Man who designed disposable packaging now fighting against plastic waste

While our love affair with plastic could well be over, it seems breaking up is hard to do.  So how do we use less?

Newshub talked to a woman who's gone "almost" zero waste and a plastics engineer who thinks he's got the answer. 

Waveney Warth started her rubbish-free journey over a decade ago.

Back when we did it, it was kind of weird," says Warth, "It's now really normal, just in the last 18 months, to bring your own bags to the supermarket and your own little fruit and vegetable bags, whereas I used to feel like a freak 10 years ago doing that.

Warth says reducing plastic use is easier than you think.

Baking your own bread and snacks, so no need for wrappers.

Buying from bulk bins and refillers, and shopping local and fresh so it doesn't need packaging.  

"Why do we even need soft plastic, it's because things are travelling," she says, "None of this stuff is actually difficult or inconvenient, what is difficult and inconvenient is changing your habits."

Though she does have one weakness - cheese, admitting she likes the big blocks from the supermarket which come wrapped in plastic.

But most of us are using plastic like there's no tomorrow.  It surrounds almost everything we buy at the supermarket, and while the soft plastics recycling scheme is resuming, it's only in Auckland and it can only cope with a fraction of what we use.

Plastics and packaging engineer Kevin Graham feels, in part, responsible for the problem.

"It's partly my fault because I spent my career designing this disposable packaging and introducing it to the large food and beverage companies," says Mr Graham.

"Back in the day packaging was made with glass and metal and it was my job to convert those into disposable plastics and disposable packaging."

Thirty years ago he thought plastic was awesome, until he saw where it went.

"When I discovered the damage that disposable packaging was having in the environment, to my horror."

He had an epiphany and has spent the past 17 years trying to rectify the problem.  Setting up the company Friendlypak to find sustainable alternatives made from plant-based compostable plastics.

Ideally, he says the products would go into commercial composting, but he says even if they end up in landfill they're better than plastic.

"The net impact on climate change for compostable packaging after it's composted or if it's in landfill is zero," says Mr Graham.

One major success is a water-soluble, compostable starch packing material which has now put an end to all that foam polystyrene packaging.

There is a growing demand for more environmentally friendly options from manufacturers, but to incentivise real change he says the cost of our landfill has to go up in line with other countries.

"Ten dollars a tonne is meaningless," says Mr Graham, "The UK for example, they're up to $175 a tonne, Australia $130, Europe $300 a tonne." 

The popularity of the soft plastics recycling scheme proves there is a will, we just need to find more ways to deal with it.

Special collection bins have been reinstalled at 37 stores across the city, including Countdown and The Warehouse. 

As the capacity to recycle it grows The Packaging Forum hopes to roll the scheme back out to other cities.