-enter the life cycle.

The Harmless Packaging Range utilises starch-based resources to produce Harmless-Compost, Wrap and Air. Harmless-Compost is a line of bags and envelopes with incredible strength and finish can be printed full colour process and will completely biodegrade into naturally occurring substances. Utilising the same technology; Harmless-Wrap and Air are an operational, protective packaging solution with outstanding performance and can be disposed of in industrial composting sites to help reduce the mountain of plastic clogging up the globe.

Harmless-Dissolve uses a hydro-degradable plastic to produce a stronger and lighter plastic bag, which completely dissolves in water leaving no damaging residue. This fantastic product can replace poly-wrap on magazines, cotton laundry bags in hospitals and, with natural anti-static qualities has broad utility in the electronics industry.

What are the key drivers that prompted you to work on a solution?

  • Plastics can take up to 400 years to decompose, meaning that almost all plastic ever made, still exists on our planet.
  • Approximately 80% of post-consumer plastic waste ends up in landfill with only 7% being recycled.
  • Around 30 million tonnes of household waste is generated in the UK every year, of which 5.9 million tonnes is packaging.
  • About 96% of dead seagulls in Northern Scotland were found to have 28 pieces of plastic waste in their stomachs.

However, the packaging industry has been designing with waste prevention in mind for years. Improvements in packaging design and production techniques have resulted in huge material usage reductions. A one pint glass milk bottle is 65% lighter than it was in 1940, a one litre plastic detergent bottle is 58% lighter than in 1970 and a cardboard box is typically 14% lighter than in 1971.

Cyberpac was not complacent and decided that we could work to create more positive statistics.

What are the benefits?
To be classed ‘compostable’, a material must meet the stringent EN 13432 standard. The testing process involves mixing the material with organic waste and leaving it for 12 weeks under commercial composting conditions.

After this time the material must show evidence of being biodegraded due to microbial action. This means breaking down into water, carbon dioxide and biomass, rather than just breaking up into pieces, as degradable oil-based plastics do. To meet the standard, less than 10% of the remaining fragments are allowed to be larger than two millimeters.

The composted material is then tested for toxicity, to make sure it’s suitable to grow food crops. Finally, it’s sown with summer barley to check that it will support plant life.

However, Harmless-Dissolve is different. It is non-toxic and is degraded by micro-organisms, moulds and yeasts. These organisms can occur in both artificial environments, such as anaerobic digesters, activated sewage sludge and composts and natural environments such as aquatic systems and soil. The micro-organisms use Harmless-Dissolve as a food source by producing a variety of enzymes that are capable of reacting with it. In the end, the bag becomes carbon dioxide, water and biomass.

How does it fit into the circular economy?
The future of packaging is not just about using less packaging – as that will just lead to us doing ‘less bad’ rather than ‘good’ – but rather about redesigning packaging, the manufacturing process and the materials that get used, so that it can be 100% harmless; here today, gone tomorrow leaving no discernable trace.