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Beyond plastics

Meet the company that’s flooding the hospitality sector with ethical, plastic-free products
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Beyond plastics

This article first appeared in our Health Revolution issue of My Green Pod Magazine, distributed with The Guardian on 24 July 2020. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

The range of plastic-free products and packaging is expanding in line with consumer demand – but alternatives to plastic aren’t necessarily better options when their full lifecycle and environmental impact is taken into account.

‘Bamboo products mixed with melamines often cause me great concern’, explains Maliha Rana. ‘They are being sold and labelled as bamboo, but mixing the materials and creating composites opens up a whole new world of complications.’

‘We also have to consider the emissions profile behind each product’, continues Jack Milligan. ‘It is essential that plastic-free packaging products have lower lifecycle emissions and low CO2 emissions.’

Repackaging the world

Maliha and Jack set up Panda Packaging towards the end of 2018, after seeing the devastation caused by plastics in the ocean.

‘Growing up, we both spent a huge amount of time in the ocean’, Maliha tells us, ‘whether it was diving, surfing, sailing – you name it. Over the years, we have witnessed the complete destruction of this ecosystem and we just couldn’t sit back and watch. We decided to create a solution, because we cannot imagine a world without the ocean.’

The goal at Panda Packaging is simple: to repackage the world with natural solutions that don’t damage the environment.

Inspired by nature

Panda Packaging designs are inspired by the principle of biomimicry. ‘Nature has a solution for almost everything’, Maliha explains. ‘Often, as a society, we tend to overcomplicate solutions and create more problems. Take fruit, for example; nature has developed a way to protect the fruit in an outdoor environment: skin. Then people came along and wrapped fruit in plastic! It doesn’t make any sense.’

The company is taking packaging back to a more logical place, drawing inspiration from nature and working with natural materials.

The two main materials that are used to make Panda Packaging are bamboo and coconut, sourced from farmers across Asia who have been visited personally by the team.

Bamboo and coconut

‘We decided to work with bamboo and coconut as they are extremely durable materials that are often thrown away as waste from other industries’, Jack explains. ‘For us, as a company, it is very important not to create another environmental disaster whilst trying to solve one. By working with waste materials we can use something that is already in circulation.’

In collaboration with University College London, Panda Packaging has conducted a full lifecycle analysis (LCA) into many of its products’ cradle-to-cradle emissions.

‘The findings have shown that multiple product lines we produce are environmentally better from an embedded energy (kJ) and CO2 (kg) perspective than typical polystyrene, polypropylene and polylactic acid counterparts’, Maliha reveals. ‘Even if only used once, they always surpass traditional materials that are reused multiple times!’

Disrupting the plastics chain

Despite only having been in business for 27 months, Panda Packaging has already sold three million plastic-free products to big names in hospitality – from Virgin and Bacardi to Farmdrop.

As the company expands the goal is to supply directly to consumers, but the decision to target the hospitality sector was strategic.

‘As consumers, a lot of the plastic we use we are given’, Jack explains. ‘We don’t willingly choose to purchase it. When you go to a restaurant, you are served plastic straws. When you visit hotels, airports and festivals, you are handed single-use plastic packaging products. In order to change behaviour and break this cycle, you have to go straight to the top, to the people handing out this plastic. That is how you disrupt the plastics chain and create long-lasting impact.’

To date, the top-selling products are bamboo straws, coconut bowls, bamboo cutlery sets and bamboo dish scrubs.

Panda Packaging’s customisation software also allows clients to customise their packaging; the company has built a 3D model, accessible online, that allows clients to input their logo or write a message.

Introducing Magnus

The ethical packaging industry requires automated production machinery that can operate at a large scale, and Panda Packaging is proving to be a pioneer in this space.

‘Magnus’ was designed entirely in-house by Panda Packaging’s engineering team. He takes raw materials such as bamboo and turns them into beautiful, sustainable and reusable packaging.

The name Magnus comes from Latin and means ‘great’ or ‘power house’. ‘As he is the first automated machine built for the sustainable packaging industry, we thought this was the perfect name’, Maliha tells us. ‘He is the start of a plastic-free future!’

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