The Big Interview: Joanne Howarth talks to Chakravarthi AVPS

Joanne Howarth is a social entrepreneur based in Sydney, Australia, and the founder and CEO of Planet Protector Packaging (PPP). It manufactures Woolpack, a disruptive and sustainable alternative to polystyrene. Her mission is to eliminate polystyrene from cold supply chains, particularly those used to transport pharmaceuticals, food, and seafood. Howarth in conversation with Chakravarthi AVPS

15 Jul 2022 | By Chakravarthi AVPS

Joanne Howarth, founder and CEO of Planet Protector Packaging (PPP)

Top five prerequisites that a consumer should seek from packaging

  1. Accessibility for consumers (user-friendliness for all)
  2. Childproof
  3. Sustainability and recyclability
  4. Readable for consumers
  5. Over-packaging

How do you view packaging?  
Packaging plays a pivotal role in all of our lives. From the small pharmaceutical blister pack to the transport of ice cores from Antarctica to study climate change, packaging helps us preserve, contain and transport goods all over the world.

What about packaging in India?  
India being the largest pharmaceutical producer in the world is a centre for packaging innovation and research. We see amazing packaging designs and ideas coming out of India and we recognise the immense impact the Indian packaging scene is having upon the world. 

What would you like to share with the government in order to drive faster adoption of packaging in India?
We would like to see the Indian government facilitate greater cooperation with international packaging companies. This fosters an environment where great ideas can be shared and packaging products can enter the Indian market. This facilitation allows for greater research possibilities and stronger international relations. 

What about the UNSDG tasklist?
As the world moves to tackle the challenges set by the UNSDG’s we see great opportunity in the Indian market to be a leader in sustainable packaging. We would call on the government to actively support sustainable packaging research and initiatives in order to accelerate the shift away from packaging that harms the environment. By funding and supporting sustainable packaging research, India will be well-positioned to meet UNSDG’s goals – 8, 9, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15 and 17.

And red-tapism in India?
True. For the Indian government to accelerate the adoption of packaging we would like to see a reduction in government hurdles and red tape. We understand that setting up or operating a business in India can incur timely and expensive barriers. To encourage the adoption of packaging the government should look to ease the process of doing business. 

There is an increased level of consumer interest in sustainability and eco-packaging. What does it mean to you?
As the manufacturer of Woolpack, the sustainable alternative to non-biodegradable expanded polystyrene, our company is growing 50% year on year. This is an indication of the immense interest from consumers for sustainable packaging options. 

Where is the maximum interest?
We have seen the greatest interest in sustainable packaging in the eCommerce space. This upsurge has been driven by the need for contactless delivery of food, seafood, wine and chocolate. 

What about pharma?
Pharmaceutical companies have also contributed massively to the uptake of environmentally responsible packaging with increased demand due to Covid. In New Zealand, Woolpack’s Pharma Protector is being used to ship the Pfizer vaccine all around the country.

The role of end consumers according to you?
The main drivers for this change have been the end consumer. But more and more we are seeing businesses incorporate sustainable packaging into their Environmental Social Governance (ESG). The increased focus on ESG is encouraging companies to seek more sustainable ways of operating. Larger companies under-estimate their impact on the earth and are taking active measures to reduce their negative environmental footprint. 

Any green packaging model launch or project that has impressed you?
Our company, PPP has been manufacturing Woolpack insulation for over six years. Through the implementation of Kaizen strategies of continuous improvement, PPP has implemented a completely closed loop recycling system which allows customers to return the packaging to our facilities for reprocessing and re-use. By offering a completely closed-loop system PPP reduces the resource use and carbon emissions associated with our packaging. 

Do you think the packaging industry manufacturers are offering the right products, not only in terms of attractive features but also innovations?
Over the years, packaging has gone from a need-to-have to something that defines a brand’s identity. While most manufacturers focus on attractive features that create a premium feel of the products; larger than necessary boxes with intricate mechanisms finished with a plastic coating; a handful has pivoted away from the excessive frivolity to concentrate on innovation that reduces impacts on the environment. The latter group of manufacturers, including PPP, are able to provide better offerings because of a shift in consumer behaviour that demands more environmentally responsible products.

More and more products are being introduced in the market. What are the trends (structure or substrate or engineering) that you have been spotting?
There is a growing number of products that are marketed as being environmentally friendly. While I am happy to see that many of these companies have genuine aspirations to transform supply chains and create better products, there is a lot of greenwashing going on.

Not only do consumers have to be aware of misleading claims, they also have to look out for eco products that are not backed by science and/or third-party certifiers. For example, consumers need to appreciate that recycling processes require input energy and materials, hence goods made from recycled components aren’t necessarily better for the environment. The best alternative to conventional products is those that embody the circular economy.

You keep a keen eye on global markets. Which are the trade agreements, and advantageous certifications that a packaging professional in India should be aware of?
Packaging professionals who are seeking to incorporate more environmentally responsible materials into their brands should look for international certifications. Don’t believe hollow claims of compostability and/or recyclability. They should also consider the context of the products: where is it being sold and is this material recyclable under local laws and regulations.

COP 26 stated that the end goal is reduced CO2 and a healthier environment, and commitments from industries. Realistic ambition?  
There is no denying that our planet is close to a tipping point. I believe the goals set by COP26 are ambitious but also achievable. The past decade has seen a huge swing in favour of the sciences behind climate change, and growing demand for more action from governments around the world.

We have gone from grassroots climate protests to large companies setting and following through with their sustainability goals. It is now up to world leaders to rapidly reform their policies, both by reducing subsidies to polluting industries, as well as creating better incentives and support for smart climate initiatives. These are the actions that will determine whether these goals are simply novel ambitions or realistic targets. 

Which packaging works best for you?
It really depends on the application. However, as a general rule, I avoid packaging when possible and opt for those made with materials that are recyclable in my local area, or those that are certified compostable. As a packaging professional, I do a lot of research into innovative solutions and seek them out in everyday life, not only as a business exercise but also to support fellow innovators in their endeavours to make a difference in the world.

The bothersome bottlenecks – At a Glance

Regulatory framework 

The regulatory framework associated with growing a business from a start-up phase to a medium or large institution is often met with excessive government compliance. As a result, companies will often spend vast amounts of time and resources in order to adhere to these compliance standards. This hurdle is a disincentive for many businesses to establish in India and an obstacle for businesses looking to scale their operations. 

It is more economical to be environmentally irresponsible? Furthermore, some Governments even subsidise their costs in order to create an artificially low price which creates a demand for their products, as seen with fossil fuels. This lack of punishment, coupled with little to no incentives to do the right thing, creates huge financial barriers to the uptake of more sustainable products and practices. Governments can solve this problem by penalising polluters, and redirecting these funds towards more environmentally responsible causes.

The missing facilitator to greater economic growth in India can be attributed to its strained road infrastructure. India's vast population moves around mainly by road. Everyday tens of millions of cars are street-bound which causes significant traffic and congestion. Without efficient movement, business activities are limited. Increased investment in road infrastructure and public transport will help keep India’s people and businesses moving more efficiently. What's more, the private and public sectors need to work together to find innovative ways to overcome these hurdles. 

Chakravarthi AVPS is a global ambassador of the World Packaging Organisation. Also, he is a board member of the Pharmaceutical Export Promotion Council, Government of India and CEO and managing director of Ecobliss India. In the Chakravarthi Big Interview series, he will interact with thought leaders from around the world.