Two years ago, research into Chinese consumers’ attitudes in the wake of numerous food scare issues revealed, perhaps unsurprisingly, consumers were more concerned about food safety than sustainable packaging.
“The three key areas were focused on: product security, freshness and authenticity,” Scion researcher Dr Kate Parker said.
Now that covid has entered our lives, the researchers are keen to gauge how much those perceptions have or have not changed.
“Looking back over the covid pandemic, initially the trends worldwide were for people to put packaging ahead of sustainability, but it is suggested sustainability is returning as people have learnt to live with covid,” Parker said.
The subject of food packaging has been topical lately, both in New Zealand and China, with real concerns and covid investigations into food packaging as a vehicle for infection, following outbreaks in both countries.
“Some studies have suggested covid can live longer on some material than others. But there has been enough fear out there about some packaging as an infection source, even if it is misinformed, it can drive consumer behaviour,” fellow Scion researcher Eva Gaugler said.
Scion is one of several members of the NZ-China Food Protection Network, and is the only organisation with a focus on packaging within the member group.
Shifts in global expectations about packaging and Chinese demand for NZ food products means the organisation and the scientists are well placed at this point in time.
The massive Chinese market is also starting to enforce standards on manufacturers for recyclability and has stamped out taking other country’s packaging and plastic waste, and, in turn, making the squeeze for alternatives more global than it was.
A leader in sustainable biobased materials, Scion researchers also work in bioplastics and biomaterials, initially sourced from forest feed stock, but increasingly from any type of plant waste stream.
One bioplastic already on the market is PHA, a sugar derived polyester.
“Essentially you can adjust the feed source you provide the microbes that create the bioplastic, and it will change the polymer output,” she said.
Pressure on companies and governments to deal with packaging better has also intensified in the past two years, thanks to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastic Economy Global Commitment. This requires all plastic packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.
The NZ government and multiple companies have signed up, along with many heavy hitting overseas corporates. Backing includes $200 million from five capital funds for the creation of a “circular” plastic economy.
But Gaugler says despite the best intentions, and bioplastics, getting consumers to recycle involves a reasonable level of behavioural understanding.
“You need to understand what motivates consumers. Are they driven by a dollar return, or is it more altruistic/value driven, and is it easy enough for them to do?” she asked.
The researchers hope the forthcoming China survey will help them better understand this, and to differentiate from behaviour there, as compared to NZ consumers, for example.
“I think Kiwis want to do the right thing and recycle but because we don’t really have the recycling and composting infrastructure everywhere, they tend to get disillusioned,” she said.
The Government has mandated a waste minimisation programme and both researchers hope this will see greater infrastructure development for both composting and recycling of materials.
Ultimately, Parker would like to see packaging recycling becoming as “natural as putting on your seatbelt.”