An unexpected plastic pollution solution in sheep’s clothing
Working in the meal kit delivery industry, Joanne Howarth was horrified by the volume of EPS polystyrene packaging it generated. The solution she came up with was both disruptive and effective. It also won her a 2021 University of Sydney Alumni Award.
As a busy CEO, Joanne Howarth has a lot of conversations every day. But one particular conversation with a potential investor really resonated with her.
“A man sought me out and explained he was a grandfather,” she says. “He told me he wanted his four grandchildren to swim in an ocean free from plastics. Normally he invests $1,000 at a time, but he was so passionately believed in what we are doing, that he had invested $1,000 for each of his grandchildren.
“He wanted his grandkids to know, when they grew up, that their granddad was concerned about their future.”
The idea that had so captured that grandfather’s imagination was WOOLPACK Planet Protector Packaging. As Howarth’s brainchild, it is now the basis of her packaging start-up with three operations transforming the packaging used in supply chains across Oceania.
After decades spent in the food packaging industry, the Sydney alumna, who studied economics and describes herself as a “born entrepreneur”, was horrified by the amount of polystyrene used in her industry and its devastating impact on the environment.
“I was contracted by what is now Australia’s largest meal kit delivery service, and very quickly we went from 400 boxes a week to 35,000,” she says. “We worked in a warehouse the size of two football fields, managing the ‘pick and pack’ and distribution to the whole of Australia.
From a business perspective, Howarth was on top of the world. But as the months went on, there was increasing irate feedback from clients, who, under the subscription model of the service, were collecting enormous amounts of polystyrene, week after week. Howarth set out to find a better more sustainable alternative.
Polystyrene, mass manufactured since the 1960s, is essentially plastic. It is very, very good at insulating heat and absorbing shock (check your bike helmet’s interior), and isn’t water-soluble, meaning your coffee can sit in it and stay hot. But it’s also one of the least recycled waste materials – in New South Wales alone, it’s estimated that 12,000 tonnes of it is sent to landfill each year, taking up 240,000 cubic metres of landfill space.
And if it doesn’t go to landfill, chances are, it ends up in waterways and the ocean. There it slowly breaks down into microbeads and is ingested by marine life while destroying marine habitats and threatening biodiversity. Oh, and it might not be great for human health, either: there is evidence to suggest it can cause cancer.
“I've always been passionate about the planet,” says Howarth who has a bright, engaging energy. “And it was obvious that there was a need for a sustainable alternative to polystyrene.”
The answer, she found, was wool. “As a city girl, I’d never thought too much about wool,” she says. “But it’s the most remarkable fibre: it keeps sheep warm in winter, cool in summer.” Preliminary studies on wool from Europe in the 1980s showed promise, and Howarth quickly enlisted the help of two textile physicists to test her hypothesis.
“I just had this thought that we could mimic nature, by putting a wool liner inside a cardboard box.” The resulting product, which took three years to perfect, is just that: a piece of wool, about a centimetre thick and a metre long. “It’s deceptive,” she says. “People might think, ‘Oh, it’s just wool in a sleeve but it’s much more than that. And it’s made from a waste stream diverted from landfill,” Howarth says proudly.
And crucially, wool thermally outperforms polystyrene, and finding a substance that can do that is an achievement seventy years in the making, with the sleeve also taking years to perfect.
Indeed, it took a year just to find the right kind of wool – coarse fibre, rather than merino - that was needed. Then Howarth discovered that even though Australia produces 25 per cent of the world’s wool, most of that is sent offshore for wool scouring, a process that removes grease and other contaminants from the fleece. So, Howarth was forced to set up her supply chain out of China.
“It was the only way that we could get off the ground,” she says, before adding that one of her next goals is to return wool processing to Australia. “It’s a crime that we are using 20 tonnes of waste wool each week, but we don’t have a wool scouring and processing industry here anymore, so we are technically buying our own wool back from China.
“That’s a revenue stream Australia is missing out on,” says Howarth with characteristic entrepreneurial verve. “We can support Australian farmers and strengthen rural communities with innovative solutions like Woolpack that will drive the wool industry into the future. This is a huge opportunity.”
Another obstacle for Woolpack was prohibitive freight costs which led to a dedicated Woolpack production facility in Tasmania. That, in turn, led to a partnership with the marketing organisation, Brand Tasmania, amplifying the positive environmental benefits of the product and its uptake by the state’s food suppliers.
That said, Howarth points out that Australia is small fry for packaging: Australia and New Zealand combined account for just 1.3 per cent of global polystyrene use. Asia, on the other hand, accounts for 46 per cent. “To accelerate our impact this where we are really needed,” she says with world domination in mind. And from 2022, that’s where Planet Protector Packaging will be; supplying into South-East Asia.
Howarth’s blazing spirit of ambition is interwoven with a sense of social justice, driven, she says, by her parents and her mother in particular.
“My mother was the director of public relations at St. Vincent's Hospital in Sydney,” she says. “She literally raised millions of dollars.” Howarth recalls “being dragged around whenever Mum needed free labour” proudly, saying that it taught her “resilience in the face of adversity". Education was “the biggest gift” in Howarth’s family, and she was the first in her family to attend University.
“I was very driven to succeed,” she says, “I had three jobs at night, so I spent all day in the library, getting my work done. I remember those days very fondly, though. I loved it.”
The eldest of five, Howarth’s sister Megan, who has passed away, was born with a mild intellectual disability, but, “my mother was never accepting of the idea of her doing less than the rest of us. She was always treated exactly the same as the other kids”.
It is a lesson Howarth has taken with her, regularly employing people living with disabilities, and refugees. She also works with NSW Dept of Communities and Justice to support prisoners through their Works Release program “If there's one thing that I want to leave as a legacy, it would be that kindness matters, even in business. The bottom line is important, but how you treat people is the real measure.”
Legacy is something Howarth has been thinking about more and more. A 2018 scare with melanoma left her physically and mentally shaken after five months in rehabilitation. “I really thought it was the end of me, I really did,” she says, with candour. “But I learned that you have to be resilient. You never know what life will throw at you.”
Howarth, of course, is doing just that. Though the Morrison Government has pushed to phase out polystyrene by the end of 2022, she wants the move mandated. “Government waits for big business to take the lead,” she says. “But that’s not good enough.” She points to a recent interaction.
“I’ll never forget this meeting, with one very large user of polystyrene. There were 11 people from across all aspects of the business from branding, marketing, logistics. And everybody loved the product. But in the end, the decision maker said, ‘Well, this is great, but there’s no need for us to make a change now. When the Government legislates come back and see us.’
“But it’s not about doing it because we’re told to. It’s about doing the right thing. We can’t wait any longer. We just can’t.”
Joanne Howarth was awarded the 2021 Alumni Award for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. If you know someone who is making a profound impact in their work, nominate them for the 2022 Alumni Awards.