Returnr wants to make single-use packaging a thing of the past

The lunchtime trip to the local cafe or takeaway shop is a ritual for many professionals of all collar colors. A nice diversion in the middle of the day. Even if it’s only for a few minutes and the lunch is actually eaten at the desk or on the road.

But our daily habits come at a price – both literally (Australians spend $8.3 billion per year on buying lunch) and metaphorically in terms of the impact our routines have on the environment. The majority of take-out plastic containers are in use for less than 30 minutes before they end up in landfill where they’ll continue to live forever

The good news is that reducing single-use packaging might soon be a lot easier – thanks to initiatives like Melbourne-foobased co-op startup Returnr

A closed-loop reusable container network

“The idea behind Returnr is to completely get rid of single-use packaging,” says Founder and CEO, Jamie Forsyth, about the company’s Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG)

To achieve this Jamie is building a closed-loop network of cafes, restaurants, take-away stores, businesses and individuals that uncouples packaging and containers from the idea of ownership.

Jamie Forsyth is looking to reduce single-use packaging
Jamie Forsyth is the Founder & CEO of Returnr. Image credit: Returnr

“One of the problems with owning a reusable container is that it’s so easy to forget at home or it hasn’t yet been cleaned to be able to use them again,” says Jamie. “This friction completely disappears if ownership is taken out of the equation.”

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The transformative power of environmental art: Creating beauty from plastic waste

When environmental artist John Dahlsen first started experimenting with what would soon become his creative medium of choice, it had some of his friends slightly worried. The huge piles of plastic rubbish – all neatly sorted by colour – that had taken over much of the available space in the artist’s house certainly raised eyebrows. “Some of my friends asked me if I was OK”, the Byron Bay based environmental artist remembers laughingly.

Byron Bay based environmental artist John Dahlsen.
John Dahlsen is an environmental artist based in Byron Bay. Image credit: John Dahlsen.

But what may have initially looked like an odd quirk, turned out to be a tremendous source of inspiration. In fact, it would change the course of his career.

The artworks that John created from plastic rubbish washing ashore on local beaches catapulted him into the Australian art scene and helped him win international acclaim.

In 2000, John received the prestigious Wynne Prize for his Thong Totems sculpture and was selected as a finalist in 2003 and again in 2004. His work featured in exhibitions in Florence, Milan, New York, Beijing – and countless places in between.

Absolut and Nespresso commissioned work from him to raise awareness about plastic pollution and recycling long before the David Attenborough effect brought the issue into the mainstream.

The accidental environmental artist

All of this was set in motion by happenstance. In 1997, John discovered the potential of plastic rubbish as a means for creative expression while scouring remote beaches in Victoria for driftwood to make furniture. “I noticed all this plastic washing up, so I started picking it up with the intention to take it to the local tip for recycling,” recounts John.

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compostable alternative soft plastic

This Kiwi start-up offers a compostable alternative to soft plastic

As the former owner of three busy restaurants in New Zealand, Ben Grant knows a thing or two about the issue of packaging. “We had about 10,000 people moving through our premises every week and around 50% of our customers were ordering takeaway”, he recalls. “Add to that all the packaging the produce is coming in and you’re dealing with huge piles of rubbish and recycling every day.”

Having always been conscious about the footprint he’s been living, Ben decided to change the packaging industry for the better after he sold his restaurant business in 2018. Together with Josh Kempton he founded Grounded Packaging, a start-up company that is aiming to replace soft plastic with compostable packaging from bio-based materials.

“The reason why we focussed on soft plastic is that it is the most problematic area within our current waste and recycling system”, says Ben.

Ben Grant is the co-founder of Grounded Packaging offering compostable alternatives to soft plastic.
Ben Grant is the co-founder of Grounded Packaging.

Soft plastic cannot be processed through the kerbside recycling system because it gets caught in the machinery (side note: soft plastic can get recycled through RedCycle). At the same time, soft plastic – like most plastics – is made from petrochemicals and is therefore detrimental to the environment in more than one way.

Why we still need packaging

Yet, while the movement against single-use plastic is gathering momentum in some regions, it’s difficult to imagine a modern world without packaging.

“Packaging material fulfils an important role in life – and especially in the food industry”, says Ben. For instance, packaging is known to significantly increase the shelf life of fresh produce which in turn helps to reduce food waste.

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