By Sandra Fulloon
Single use masks and packaging from online ordering is adding to the 2.5 million tonnes of plastic waste Australians discard each year most of which still ends up in landfill. One Sydney couple has made it their business to change that.
Vikram Davé and Anaita Sarkar are sitting at their dining room table sorting through a pile of brightly coloured mailers. No ordinary soft covers - these break down in the compost bin.
“When you do chop them up and put them into your home compost bin, they break down with no toxic residue in under 120 days,” says Vikram, 37.
“They are made in China from a mixture of renewable ingredients, about 30 per cent of which is derived from corn and is converted to corn starch.”
A surge in e-commerce during the COVID pandemic has led to a rise in plastic packaging used to protect online orders.
Currently, less than 14 per cent of the 86 million tonnes of plastic packaging produced globally is recycled. The vast majority is sent to landfill, is incinerated or ends up in waterways poisoning wildlife.
Vikram and Anaita and their three young children live and work on Sydney’s north shore, and run a business that ships eco-friendly mailers to online retailers across Australia, and the globe.
“We have over 40,000 customers globally at the moment and we just opened our warehouse in the USA. And we're trying to expand that market as well,” says Anaita, 34.
It is estimated that Australians discard 2.5 million tonnes of plastic packaging each year and of that 130,000 tonnes escapes into our marine environment.
Helping to reduce that burden, more than one million Australians are expected to turn out for Clean up Australia Day on Sunday March 6. Pandemic waste is a major focus.
“Our habits changed through COVID and unfortunately that hasn't been kind on the environment,” says Clean Up Australia Chair Pip Kiernan.
“There's been a surge in single use items, from take away coffee cups, to take away food packaging, sanitized wipes, and of course, single use masks.”
Volunteers are being asked to not only pick up but also count discarded masks, to better define the pandemic litter problem.
“Masks are a risk to wildlife. There are instances of wildlife getting tangled in the straps. And once masks enter the marine environment, they can be mistaken as food and cause a lot of devastation,” says Ms Kiernan.
“Single use face masks are made up of a mix of plastics. Plus they have rubber in the straps and metal around the nose section. This doesn't break down easily. In fact, masks take up to 450 years to break down,” she says.
“And once masks get wet, they're likely to be leaching toxins into the water. They absolutely do not belong in the environment.”
Worldwide, more than 52 billion single use face masks were produced annually during the COVID-19 pandemic. And, of those, 1.6 billion entered our oceans.
“It is a tragedy that has contributed to an already massive environmental problem,” says David Ritter, CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific.
“And what it points to is that we need systemic solutions to the problem of plastic pollution. As soon as it was known that the mass production of plastic masks was going to be required, it was up to governments and major institutions to have plans for the systematic disposal of those masks.”
Masks eventually break down into smaller plastic particles which themselves are a danger to marine life and also to human health, says Mr Ritter.
“Plastic pollution is one of the world's great environmental crises. Roughly 12 million tons of plastic pollution ends up in our oceans every year. And what that means in human terms, is that roughly a garbage truck every minute is dumped into our oceans.”
For Vikram and Anaita, starting a business to tackle plastic waste forced a big break from family traditions.
Anaita arrived in Australia with her parents from India in 1990 as a three-year-old. Her mother, a qualified GP, had to retrain in medicine before being allowed to practise.
“When I was in high school, I was expected to do one of the Indian top three choices: accounting, medicine or law,” says Anaita.
“So I went to Macquarie University where I studied for a Bachelor of Commerce specialising in accounting, graduating in 2008.
“At the same time, I was doing a cadetship in accounting at a top four firm.”
However, Anaita later left the corporate world to start her own business, eventually founding Hero Packaging in 2018.
“It was a huge risk to stop work in a paying job and start my own business,” Anaita says.
Vikram, who was also born to Indian parents, was busy working in marketing after graduating from an MBA program at Macquarie University in 2014.
Even though he was born in Australia, he says his parents, too, were more traditional.
"It's about getting the marks, it's about going to uni, getting a postgraduate degree and finding a good company and essentially working there for life," he says.
“The biggest risk, though," says Anaita "was when we decided that Vik would actually stop his job, which was bringing in a lot of money. But we thought ‘if we don't take that risk now we'll never do it."
Both extended families are proud of the couple’s decision to start a business, which has grown in four years to be worth roughly $15 million.
They're soon to launch an equity crowdfunding round, but have delayed it temporarily because of the war in Ukraine and the recent devastating floods in Australia.
Their aim is to raise up to $1.5 million to help expansion into the US market.
For Vikram and Anaita, who donate to several charities supporting Indigenous and environmental causes, the risks of starting their own profit-for-purpose business have paid off - and not just financially.
“This business means my husband and I can work together and be here for our children, while we do something that's good for the planet,” Anaita says.
“Our main goal is to completely eliminate plastic in business, specifically in e-commerce.”