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In Search of Sustainable Packaging

In Search of Sustainable Packaging

One of the decisions to make has been packaging for Dorothy's Power Gruel. Being pre-cooked, it's moist, and when something contains water, it means the packaging has to prevent soaking up moisture and provide a suitable environment for refrigerated storage. Furthermore, in our drive to be zero waste, we had some additional criteria. It needed to be:

  • Recyclable

  • Compostable 

  • Made from a sustainably managed source.

That's a tall order because there is a LOT of green-washing in packaging these days, so Let's break down what we examined. 

The Problem With Plastic

First, there's no getting around if you want a moist or liquid product to transport and keep safe, there has to be some protective lining on the inside that serves as a moisture and gas barrier. Historically petroleum-based plastic, (polyethylene or PE) did that job remarkably well. But as we all know, there are huge problems with single-use plastics.  

Of the ~78 million metric tons of plastic packaging produced each year (2018) globally, we recycle a mere 14 percent. That's probably optimistic. Lightweight and floatable, plastic that escapes collection flows into our oceans—nine million tons annually—most of it from developing nations that lack the infrastructure to manage it. 

Experts believe the problem will get worse as those nations grow more prosperous and inevitably start consuming more packaged foods, and as many others in an increasingly convenience-obsessed world continue to purchase meal-kit and grocery services—which generate considerable packaging—and take-out

(https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/future-of-food/food-packaging-plastics-recycle-solutions/). 

And then the pandemic threw gas on the fire.

Most paper food containers that we think have wax linings are polyethylene (PE) plastic, most likely because it is inexpensive. The container's fibers are held together by a PE compound, or lined with PE to serve as a moisture and gas barrier to prevent transmission of liquids or gases through the paper structure.

It is recyclable in specific cartons (because some carton fiber is a different composition and allows the removal of PE), but prevents most other paper-coated containers from being recycled. 

An Advance: PLA

The good news is now there's PLA, or plant-based linings (Polylactic acid or polylactide), which breaks down relatively quickly into harmless compounds like lactic acid. PLA is made from fermented plant starch such as corn, cassava, sugarcane, or sugar beet pulp. The problem has been issues with producing it at volume and economically, and composting it efficiently, but those obstacles are dissipating. 

So a lot of packaging manufacturers are starting to offer an "eco-friendly" version of food containers that are paper-based and often have a PLA-based lining. But are they truly eco-friendly? Let's examine some alternatives with a summary by www.webstaurantstore.com

Sugarcane / Bagasse Containers is a plant-based, tree-free, renewable material made from the waste of sugarcane plants leftover after extracting the sugar. This fibrous, pulpy material creates durable containers that appeal to environmentally concerned households and requires less energy to produce than plastic products.

  • Pros

    • Suitable for both hot and cold applications

    • Sturdy enough to handle greasy foods

    • 100% biodegradable and compostable

    • Microwave and refrigerator safe

    • The unbleached design does not contain toxic dyes

  • Cons

    • Must be composted in a commercial facility

    • More costly than foam alternatives

PLA-coated Kraft Paper Containers consist of environmentally friendly, recyclable kraft paper, made from renewable resources. They have added durability from the PLA coating for both hot and cold applications.

  • Pros

    • Strong enough to hold up to sauces, gravies, and oils

    • Breathable to let moisture out to prevent sogginess

    • Natural kraft color does not contain toxic dyes

    • Recyclable and contains recycled content

  • Cons

    • Harder to recycle

    • Composted at commercial facilities

    • May not source from sustainably managed trees

Molded Pulp Fiber Containers is from recycled raw materials, such as paper or cardboard. Pulp fiber creates egg and produce cartons, carryout containers, and food service trays.

  • Pros

    • Recycled content and renewable resources

    • Typically biodegradable and or compostable

    • Typically no chemical additives, coatings, or dye

  • Cons

    • Different fibers used, which affects the quality

https://www.webstaurantstore.com/guide/913/types-of-eco-friendly-food-packaging.html

Our Initial Choice

Our initial choice will be using a PLA-coated container made from sugarcane fiber (the picture above) sold by www.goodstartpackaging.com. We make the trade-off that it's not microwavable because that seems to be an acceptable limitation to people, particularly since they are doctoring it up. Hopefully, we'll find one that is, and then it checks all the boxes!

For delivery, we plan to put them in a recyclable cardboard sleeve, so they are ready to stack in the refrigerator or freezer. What is important is that we will deliver our product in 100% recyclable, compostable, and created from sustainable sources.

I'm always open to other thinking, so please drop me a line or call if you'd like to talk about this. Importantly, how can we get more food companies to move away from single-use plastic and toward more sustainable practices?

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