Listening to customers: Ecoware talks about the uptake of compostable packaging

When Ecoware begun selling its compostable food packaging in 2011, it was a bit of an uphill slog. Words like ‘sustainability’ and ‘the circular economy’ were concepts that hadn’t quite made it into the mainstream vernacular yet, while companies were under no real pressure to change their practices to become more environmentally friendly – but times have changed in 2018.

Ecoware co-founder James Calver says when they started out, Ecoware’s products ­– such as bowls, containers, coffee cups, cutlery and napkins made out of renewable materials like cornstarch and bamboo fibre – were considered a niche.

“We were approaching all these companies explaining to them the products we’d developed and how they were made from plants, and people would look at us as if we were mad,” Calver says.

Ecoware initially got its foot in the door through partnering with some early adopters – in particular, coffee roasting companies who had some agency over the number of cups they were turning over.

But it was hard being one of the pioneers of the sustainable packaging industry, as not a lot of people knew what compostable products were or why they needed them.

Ecoware would end up having to educate businesses on why they should alter their practices.  

Ecoware co-founders Alex Magaraggia (left) and James Calver

“We were aware of the impact plastic was having on the environment a decade ago and we were predicting the direction where we thought things would go,” Calver says.

“It was pre-social media, pre-environmental momentum, so people struggled to get their head around it. Back then businesses were built on the bottom line, with the focus on how much money they’d made.”

Fast forward to 2018, times have changed.

“Now, it’s the triple bottom line – environmental, social and commercial,” Calver says.

“Their customers are doing that education for us. They tell them, ‘This isn’t good enough, you need to offer better options. The awareness is growing and the number of businesses moving to more sustainable options is happening.”

Today, Ecoware has 2500 customers, counting corporates like Fisher & Paykel, Farro and SkyCity among its clients. In the past year, they’ve replaced over 500,000kg of oil-based packaging with plant-based packaging.

Calver says the company is now no longer just focused on packaging, as it now also looks at education and ways to implement the circular economy.

“Some people don’t even understand those words that are featured in the communications of a new recycling scheme, so we hold their hands right through the process by releasing a communcation handbook around the material and ensuring that what they’re saying is communicated clearly to the right products and the right bins.”

Companies operating in the composting collection space are also noticing an uptake in business.

We Compost was started in 2009 to create a collection service for compostable waste.

Founder Steve Rickerby says he is now collecting thousands of compost bins a week in Auckland, equaling about 30,000 kg of organic waste being composted instead of going to landfill. He says business is growing by about 10 bins a week.

“The waste stream has changed,” he says. “People are more aware of what they are throwing away and that services like ours exist. We have diverted almost four million kilograms of waste from landfill.”

Multidisciplinary recycling company Reclaim begun in 1975.

Territory manager Johnny O’Rourke says food waste recycling has been doubling year on year for the business. He says that the increase in demand is from businesses that are growing more conscious of their environmental impact and wanting to divert waste from landfill, even if it’s more expensive.

But Calver says it’s important to note that while there’s been huge strides forward in New Zealand’s compostable waste industry, it is still very much in a transitional phase.

“The problem with New Zealand is it’s so cheap to dump in landfill compared to organics. We don’t have any levies, tax or implications to make people think, ‘Where else could I send it?’” he says.

“Companies are spending $10 to dump in landfill but $130 or $140 to dump in organics. Until that gap gets bridged, you’re only to get people doing that for environment, not a huge commercial wave.”

He says there’s also a contamination problem, with non-compostable packaging finding its way into compostable waste streams and causing problems. For this reason, he said it would be great to see a ban on non-compostable products.

But Calver doesn’t think a particular industry needs to up their game – not even the disposable coffee cup industry.

“The coffee cup has worn a lot of the other bad image as such and been the poster child on plastic and waste in general. I think no industry needs to step it up as such – they’re all trying to do the right thing now, but we need to realise sustainability is a journey, not a destination,” Calver says.

“The bigger guys have been slower to move because they’re profit-driven – airlines, stadiums, hospitals – but I think after being in the industry for a decade, 2018 has been the most exciting and promising in terms of momentum and direction as a country.”

This piece was originally published on Idealog.

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