• Planet Protector founder Joanne Howarth.
    Planet Protector founder Joanne Howarth.

Planet Protector Packaging founder Joanne Howarth’s moment of reckoning was when she felt like she was “single-handedly destroying the planet”. Now, with the warmth of wool, she’s doing the opposite. Doris Prodanovic writes. This article was first published in Food & Drink Business May/June 2020.

In March, Planet Protector founder Joanne Howarth was recognised for her work in developing sustainable packaging solutions as a finalist in the 2020 Cartier Women’s Initiative.

While it was a “highlight of my career” moment for Howarth, she was quick to point out the Planet Protector story was a collective effort that must be recognised.

“I always say ‘us’ because everything we do is as a team here, so it’s never ‘I’ or ‘me’ – it’s ‘us,’” Howarth told Food & Drink Business.

The eco-friendly packaging business started in late 2016 with the mission to eliminate polystyrene in cold chain packaging by using sheep wool waste in its place. Within 18 months, Planet Protector took out two awards in the 2017 Packaging Innovation and Design Awards (PIDA), represented Australia at the WorldStar Packaging Awards, and won across four categories.

It has replaced the equivalent of 5.2 million polystyrene boxes from landfill, and the rapid growth of the business has seen accounts such as DHL, Blackmores and Unilever added to the customer portfolio.

“I hadn’t even had my LinkedIn page up and running yet, so it was the biggest surprise of my life when I was approached by Cartier,” says Howarth. “They said they’d seen what we’d done at the PIDA and WorldStar Awards, and invited us to put in an entry for the Cartier Women’s Initiative.”

The global initiative enables Howarth to gain insight from – and be a part of – the international network Cartier has established, while accessing mentoring and business workshops.

When speaking to F&DB, Howarth was finishing up her investment proposal, as part of the program, to pitch to investors globally in the Cartier network. “Hopefully, it will enable us to raise capital and to grow and take over the world.

“It’s so exciting – it’s not just a women’s award, it’s a life-changing moment. I credit Cartier for having this vision because being in business is not just about making money. You have to be in business with a bigger vision and passion. We are in a race to become the market leader in thermal packaging that does not harm the planet.”

Problem solving polystyrene

Armed with around 20 years of experience in the seafood and retail industries, as well as in food logistics, Howarth was determined to find a solution to keep food fresh in the supply chain without the need for packing in polystyrene.

Happy as a lobster in an insulated box.
Happy as a lobster in an insulated box.

Planet Protector won the contract as the outsource partner for one of Australia’s largest meal kit companies back in 2016 to help with food logistics, which was packing up to 500 boxes a week in polystyrene and being shipped around the country.

“It got to the point where, as that business grew, I felt like I was single-handedly destroying the planet,” says Howarth.

“We were packing 55,000 boxes in polystyrene each week and so it was just unsustainable. There were toxic fumes from the polystyrene that would come into the warehouse, it took up so much space as well.”

A solution developed 11 years ago using sheep wool by a packaging engineer in the UK was the answer Howarth was looking for. She met with the engineer to secure the Australasian licence and tweaked it for the Australian market.

“Wool is the best insulator on the planet – it keeps sheep warm in winter and cool in summer. We’ve created a patented technology where the blend of the fibres that gives wool its thermal performance can be used.”

Planet Protector offers a range of applications to help customise packaging solutions. A gel ice is “snuggled” into the wool liners, which are made from 100 per cent natural wool and can be used for composting. The plastic film on the outside of the box can be either a compostable or recyclable film.

Planet Protector is also a member of REDcycle, giving customers the option to recycle the film through regular channels.

“The fact that our product is created from waste wool is really exciting because we are diverting it from landfill. We want to leave a legacy and we are all about encouraging reuse and the circular economy.”

Slowly but surely

“Our product outperforms polystyrene in terms of temperature stability,” says Howarth.

“When we’re winning a new customer, we get some samples of their product and simulate the temperature conditions of their supply chain in one of our environmental test chambers… so if you’re shipping chocolate in the middle of summer to Alice Springs, we can customise it. There’s a lot of science behind it.”

Planet Protector’s product is the same price as polystyrene but it occupies only 20 per cent of the warehouse space of a similar quantity of polystyrene because it comes flat packed, leaving opportunities for cost savings around rent for storage space, pallet movements and labour costs, Howarth says. Branding opportunities are also possible because unlike with polystyrene counterparts, “we use regular shipping boxes”.

One thing Howarth says she underestimated was the amount of time it takes people to make a change, as many products have been introduced to substitute polystyrene that “just haven’t cut it”. Polystyrene has dominated the world for 60 plus years, she says, “so when you go to a salmon company and tell them there is an alternative to polystyrene that works, you need to prove to them and validate that the solution will give comparable thermal performance”.

“One of the things that makes me happy to face the day is that I have never met with a prospective customer that hasn’t loved our product. Even if they’re not interested for themselves, they tell us we’re doing great work and give us the details of another business who could use the product, but it’s been a slow process.

“Telling customers DHL is using our product and that they’ve given us a global referral was a huge win. Being able to leverage that name has been incredible.”

Two of Planet Protector’s products were finalists in the 2020 PIDA Awards, including its Lobster Protector pack, which won in the Food category. The team is currently on working on a solution for shipping abalone. Howarth says seafood is the most challenging of all sectors.

“It’s a wet environment so whatever product we have to deliver, it needs to be water resistant and leak-proof. If we can achieve this, in seafood, we can achieve anything.”

Howarth also has sights set on expansion into Tasmania to supply its producers and to secure Tasmania with its title as the first polystyrene-free state in the country by 2023. These are just two of the most recent steps in what seems to be Planet Protector’s world takeover. As Howarth says, “Then everyone has to follow the leader, right?”

In November, Planet Protector won the inaugural Ocean Impact Pitchfest, and was one of three Australian finalists out of 200 applications worldwide, which were pitching an innovation to positively impact the world’s oceans.

Food & Drink Business publisher Lindy Hughson also spoke with Joanne Howarth in sister publication PKN's podcast about  Packaging that Protects the Planet.

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