There is a disturbing phenomenon playing out with regards to plastic – its regular ‘bad rap’ can lead to poorly thought-out solutions.

By Fiona Mathews, CEO of Earth Champions Foundation 

There is a disturbing phenomenon playing out with regards to plastic – its regular ‘bad rap’ can lead to poorly thought-out solutions.  

The on-going greenwashing that pervades is confusing the bigger picture with many so-called ‘green alternatives’ turning out to have high carbon footprints and low recycling potential. 

One such example is currently playing out around the world with the explosive  growth of single-use food containers brought on by the pandemic.  Demand for Polypropylene (PP) single-use containers in particular 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. 

Of course alternatives are popping up all over the place, yet when we deep dive into them, there invariably turns out to be a fundamental reason why their properties fall below those of PP containers. What is required is a total change of perspective. We need to flip the challenge around. Rather than looking to replace PP food containers with alternatives we should be focusing instead on how to close the loop on a material that actually offers so many benefits. 

Plastic plays a vital role in preserving food and therefore reducing food waste, as such, if we are to meet 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.  

As it stands many in the catering sector, particularly the take-away food area are grappling for alternatives to offer their consumers who believe they are doing the right thing by shunning plastic. Many have shifted to brown cardboard containers. Yet 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.  

Those who have opted for compostable packaging are finding the going just as awkward due to a number of factors, from limited collection infrastructure, to the fact that most of the “compostable” packaging requires industrial composting at 60C, through to the issue that some food products are not suitable for compostable packaging.  

And when it comes to wet food caterers still find they are reliant on PP take-away food containers as no effective alternative has been found. 

The combined challenge of dealing with an increase in plastic packaging waste as well as managing and saving 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 and be pumped up in the dry season.  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,  which, has no waste, and has created systems to consume or reuse all materials.  This is a message we have to get across to empower those in the driving seat who will then pass it on to the consumer. We need to put a halt on producing millions more tons of plastic with no destination in mind – as it stands, and despite claims to the contrary, the majority of the food containers are sent to landfill. Yet this material has enormous potential for recycling and reuse.   

Certainly re-purposing plastic to save water is a unique concept – and there are so many other simple ways to close the loop on plastic rather than let it cause environmental damage.  Using the tons of waste plastic we are surrounded by is key to a sustainable circular economy and sits at the heart of WSW’s mission as we redefine waste PP as a valuable resource.  

July has been coined “Plastic Free July” in a number of countries around the world – including Australia, yet in reality we should be setting our sites on demonstrating  how we can reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. This can be achieved by boosting recycling streams for existing plastics,. The domino effect will be that in doing so we will in turn be reducing CO2, capturing rainwater, reducing flooding and stopping ocean plastic waste. That is what the rest of the months should be all about!   

fiona mathews earth champions foundation
Fiona Mathews

About the Author: 
Fiona Mathews is the Founder and CEO of Earth Champions Foundation,  which was launched with Nelson Mandela in 2000 and has held six successful programs in different locations including Australia, Switzerland, Hong Kong and United Kingdom. 

Contact: 
https://www.earthchampions.org