Plastic packaging is under attack in the war on waste.
At the end of April, Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg announced 'all packaging would be recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025'. And while considered an ambitious target by some, Natures Organics CEO Justin Dowel regards the push as 'a joke!'
'It is a joke, to be honest,' he declared. 'Why are talking about 'recyclable?' Most plastics are recyclable! The problem is, we’re not recycling most of the plastic. What we need to be doing is setting targets for recycled plastic, not recyclable. There’s no point recycling if we have no use for recycled.
And Dowel should know. His family-owned enterprise manufactures environmentally sound cosmetic and cleaning brands including Australian Pure, Organic Care and Earth Choice.
Boasting all natural plant-based ingredients and made from renewable sustainable sources, the packaging is moulded from PET recycled plastic, derived primarily from locally-discarded beverage bottles.
Arguably the only company to do so in Australia en masse.
Born from his father's company Trydel Research, originally a contract-filling manufacturer producing bath cubes founded in the Fifties, the eco-conscious Terry Dowel eventually saw a great opportunity in pioneering natural formulations as nobody was doing it at the time. Aged just 21, Justin joined the family legacy in '91 - the same time the company changed its name to Natures Organics - and dug the business out of receivership,
27 years later, the company now shifts 56 million units annually and prides itself on an endless plastic loop. But the struggle to survive in an industry dominated by megacorps importing from operations in cheaper climes, means the company is under constant pressure to evolve. But Justin is devoted to the Natures Organics eco philosophy, perpetuated by his visionary father.
In advance of his appearance at Boomerang Alliance's The Future of Packaging Forum on July 12 proudly supported by Bloomberg, the CEO talks tricky retailer relations, federal inaction and closing the loop.
You joined the family business under some challenging circumstances...
21 years-old when I started. I was selling electrical goods believe it or not and mum and dad got ripped off by an equity partner and they had to put the company into receivership. And we were turning over about $180,000 a month and my father turned to me and said, 'for this to work, we need our sales to be $300,000 per month so you need to go sell some product.' That’s what we did!
How at 21 years-old did you do that?
In the end it comes down to relationships. Prior to coming on board, the company had 85 per cent of business with Franklins for the first decade of Natures Organics. So I went to the buyers of Woolworths and Safeway and I said, 'look, these are our products, we're a family business, just down the road, this is what we do, these are the benefits for the environment. But we don't understand your business, we don't understand your systems, will you help us out?' And they're human beings as well and the good things about Australians is that they want to support the underdog. And so I had a lot of help from good buyers. They educated me in the industry and how they work and it all grew from there.
With your father's eco-leanings, you must have grown up in an environmentally-friendly household?
We grew up with veggie juices, things like that. Dad always had a natural way of living, vitamin pills, that sort of thing. He always had an alternative approach to living, that’s for sure.
We never had any junk food in the house which was pretty frustrating as a kid but now, I’m pretty much live on juices. I can see the health benefits that I didn’t see then.
When did your father realise eco-friendly was a viable approach and there was a market for these products?
From day one, and actually certainly before I started, from around 1991, 92, Dad saw more of a need, rather than just a market. And our job was to educate people about the need to do things differently, especially when it came to packaging and it sort of grew from there. Environmentally, that’s our whole philosophy, looking at every product that’s created and find a way to make it more sustainable and more natural - that’s what we do
How difficult was it to survive in an industry that wasn’t acknowledging the damage it was having on the environment?
Back in the Eighties and Nineties, it was very difficult to convince retailers to support environmental brands like ours because they didn’t see the need for it. The market was so niche, it wasn’t really suited to a supermarket back then. Over time we’ve continually convinced them about our products and our whole philosophy was getting people to buy environmentally-friendly products and not expecting them to pay more for it - to a find a way to save money and save the planet at the same time.
That’s why our products are priced so affordably because there’s no point having environmental products that only five or ten percent of the market can afford. We want our products to be affordable to every Australian and have a greater impact on the environment.
Talk me through the actual packaging itself – you’re using recycled plastics and you were using bioplastics..
Well we don’t use bioplastics anymore. We had great hope for them but the problem they're not compatible with PET.
We were hoping more and more companies would jump on the bioplastic, corn starch bandwagon but they didn’t and so the problem was, we were pretty much the only main user of bioplastic in Australia and it was more of a contaminant to recycling because no one else would use it. So we had to drop it and focus on a hundred per cent recycled.
What is the main component of your packaging now?
Probably, ninety per cent...one hundred per cent, post-consumer recycled PET.
Where are you getting the material from?
We collect from recycling centres. They grind up, separate and clean and convert recycled PET which is basically water bottles, drink bottles, convert them back into a resin. We buy the resin from them and mould our own bottles with that resin.
And the lids are polypropylene?
Yes, the lids are generally made from polypropylene.
So are they recyclable?
Well they technically are recyclable and there is a bit of conjecture over how they’re being recycled but for us, the majority of the packaging is the bottle and that is our biggest concern, to ensure that they are being recycled efficiently and we can convert them back into bottles and create the endless bottle loop.
If we use one hundred percent recycled, we don’t have to create anymore new plastic and every kilo of plastic, we basically use three and half litres of oil to produce it, so environmentally, it’s much better to reuse what’s there.
Do you have any way of measuring the rate of your own packaging being recycled?
Unfortunately, recycling rates in Australia are quite low so it's difficult.
But our whole marketing strategy is about educating consumers on how we can develop and create a better recycling stream through the purchasing decisions that they make.
The China recycling ban, is it almost a positive for your company as manufacturers, because it means more raw materials for your packaging?
I think the positive thing is it’s going to force government and the industry to clean itself up to reinvest in itself and develop a better recycling system. We can easily just send our waste to Asia but that’s never going to allow these materials to be invested within the local recycling system to make the efficiency worthwhile.
So I think it’s a good thing, it’s probably a decade too late! It should have happened ten, fifteen years ago and the government should have been a lot stricter and introduced a lot more policy on claims regarding recycled content. So any manufacturers can't choose whatever plastic they want and then say it’s recyclable, which is happening all the time.
As far as I’m concerned, if it’s not being recycled in this country, it shouldn’t be allowed to be claimed to be recycled.
Who’s your biggest retailer?
Has that been from the beginning?
Who has been reluctant?
Why do you think that is?
I just think Woolworths are probably to be frank, more focused on supporting Australian a lot more and that’s the truth. I’m sorry but that's the reality. That’s what we see.
Do you think Woolworths is more dedicated to environmental sustainability than Coles?
What's your biggest gripe with working with the retailers?
Refills. That’s one thing when we talk with the sustainability departments in Coles, Woolworths and every other retailer, we shouldn’t be selling individual triggers [on domestic cleaning products]. We should be selling triggers separately and using triggers for four or five bottles, not one. It’s criminal, it’s one of our biggest frustrations, we want the whole market to move to refill packs where you buy the triggers separately because it's is a complete waste of resources for a single use. There are different types of plastic within that trigger, so for us, we need the market to move away from triggers being sold on products to being able to buy a refill cap.
Seeing as you highlight the success of sustainable packaging, how is your relationship with rival companies who don’t practice the same methods?
The multinational companies hate us! We take their market share away. We force them to make changes in their business whether it’s animal testing, whether it's recyclable packaging or chemicals they use in their products. We prove that we can do all these things ethically and via sustainable methods and not expect people to pay more for it. And they don’t want us to do that.
Unilever launching OMO and then expected people to pay more. And only introducing 25 per cent recycled content, it’s not acceptable.
If you’re going to make a stand like that, don’t expect people to pay more for it and then not do it across your total business. If you want to be environmentally sustainable or be better than what you were, than just do it.
So they don’t like us very much, we show it’s possible and they have to come up with excuses as to why they don’t do it.
How difficult is it to survive when your major competitors are manufacturing from more cost effective operations overseas?
It’s very very difficult! Because when the majority of the multinational corporations left [Australia], they took a lot of the supporting industries with them. So that increased the cost of domestic production here significatingly. And we are such an import nation, we don’t have an industry big enough to cope with the plastics that are coming in with the packaged products. So we need to get the government to introduce tariffs so they can pay towards getting rid of the waste and finding solutions for it .
Have consumer habits changed in the last few years?
They’re just the same! I think their intentions are to change for the better but it’s up to companies like us to educate them. And once we tell them and they see the benefits of buying products like Earth Choice, they get it and they’re very loyal. They learn the impact of not buying other products with hazardous marine toxins in their formulations. It all comes down to education for us.
It's ultimately up to consumers in the end. They need to buy Australian so we don’t continually import packaging from all over the world and then have to find space in our landfill to get rid of them which is happening right now.
The country needs to wake up! We need to change our purchasing habits. We need to look at what we’re buying and what impact it’s going to have so we can have a cleaner future.
And we need government to incentivise development of a market for recycled plastic. That’s what we need to invest in, that’s what we need to develop! Stop this constant, throwaway, one-use plastic mentality and start looking at alternative uses and sustainability for the whole recycling system.
It has to happen...and it needs to happen now!
Justin Dowel will speak at Boomerang Alliance forum - The Future of Plastic Packaging – Driving Change for Consumer Packaged Goods in association with Bloomberg Australia on July 12. Click HERE for tickets