Waste packaging

The scale of humanity's throw-away culture makes for terrifying reading. Despite the rising awareness of petroleum-based plastics and their impact on the environment, the global packaging industry continues to boom and is worth more than $900 billion.

Victoria University researchers are exploring ways to turn agricultural waste into more sustainable packaging that doesn’t take centuries to break down.

Professor Vincent Rouillard, Dr Matthew Lamb and Dr Marlene Cran bring a combined 55 years of experience to packaging and materials research which began at VU in 1989. Their overall focus is:

  • finding ways to deal with existing packaging in the environment
  • exploring more sustainable options for packaging
  • analysing the distribution environment to quantify the need for packaging in the first place.

The Australian Government has a bold target to reduce single-use plastics by demanding that all packaging be reusable, compostable or recyclable by 2025. That will prove to be a significant challenge for industry and companies. However, just switching to recyclable packaging may not be a solution unless Australia commits to further processing onshore.

“It’s pretty clear that recycling hasn’t worked well in Australia so far in meeting the challenge of reusing waste. We chose to sell most of our responsibility for recyclable waste to other countries, but few materials were ever being transformed here or even further down the line for reuse.

We’re going to need other solutions that create viable, sustainable packaging alternatives if we are to reduce our impact on the planet,” said Professor Rouillard.

The current sustainable packaging project at VU is to develop suitable materials from pea starch, an agricultural by-product. Working with a local industry partner that provides the waste material, Dr Cran has already successfully converted it into a film as part of a prototype study.

Based on study results, the Victorian Government has added significant funding to develop the packaging concept further and explore other materials that can be produced from agricultural waste.

“Beyond developing our pea starch film, we’re also exploring other areas like breaking down existing plastics with microbes into more friendly molecules, and also analysing the distribution network so that we can quantify the amount of packaging needed in the first place,” said Professor Rouillard.

Packaging often over-designed

The packaging industry is primarily designed from a risk-based model to get products through severe distribution hazards, even though these seldom happen, he says.

As a result, product packaging is often overdesigned, and its features are rarely used to protect it from the usual bumps and handling during delivery. Companies have no real incentive to solve the problem of too much packaging because it is cheap to produce and their packaging waste problem is passed on to consumers directly.

“We need to look at packaging solutions that have a feasible plan for their end-stage of the lifecycle. This could mean packaging might go on to have another purpose as mulch or something else, or at the very least, it can come with clear instructions on how to dispose of the packaging properly,” added Rouillard.

The research team and VU are hoping to also find funding for an Australian Packaging Compliance Laboratory, which would give them the means to test and certify the sustainability credentials of product packaging, as many of the claims made on commercial packaging are not currently verifiable.

One of many VU planetary health projects

In 2020, the sustainable packaging project, as well as 24 other projects, received part of $1 million in funding from VU as part of its whole-of-university commitment to Planetary Health. The commitment has four pillars:

  • research with impact through learning that creates future leaders;
  • making sustainable choices about working on campus;
  • engaging with communities to find innovative solutions to complex planetary health challenges.

Professor Corinne Reid, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research said VU supports the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to end poverty, protect the planet and improve the lives and prospects of everyone, everywhere by 2030 through its commitment to the wellbeing of people, of place and of our planet.

“Our idea of place is three-fold: a university for the west of Melbourne, our place on Aboriginal Country, and our connections to the global community,” she said.

“Our research projects each tackle big issues facing our communities and the planet. We’re proud of what Vincent, Matthew, Marlene and their team have achieved already and look forward to seeing them develop further sustainable packaging solutions for the planet.”

This article was adapted from Create, an online publication of Engineers Australia.