August 12, 2021

Joanne Howarth: On a Mission to Protect the Planet

Joanne Howarth is on a mission to eliminate polystyrene, also known as Styrofoam, around the globe.

Howarth, an Australian social entrepreneur, saw how destructive and wasteful the product is while contracting with one of the largest meal kit delivery services in Australia.

“It was through this business that my eyes were opened to the impact of polystyrene,” she shares. “At one stage, we were shipping 35,000 boxes of polystyrene every week.”

Polystyrene is not recyclable. It takes 500 years for the material to break down in a landfill. The microplastics run off into our oceans, our ecosystems and our food supply.

Howarth founded Planet Protector Packaging in 2016 to provide a packaging alternative with a smaller carbon footprint. Her solution is WOOLPACK, which is made from 100% biodegradable and compostable felted sheep’s wool.

“There is no shortage of wool,” she says. “It is a fantastic fiber… it absorbs odor, it absorbs moisture. It gives impact resistance, and it is thermally the best insulator.”

It took Howarth and her team two years of research and testing to find the right blend of wool to withstand both Australian summers and New Zealand winters. Their blend harnesses the coarse wool from the underside of the sheep, the wool that typically has no commercial application in the textile industry.

“Wool is biodegradable,” she says. “It returns valuable nutrients back into the soil, as opposed to polystyrene, which is made with nonrenewable fossil fuels.”

The same meal kit company that had inspired Howarth’s solution was the first to sign a contract with Planet Protector Packaging. Today, the company boasts a portfolio of more than 350 clients throughout Australia and New Zealand. It has sold over 7.5 million units, repurposed and redirected over 3,500 tons of “waste” wool, and paid over $7 million to sheep farmers.

Howarth recognizes the challenges ahead of her not only as a small business, but also in changing corporate mindsets around polystyrene. Polystyrene has been the industry standard for nearly 70 years, primarily because of its low cost. As consumers put more pressure on businesses to make smart, eco-conscious decisions, Howarth knows that her objective is within reach.

While the wool-based products have been embraced by seafood companies, meal kit delivery services, and luxury food enterprises in Australia and New Zealand, Howarth sees wider, more global applications for them.

Less than a year ago, Howarth joined WEConnect International to introduce her products to pharmaceutical companies. She knows her wool-based packaging can save the pharmaceutical industry billions annually by minimizing interruptions in their cold chain transportation.

But cultivating relationships within the industry and winning big contracts with global companies has been difficult, especially as a small business.

“They have to validate and make sure that our product works,” Howarth explains. “If you’re sending a $6,000 pouch of chemotherapy and something goes wrong in transit, that’s a lot of wastage.”

The pandemic has put an additional strain on the industry.

“When you look at developing nations and their challenges just in distributing COVID vaccinations, they do not have sophisticated cold supply chains,” Howarth explains.

To solve this problem, Planet Protector Packaging patented a COVID-19 vaccine protector. In New Zealand, it has been approved as one of the preferred means of transport for the vaccine.

The positive consumer feedback, combined with her tenacity and resilience, keep Howarth motivated. Her persistence and passion are beginning to pay off. Last October, she won Cartier Women’s Initiative 2020 Regional Award for South Asia and Oceania, which uplifts and invests in female entrepreneurs around the world to expand their social and environmental impacts. The opportunity has positioned Planet Protector Packaging for its expansion into Southeast Asia—a market representing more than 46% of the global market.

This year, Planet Protector Packaging won WEConnect International’s 2021 Rise to The Challenge Global Award and Sustainable Business & Energy Award.

“When I talk about my mission to eliminate poly, I don’t just want to eliminate it here in Australia,” Howarth says. “I’m trying to change the world.”