Upturning the global packaging industry with a sustainable solution may seem like an impossible task, but for Australian entrepreneur Joanne Howarth, it’s just a part of her defiant way of life.
Howarth is one of the Cartier Women’s Initiative most recent winners. She received the global honour for founding Planet Protector Packaging, which creates Wool Pack – an innovative product made from waste wool that claims to make polystyrene irrelevant.
“I was thinking, ‘I am the worst offender on the planet. I am single-handedly destroying the oceans,’” Howarth told Central News.
I saw that the market really needed an alternative to polystyrene. But it had to be a sustainable solution.
Working as a high profile manager with Australia’s largest meal kit service, Howarth was overwhelmed by the volume of polystyrene going through the warehouse. From the packaging in which the ingredients arrived to the boxes in which meal kits were shipped out – the toxic fumes of polystyrene filled the air.
Every piece of polystyrene (ESP) created still exists today. It ends up in our landfills, releasing methane gas or in our oceans, poisoning the food chain.
“I saw that the market really needed an alternative to ESP. But it had to be a sustainable solution,” she said.
It was Howarth’s research into wool that instigated Planet Protector Packaging.
“I like to say it’s nature’s smart fibre…. the wool keeps the sheep warm in winter, and it keeps them cool in summer.”
Success, for Howarth, is a collective endeavour. Aided by her business partner, Peter Hofbauer, she began constructing a team.
“My team is 100 per cent on the journey with me,” she said.
The products have already been used by major meal kit providers to smaller organisations like Bondi Meal Prep and My Food Bag. The packaging is also used for transporting everything from the renowned Loving Earth vegan chocolate, to IVF solutions for cattle and seafood.
Lars Ljung is sustainability manager at Plant Protector Packaging. “I just want to be in a job that I feel like I’m producing something that’s better for the world, and not just pushing paper,” Doherty said.
Not only is the packaging eco-friendly, the manufacturing uses waste wool, which adds another revenue stream for Australian farmers.
“Our product firmly outperforms polystyrene,” Howarth said.
Her business partner Peter Hofbauer added: “She’s always on the lookout, trying to learn more from overseas designers and developers with different natural fibres.”
The duo has proved themselves highly successful. They franchised Sydney’s Arizona restaurants before moving into seafood in Nelson Bay.
“Her workload and her work ethic was just unbelievable. (…) I’m the apprentice to her,” Hofbauer said.
Planet Protector Packaging works with clients in the food, beverage and pharmaceutical industries.
“If you break down and compress all of that polystyrene. (…) I think we’re at 52 Olympic sized swimming pools,” said Howarth
After only six months on the market, the team won the 2018 Packaging Innovation Design Award for Australia. But Howarth had to watch it on FaceTime from a hospital bed, after going in for surgery.
It was the beginning of a health battle Howarth has fought for years.
“It’s created more urgency for me to leave a legacy,” she said.
She’ll say, ‘find a way, let’s ring Scott Morrison or find a way’.
Fortunately, Howarth’s health has stabilised. The battle for sustainability, however, continues – with ongoing commercial resistance. She recalls a meeting with a large salmon producer in Tasmania.
“He says, ‘love … as much as we all hate polystyrene it’s bloody easy’. He said, ‘until it’s legislated, we don’t have to do it, love’. … I walked out of there. I nearly cried.”
Howarth developed resilience early in life. At 17, she had an asthma attack and stopped breathing.
“The thing of which I’m most proud is my resilience,” she said. “And I think that as an entrepreneur, that’s what you’ve got to be. Some mornings you just wake up, and you know, you get a few punches, and then other days, you’re riding high – it’s like a rollercoaster.”
Hofbauer agreed. “She’ll never take no for an answer,” he said. “She’ll say, ‘find a way, let’s ring Scott Morrison or find a way’.”
Main image supplied by Planet Protector Packaging.