· By Sarah Goodman
The Ugly Truths Behind "Sustainable" Packaging
There are a lot of moving parts when it comes to starting a food business.
From sourcing ingredients to product development to distribution and sales. We’ve always tried to find sustainable options when possible, including using upcycled fruit. When it came to choosing our packaging we quickly realized that although there are many options on the market, most of them end up in the landfill. Our CEO and Founder Sarah Goodman sat down with Hayden Thomson, the Brand Development Manager at FoodPak Ltd. and host of The Pack Heavy Podcast to help us demystify current trends in sustainable packaging.
Since starting Chiwis I've met a ton of packaging manufacturers. Companies from China or Canada have emailed me, or met me at trade shows. However, through research and conversations with people like you, I’ve realized most recyclable packaging is not fully recyclable. Could you elaborate on why?
There are definitely multiple parts to this conversation. One side is the structural material that the pouch is made out of, and another is what the possibilities are in terms of recyclability. There is also the reality of what’s available in terms of infrastructure in your specific municipality that supports the end-of-life system that's being promised. So I think that it's important to note at the start of the conversation that the technology is available in the world.
I think there is a lot of confusion out there in the market as to where you can actually put a pouch. It's not curbside recyclable, so you can't put it in your blue bin at home. Even though people see a little recycling logo on the bag, it doesn't mean that that's where it can go, unfortunately.
Here in Vancouver and BC the reality is that if you've got a stand-up flexible pouch or a flexible pouch in any sort of nature, it's going to end up in one of two places. When you jump on the Recycle BC website, they direct you to a store drop-off location, like a London Drugs or a Recycle BC depot and what they do is collect it, shred it, palletize it and then turn it into engineered fuel. It's more of a reclaiming process out of the regular waste stream, or it's an upcycling process because they're finding a secondary use for this product.
I think the longterm possibility, and the desire by everybody is to have the infrastructure to be able to delaminate these materials and have enough of each individual material to be able to properly recycle it and turn it into items like park benches. It’s definitely on the horizon, but unfortunately, we just don't have it here. You'll find the issue across Canada and in the US. There are private organizations like Terracycle that do collect specific materials, and then channel them to these facilities to get properly recycled.
We have the plastics bin at our headquarters here in Squamish, but minimal things can actually be put in there. Many people do put everything in the blue bin, but then it ends up being more of that “wish-cycling” type of thing and that's just not what we wanted for our product.
After we looked into recyclable products, we started looking into biodegradable pouches because it’s something that we would be interesting in using. We found out that it's just an ingredient added to the plastic that breaks it down, which then becomes little pieces of plastic, which is no better at being absorbed by the earth.
That’s right. So you've got many parts to this conversation as well. You've got compostable, and then you've got biodegradable, which some companies call oxo-degradable. If we start with the biodegradable or oxo-degradable, they're adding an ingredient into the plastic so that it breaks down in a faster time frame than a regular plastic bag would. Those bags are more geared towards going into the regular waste streams, or landfills. The issue is if the bag doesn't end up in the landfill and it ends up in the ocean or in the side of a ditch in a stream, it is going to turn into micro-plastics a lot quicker than a regular bag would.
We have a bit of a bottleneck in that system here as well, and a lot of it is hinged on, once again, the same as the recycling system, the municipality that you find yourself in.
Here in Vancouver, unfortunately, none of the industrial facilities that we have are actually accepting any compostable flexible bags into their compost stream. The reason is that the print technology on these bags is so good that you can't tell the difference between a regular pouch and a compostable pouch. You just can't identify them. So the bottleneck seems to be in the certification, the little logo emblem that identifies whether something's industrial compostable or not. There isn't a systemized scheme nationwide, or province-wide, that will identify a compostable pouch. So what you find is if you put a bag that's considered compostable in your green bin at home and it gets to the facility it's just going to get sorted and thrown into the regular waste stream. It’s a real shame because it's not due to a lack of consumer demand for these products or companies like Chiwis. They want to do the right thing for the environment. It's because the composting facilities don't have the confidence to be able to sort through them without the potential of contaminating their compost bios.
I've seen a few brands that have at-home compost options. Are those actually compostable in your tiny compost bin at home?
Potentially. There are a lot of variables that go into composting, as you know. So backyard composting is so open to interpretation, and in a lot of cases, there are products out there that we can access, like Nature Flex, for example. In Europe and Australasia it's certified as industrial and backyard compostable. In North America they won't certify packaging as backyard compostable because there are certain variables that need to be set, like the amount of time that it'll actually take for something to break down.
An industrial facility is a really controlled environment. They can control temperature and the amount of agitation or movement of the compost pile over say a 90-day period. They're able to check that box and say, yes, we can certify it. Whereas for something to be certified backyard compostable, you might have a compost bin in your backyard and I might have one, but we use very different techniques. So it’s hard for them to say that something will break down within a period of time when they don’t know the variables.
The loophole that a lot of people are using right now is using the terminology earth digestible. So if you do put it in your backyard compost over time it will turn into compost, but there's no way of knowing how long that will take. It might take 90 days, it might take nine months, it might take 18 months.
I often wonder how compostable bags affect the shelf life of the product.
When it comes to a compostable pouch it really depends on what you’re packaging. If you have a product with high moisture content it's not necessarily going to work in a compostable bag. The moisture of the contents are actually going to in time start the composting process, and the bag will start breaking down making it less shelf-stable. So it's more conducive to a product like coffee or a dry goods.
However, there is a lot of great technology out there. You can actually get a metalized layer in a compostable pouch that will turn back into iron which comes from the ground. So yes, it is completely possible to have really good barrier protection, but there are a lot of variables that will determine what that means. There may need to be some shelf life testing for you to move forward with that packaging confidently.
How do you see the environmentally friendly packaging industry evolving? What do you see in the timeline for brands to be able to confidently accept a bag that is environmentally friendly but also affordable for small businesses?
We do need to see some cost parity for it to be a viable option for a lot of startups and small businesses. The other thing that gets in the way is the minimum order quantity. So with a regular bag you may be able to get into the market with purchasing as little as 1000 pouches, but with compostable pouches the quantity starts much higher. You may be looking at a minimum order of 30,000 pouches. For a start-up company that's testing the market and looking at what works for their brand and their packaging, compostable is just not an option for that. If you're an established brand and you're willing to spend a little bit extra because you see it bringing value to your business it may make sense to invest in compostable packaging.
We're still sort of looking into the future ourselves, and we find it really hard to gather that information as well. Yes, the world, from our perspective, will look a lot different in five to seven years time. Large banner retailers like Loblaws, for example, are putting mandates in place with a lot of their vendors and saying, if you want to be on a retail shelf by X date, your flexible packaging needs to be 100% recyclable. We're seeing those dates shift, and we're seeing different retailers lean in different directions. Some retailers down in the US are demanding compostable packaging and others are going recyclable, and there are realities around both those options that need to be worked through.
I think that over the next five to ten year period, we're going to see some great advances, which eventually will hit the market. Once we see some price parity as well, we're really hopeful that technology in that space will provide some answers for us.
Last question. What kind of call out can we make to our community to support you?
We've been in the industry for well over 50 years, and we've got some great relationships with some long-term manufacturers. We're a distributor here, so it gives us a great opportunity to shop around on your behalf and really access great pricing. We also have a warehouse here as well, which gives us the opportunity to provide stock bags and off-the-shelf solutions to a lot of our startup companies. If you're an established business, there's so much that we can do for you, whether it be providing better pricing or reviewing your existing packaging and see where we can add some value to your product. We've also got a great podcast called Pack Heavy Podcast. I get out there and I talk with start ups, to small to medium-sized business owners and operators that are in exactly the space that Chiwis is in. We have really great conversations where business owners and operators can listen in and learn from other people's mistakes, stay current on sort of what's happening in the industry as well.