Businesses turn rotten in their push for compostable packaging

Vera Yan and Katia Santilli were unpacking bulk shipments of products for their business Nimble Activewear before a warehouse sale and were shocked to see they were knee deep in plastic packaging.

"Each garment has to be individually wrapped, I looked at the floor and saw the mountain of plastic and felt embarrassed," says Yan. "We are just one business but I know how much our industry contributes to waste."

Vera Yan and Kati Santilli, founders of Nimble Activewear.Credit:Simon Schluter

The pair started talking to their team in Taiwan to source more sustainable packaging and made the switch to compostable packaging made from corn starch this month.

Yan says the compostable packaging is almost double the cost of regular plastic packaging but "we are talking cents not dollars" and the business has been able to work the cost into its margins with a turnover last year of $5 million.

She says the change has been "really well received" by Nimble's customers.

Kate Morris has revamped the packaging used at Adore Beauty. Credit:Kristoffer Paulsen

While more businesses are turning to sustainable packaging, a global survey by e-commerce provider BigCommerce of nearly 3000 digital consumers and 800 retailers published on Wednesday found convenience trumps sustainability in shipping.

The research found only one-quarter (24 per cent) of retailers think about shipping’s environmental impact "some of the time" and a larger majority (37 per cent) never think about it.

The data also showed while 23 per cent of consumers tried to buy from companies that use recycled packaging, almost 40 per cent admitted to not even thinking about the environmental impact of online shopping.

Of those surveyed, Australian consumers were the least thoughtful when it came to the environment and online shopping, with almost half (44 per cent) not stopping to consider the environmental impact of shipping when shopping online, compared with 29 per cent in the UK and 40 per cent in the US.

I expected crickets, but the response from our customers was overwhelming.

However, as businesses try to be more sustainable, questions have been raised about what constitutes compostable and biodegradable packaging.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission recently brought proceedings against Woolworths over its claims that a range of cutlery and tableware were compostable and biodegradable.

In a judgment handed down last week Justice Debra Mortimer found Woolworths' range of biodegradable plates and cutlery could turn into useable compost within weeks.

"I am satisfied consumers would have understood these processes may take some time, and perhaps some considerable time, but I do not consider there was any temporal aspect incorporated into the representations themselves," Justice Mortimer found. "I have found the labelling carried no representation as to a time period in which these processes would occur."

For Nimble the the concern has not been about the packaging composting too slowly but rather about it composting too quickly.

Yan and Santili tested several types of packaging but ran into trouble when some started rotting on the shelves.

"When you are using natural materials they do have a shelf life so we have had to review our ordering and supply chain process," says Santili. "They start to degrade over time so if you kept them in the packaging for over a year the sides might start coming apart. You do face shelf life issues so that is something we have had to work through in our supply chain."

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