Photo by Jeremy Bishop
“There is no such thing as ‘away.’ When we throw anything away, it must go somewhere.”
–Annie Leonard, co-executive director of Greenpeace-USA
Cream Bean Berry founder and owner Katie Burford had a dilemma regarding how best to serve up her crazy delicious, homemade artisanal ice cream to customers in Durango, Colorado, in the most environmentally friendly and minimal-waste possible way.
Of course, those who ordered edible containers, such as the cake, sugar, and waffle cones, eliminated the issue. But those customers who wanted disposable cups and spoons for their scoops of ice cream and milkshakes challenged the sustainably-minded business owner. Ultimately, this set her on a path to explore ways of minimizing the waste and climate impacts associated with single-use, throwaway containers and cutlery.
“When I began, I was using wooden spoons because those were the most biodegradable-friendly option,” Burford said. “But pretty quickly, I started getting feedback that some people have an aversion to the sensation of wood in their mouth. Too much like a tongue depressor”, she said.
Burford was already using home-compostable cups (and corresponding composting receptacles in her shop) for her scoops. However, she was still mulling over possible solutions for her to-go spoons, straws, and milkshake/drink containers. Reluctant to contribute to more disposable plastic waste going to the landfill, Burford tried the go-to alternative commonly used in many food and beverage businesses around town: BPI-certified compostable, cornstarch-based PLA bioplastics for her larger cups, spoons, and straws. With the assistance of Durango-based Table to Farm Compost to assess the local composability of these products, Burford soon realized these products were not going to break down easily and certainly not at the local level.
Like most PLA-based bioplastic products, there are specific temperature and pressure parameters required for these products to break down; these parameters are found only in specific industrial compost facilities absent in most backyard and commercial composting facilities.
Furthermore, even if these products were locally compostable, how would the spoon or straw even make it to the compost facility if people don’t have a compost bin handy to throw them into, whether at their own home, hotel or strolling downtown? Once in the landfill, these bioplastic products contribute to methane and other greenhouse gas emissions as any other organic product would, thus eliminating the perceived “less waste” benefit from purchasing the “compostable” alternatives.
Burford wondered, what ARE the best options for packaging if you want to benefit the planet?
For sustainable business owners like Burford, packaging and takeaway service-ware containers that reduce the amount of end-of-life waste thrown away (I’m looking at you, plastic) pose a real challenge.
Sustainable, eco-friendly packaging is a complicated subject and there is not one magic bullet solution. While all materials- plastic, compostable, paper, aluminum, glass, etc.- have varying limitations and impacts across different environmental metrics, fossil fuel-based plastic is by far the most damaging to sea life and a major contributor to climate change as more and more fossil fuel companies grow their plastic production. For the rest-people and planet- impact trade-offs are inevitable when considering overall energy use, water use, production pollution, land requirements, waste generation, and ecosystem integrity.
Although the most appropriate sustainable packaging solution will look different for each unique business, one unifying principle remains:
We must wean ourselves from disposable plastics, and other single-use materials while embracing a new approach that minimizes environmental impacts and focuses on climate-smart strategies.
Here are some of the reasons why:
Shifting the Packaging Paradigm to a Circular Economy Model
“In our current economy, we take materials from the Earth, make products from them, and eventually throw them away as waste – the process is linear. In a circular economy, by contrast, we stop waste being produced in the first place.” -Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
The traditional linear economic model of materials production is rife with inefficiencies built into the system. Under this model, raw materials are extracted from the earth and transformed into products, used, and then thrown away as waste. In the case of packaging, the actual use-time of these products is relatively short.
As the Ellen MacArthur Foundation aptly describes, the circular economy model is based on three underlying principles:
- The elimination of waste and pollution.
- The circulation of products and materials.
- The regeneration of natural systems.
This model moves the focus from extraction and end-of-life waste to reuse and regeneration, thereby transitioning away from finite resources that ultimately result in landfill trash and a substantial carbon footprint after a limited-time usage. Given the amount of waste and greenhouse gas emissions produced in the packaging industry, it seems advantageous to minimize as best we can the environmental impacts associated with each step in a packaging materials’ life cycle and participate in more innovative, circular approaches that many companies are now embracing.
Customers seem to agree. Around 60% of all packaging material results from goods purchased by consumers. According to a 2020 study conducted by Forbes, 65% of consumers seek out products that they perceive as helping them live a more sustainable and socially responsible life; 60% buy products from companies that are socially and/or environmentally responsible. And just recently, Yelp added a “eco-friendly businesses” search filter to their app, where users may now find EV charging stations, businesses with plastic-free packaging, which businesses support “bring your own container” initiatives and if reusable tableware is offered.
As the public becomes more aware of the sustainability implications of their purchases and EPR legislation (extended producer responsibility) gains traction, the demand for greater sustainable options in packaging will rise. Consequently, the packaging industry may be forced to follow suit and continue transitioning to a more circular economic model, which seeks to design out waste and pollution on the front end while also acknowledging the role of recycling and recirculating materials and products on the back end, as progress is made on the path to greater sustainability.
“Packaging communicates more than just a product’s contents; it’s an opportunity to share your company’s values and impact on people and the planet.” –The Climate Collaborative
Here are just a few examples of the many businesses worldwide that are already shifting the sustainable packaging concept in innovative ways:
- EcoEnclose– offers custom, eco-friendly shipping solutions including 100% recycled mailers, recycled and post-consumer waste cardboard shipping and retail boxes, and protective packaging, including recycled tissue paper and upcycled corrugated bubble wrap.
- Genecis– a “cleantech” startup that is turning food waste into biodegradable and compostable PHA bioplastics for a variety of industries, including packaging. Unlike the PLA bioplastic more commonly found in today’s “compostable” cups and other servicewares, PHA materials do not require an industrial composting facility to break down. One pilot study conducted by the company in Toronto, resulted in the diversion of 1,430 kilograms of food waste and 1,210 kilograms of CO2 gas emissions in six months. Wow!
- Notpla– offers 100% natural, biodegradable and home-compostable to-go ketchup condiments and to-go boxes without the inner plastic coating found in most takeaway boxes that make them unrecyclable. These products are made from seaweed and plants, and also include Oohos- their edible hydration packages that serve as an alternative to plastic cups and bottles at sporting events.
- Ecovative– uses mushroom roots (mycelium) and low-value agricultural feedstock to make fully compostable packaging products that can be easily composted at home. It breaks down after use just as it would in the natural world.
The food and beverage industry contributes substantially to packaging waste, most of which is single-use plastic. Though recycled materials do make a better environmental choice for packaging compared to the use of virgin materials, recycling has challenges as well. In the case of food and beverage serviceware, much of what is thrown in the recycle bin is often too dirty to be recycled and ultimately ends up in a landfill, an incinerator, or the environment. Also, as some materials are recycled for re-use, their quality decreases, as is the case with both paper and plastic recycling. Plastic may be recycled two to three times, while paper is recycled five to seven times. Both glass and aluminum, scrap metals may be recycled an unlimited number of times.
Packaging, Circularity and the Reusables Revolution
“For the planet, re-use beats single-use every time.” -Miriam Gordon, “Reuse Wins”
What is now emerging as a climate-smart solution to these challenges around packaging materials, particularly in the food and beverage industry, is the comeback of reusables. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation conducted an assessment on more than 100 reuse models and found that “reuse” results in significant benefits to not only the planet but to consumers and businesses as well. The number of innovative companies jumping into the reuse model are growing fast!
For example, RePack offers reusable mailing packaging for e-commerce businesses and more. The mailing packages are made from post-waste recycled polypropylene plastic BUT are upcycled at the end-of-life into purses and bags.
Loop offers a global platform for reusable packaging. They work with a variety of brands and manufacturers to bring refillable versions of single-use products, such as condiments, shampoo bottles, coffee and cleaning products. Once emptied, containers are returned for reuse using reusable shipping material and return delivery service provided by UPS.
In the food and beverage service sectors, reusables are generating significant benefits to the battle against single-use disposables such as cups, cutlery, straws, boxes and other takeaway containers through the use of reusable containers that may be returned, cleaned and sanitized and then used again. Comparing the overall environmental impact, including waste generation and greenhouse gas emissions, of reusables versus disposables of varying materials shows reusables as the smarter option moving forward.
Introducing the Circular Model to Our Durango Community
Cream Bean Berry’s Katie Burford contacted Live Creative Studio’s Claire Attkisson with the previously mentioned dilemma and an idea. Seeking an answer to the disposable, single-use waste her business generated annually, Burford began contemplating solutions utilizing the reusable model. Burford soon hired Live Creative Studio, to develop a “bring your own” branding and marketing campaign.
Joining forces with Live Creative Studio, and in partnership with local sustainable businesses Sew Alpine and WeFill, an initiative to bring the circular model to Cream Bean Berry and Durango was hatched. Having already created Carbon Crunch, a sustainable food business incubator with a focus on food packaging waste and climate change, Live Creative Studio was excited to assist in this endeavor.
What began as a sustainable marketing campaign for Cream Bean Berry, BringIt! has turned into a community-wide campaign to encourage locals and visitors alike to bring their own cups, bags, and utensils when they order to-go from local restaurants.
Through the BringIt! project and other Carbon Crunch projects, such as the one currently exploring locally compostable options available for takeaway food and beverage packaging, Live Creative Studio aims to provide leadership and guidance for sustainable businesses looking to transition to a more circular packaging model.
For more information on BringIt! and Carbon Crunch or on how to better incorporate the circular model into your business’s packaging needs, feel free to contact us at email@example.com.
We’re happy to help you reach your goals around sustainable packaging!
Live Creative Studio is a sustainable business, marketing, and shopping hub. Our Creative Studio offers authentic marketing, branding, and sustainable business expertise to ethical, sustainable, and purpose brands. And our Lifestyle Team brings the curious and the conscious inspiring sustainable lifestyle, zero waste tips, and examples of innovation changing business for good.