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Compostable food packaging trialed at Christchurch events

20 March 2018

A future-focused initiative trialing compostable food packaging and cutlery across a swathe of public events in Christchurch grew out of a eureka moment involving an empty pizza box.

The sustainability trial, ‘Composting Food Packaging at Events’, is being led by the events production team at Christchurch City Council and has potential to help other councils and event organisers around New Zealand divert waste from landfill too.

It all started with the waste left behind at Christchurch City Council’s various public events, organised around annual celebrations such as Chinese New Year, Guy Fawkes Night and New Year’s Eve. “The environmental impact was substantial and there was a need for change,” says Christchurch City Council events and sustainability coordinator Shanti Campbell.

A majority of the waste left behind was made up of food and disposable packaging and “it was the team’s belief that such waste could be diverted away from landfill and into other waste streams such as composting”, Campbell says.

The scene was set to experiment and try a new way of doing things in a trial; however, the events production team initially faced a major hurdle. Introducing bioplastic packaging, which is marketed as “compostable” and seemed like an obvious option as it is readily available in New Zealand, just wouldn’t cut it.

This is because Christchurch’s commercial composting facility – Living Earth – doesn’t accept bioplastics. As a certified organic compost facility, it can’t risk contamination from non-organic plant products such as corn starch used in poly-lactide acid (PLA) – a common bioplastic lining.

Campbell says the events production team had to put on their thinking caps on and the lightbulb moment came when a colleague, Kathryn Ralph-Triebels, was at home sharing takeout pizza with her family. “Pizza boxes are made from cardboard without any bioplastic lining. Our challenge was to find a [similar] range of disposable food packaging.”

The team sourced suitable products from New Zealand company Ecoware for Trial 1.0, which involved about 100 food vendors with 190,000 attendees across three large public events. Several other approved products have since been added.

Trial 1.0 achieved an average of 61 percent diversion of waste away from landfill and into recycling and compost, which amounted to more than 12 tonnes. Trial 2.0 is under way, involving more than 30 medium to large events as well as externally-produced events.

Campbell says the goal is 80 percent diversion and to get there, buy-in from food vendors is critical. Christchurch City Council holds workshops with vendors and supports them through the process of sourcing packaging.

If food vendors fail to have the approved packaging, they are not permitted to trade. Bins at every event are labelled and fundraising groups guide people to the right bin.

Waste teams sort through each individual piece of rubbish in a waste compound not far from the public eye to ensure minimal contamination in the recycling and compost skips.

Christchurch City Council’s latest event was Christchurch Lantern Festival on March 10 and 11, which achieved 73 percent diversion – a 15 percent increase on last year.

“The team is absolutely stoked with the result of 73 percent diversion away from landfill to recycling and compost, with 55,000 people attending this year,” Campbell says.

“We used a completely different model, which made the process more economically sustainable and still managed to achieve great results. It’s a huge win for us.”

Campbell says it’s great to be involved with an initiative resulting in visible change and she hopes that other councils from around the country will follow suit. There has already been a lot of interest from other councils and another bonus of the trial is vendors adopting more sustainable practices in their day to day activities outside of events.

“This is a Council-led initiative and its special because we’re PLA free. If we can overcome the barriers to reducing and diverting waste, any council can.”

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