Who would have thought that sheep would play a part in ridding the ocean of plastic? We talk to Joanne Howarth and the team at Planet Protector Packaging, winners of the Ocean Impact Pitchfest 2020.
Five and a half years ago, Joanne Howarth was working in food service logistics and had just been engaged to set up the operations for a meal kit delivery service.
At the time, the concept of cook-at-home meal kits was still relatively new in Australia, but people were quick to get on board. Joanne and her team would receive the produce – packed in polystyrene – in their west Sydney warehouse, divvy it all up, pack it into branded customer boxes and dispatch it all over the country.
But the more they packed, the sicker Joanne started to feel. At their peak, they were distributing 55,000 boxes a week. That’s a lot of polystyrene. “We felt like we were single-handedly destroying the planet,” Joanne says. “It got to the point that we had dedicated forklift drivers managing the flow of polystyrene.”
That was the trigger that led Joanne to set up Planet Protector Packaging and investigate a more sustainable packaging solution. The answer? Wool.
It was a win/win situation. Australian wool is exported all over the world, but Planet Protector Packaging’s product (‘Woolpack’) uses waste wool, which generally goes to landfill. “In developing our product, we generated a new revenue stream,” Joanne explains. “It increased yield for the sheep farmer because he got paid for the bits no one wants.”
It’s a game-changer for the packaging industry. It means producers, particularly in food service industries, don’t need to be so reliant on plastics to keep their products insulated between point A and point B. When you consider that around 8 million tons of plastic ends up in the ocean each year, almost 50% of which comes from the packaging industry, Planet Protector Packaging’s technology has the potential to really clean up.
“Polystyrene is made out of fossil fuels. It takes 500 years to break down, if it breaks down at all,” Joanne says. “Wool is a natural fibre, and is biodegradable. If you buried a 100% wool sweater in the ground, like Prince Charles did a few years ago at Clarence House, it will completely break down in six months.”
Earlier this year, Joanne and the team entered Pitchfest 2020, a virtual competition hosted by the Ocean Impact Organisation and sponsored by Bank Australia that aims to support new ideas that will have a positive impact on the environment. With a $15,000 cash prize from us, it’s nothing to sneeze at either.
Out of a pool of over 200 applications from 38 countries, Planet Protector Packaging won.
“When we looked at the quality of the other applicants and what they were doing, we said ‘we haven’t got a chance to win this', but we had fun doing the application!’” Joanne recalls. “We were astounded to learn that 11 of the 12 judges had voted for us to win.”
The announcement has given Planet Protector Packaging global recognition, and has opened up conversations Joanne has only dreamed of. There’s been serious interest from entrepreneurs wanting to invest, but also genuine offers from people just wanting to help.
For now, Joanne has one call to action: she and the team want to hear from businesses that are still using unsustainable packing materials. “There are all these businesses saying they’re sustainable and environmental, yet they ship their products in polystyrene,” she says. “If anybody is involved in a business or knows of a business doing this, let us know. We can help them make the switch to something more sustainable.”
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