Our guide to packaging
Our Buying Director, Al Overton, explains the complexity of packaging, our journey into compostable materials and gets down into the detail of each packaging material.
Four years ago, I was sitting at my desk and had to sign off an order of flexible film for our bags of organic nuts, dried fruit, rice etc. Doing a little bit of digging I found out that the film we had been using, like the rest of the food industry, was a composite of different plastics, and because of that it could not be recycled. Ordering hundreds of kilos of unrecyclable plastic felt like a really bad day in the office.
So I didn’t. I set off to look for alternatives, going to packaging and recycling conferences, where the packaging industry sits on one side of the room not talking to the waste management industry on the other, or to sustainability conferences where I heard from companies who were looking to use seaweed to make sachets to replace the ketchup packets you get in fast food restaurants, or companies making bio-plastics from sugar cane.
I realised a few things along the way. The recycling industry in the UK is fragmented into many private companies, and it is consequently driven by the potential of return on investment, and the packaging industry was washing its hands of the problem, pointing at the recyclers to sort it out. We have a reasonable, but not good enough rate of glass, paper and metal recycling in this country, but our plastic recycling is woeful. Less than half plastic waste gets recycled, and of that, the majority is sent overseas. To end up who knows where.
Replacing the non-recyclable film with a recyclable film did not feel like it was going to make any difference. The least bad solution I could imagine was to go for a home compostable film, and because our range is certified by the Soil Association, who rightly have a packaging standard, I also had to find one that could be proved to have been made from GM-free crops. Obviously, it also had to have the moisture barrier and other properties needed to safely pack food in
It took a year. I found a forward-thinking packaging company in the UK who were interested in collaborating as they saw the potential for such a material. We found a source of flexible film from Italy, made from Italian corn. The Italians do not grow GM corn, so that made the Soil Association happy. We bonded it to a home-compostable form of cellophane from FSC eucalyptus waste chippings to give it enough strength, using certified home compostable glues, and then had the whole material tested and accredited as home compostable by TUV, the leading packaging certifier based in Austria.
And then… And then our packer had to go back to basics, figuring out how to run it through their packaging machines, how fast to set the rollers, what temperature and what length of time was ideal to seal the bags so they did not split.
Finally, the tests were all done, the packaging design was finished, the packer was happy and two years after I started, I sat at my desk and placed an order for several hundred kilos of home compostable, GM free film. That felt like a better day in the office.
Let us be clear, there is no good packaging there is only less bad packaging, and some will argue that I made the wrong decision – that we need to focus on recyclable materials and give the waste industry time to catch up. That compostable materials are inherently single use and can complicate waste streams.
The way I saw it, ordering those hundreds of kilos, was this – that no matter what happed to that packaging, no matter where it ended up, I was not leaving a problem for my daughter to solve. After use, the packaging could be composted, or cut into small pieces and smuggled into food waste, but even if it went to landfill or incineration it was still better than a plastic option. If one got blown into the sea, the material is also ocean degradable. No matter what journey that each little bag went on, there was no chance that in the future my daughter, walking along a beach or digging up a patch of ground, was going to find a plastic bag with the Planet Organic logo on it that I had ordered when she was 10. Let alone my granddaughter. Or great-granddaughter…
Since going on this journey we have managed to get many of our other own brand products into home compostable packaging, and we have advised and supported many other small brands trying to find a less bad choice. Our packaging supplier has used our collaboration as a case study and is increasingly focused on offering home compostable film solutions.
Our guide to packaging
Home compostable packaging – a banana comes in its own home composting wrapper, so let us take a leaf from natures book and wrap our food in compostable materials grown by plants. Home compostable products breakdown completely in the soil or compost facilities leaving no toxic residues behind.
Paper – easily recyclable, with high recycling rates in the UK. Recycled paper cannot be used for some food packaging, but recycled paper that gets recycled is a less bad choice.
Metal – aluminium cans are the most common metal food packaging. They have a super thin plastic liner that stops the aluminium coming into contact with food, but this is burnt off I the recycling, and again, recycling rates for aluminium is high.
Glass – easily recycled, but it is an energy intensive process so while there is a carbon saving on recycled glass vs virgin glass, there is a carbon cost in the smelting and recycling process.
Plastic – some forms of plastic are in theory very easy to recycle, but the challenge is the variety of plastics used on the market, and they fact that they cannot all be recycled together. Generally, it can only be recycled two or three times, so plastic gets “downcycled” rather than recycled – plastic packaging made into textiles, or household products, or road surfacing.
Biodegradable packaging – means that the packaging will break down naturally in the environment, but that the residue from it is not necessarily safe to grow crops in.
Industrially Compostable – may be a better option than plastic as it is made from plants not oil, but it only composts successfully in an industrial composting facility, not in your compost heap or in the soil.
Bio-plastic – a plastic like material but made from plants, such as sugarcane. They are not made from oil, but once made they behave like plastics, breaking down very slowly and creating micro-plastics.
Micro-plastics – even when plastic has broken down to such an extent that you can see it anymore, it has not gone away. It still exists, and will exist for a long time, as tiny pieces or molecules that can accumulate in plant or animal tissue.
Oxo-degradable plastic – a form of plastic with an inbuilt self-destruct mechanism, so it starts to breakdown under exposure to oxygen ad light. Which means it breaks down faster, all-be-it into microplastics, but also means that it cannot be recycled.
Ocean plastic – some companies are taking plastic from the sea and recycling it into new plastic packaging.