Notes on our quest to find more Eco-friendly packaging

Toby Green 22nd May 2022

Elysian Foods sells around 120,000 pots of dip a year. Each pot weighs around 13g and the lid weighs around 9g - so that’s around 22g of plastic for each dip sold. That’s around 2,650kg (2.65 tons) of plastic a year.

We have an ambition to make our company as environmentally friendly as possible. And clearly putting that much plastic into the world every year is not helping.

After some investigation, we struck on the idea that we should switch to using a bamboo-based packaging product. It’s a mostly plant-based product and it’s lighter than its plastic counterpart.

 


The Packaging conundrum

Is bamboo packaging any better for the environment than the plastic packaging that we currently use?

At first, this seemed like a no-brainer. Such an obvious decision that it barely warranted further investigation. Are we not constantly informed that plastic is bad and alternative, plant-based packaging solutions are better for the environment? As it turns out, the situation is far more nuanced than we are led to believe. 

The flow chart below summarises the various options. But before we get to that, there are a few areas that require some further explanation.

What does “environmentally friendly” mean (for you?)

The most commonly used metric is the impact of your product on climate change. Yes, this is clearly an important metric, but definitely not the only one. Others to consider include:

  • Impact on biodiversity - for example, a plant-based product may encourage deforestation
  • Are plant-based alternatives really lower carbon? For example, products made using corn starch are incredibly fossil fuel intensive, to the point where they may actually use more fossil fuels than the equivalent plastic pot. Plus, refer to the point above for the impact of industrial / monoculture

Evaluate the whole product, not just the packaging

In our case, 22g of plastic encloses 200g of product - or just 10% by weight. Let’s say that the whole package (product and packaging) causes 1 unit of environmental degradation (ED). If (and it’s a big IF) that one unit of ED is evenly distributed across the product and packaging, then the packaging might account for only 10% of the problem.

Yet the Food Industry (and consumers in general) is very focused on the problems caused by the packaging. In some ways that’s understandable - it’s very visible, generally not biodegradable and it’s left behind as a waste product.


Reusable packaging is best (except when it’s not)

Reusable packaging works really well when the consumer is responsible for cleaning the packaging, taking it to the shop or cafe, refilling it themselves and then taking it home. Especially when the journey to and from the shop or cafe is done in an eco-friendly way (ie by foot or on bike) not in your fancy, gas-guzzling SUV. 

Eco-friendly refillery shops (like Hopper in Wellington, which Elysian Foods supplies) are great - but you really need one in every suburb to avoid customers travelling excessive distances to get to and from the shop. 

The handy decision tree

This is a summary of the various options available to a company like Elysian Foods.

Conclusion

Elysian Foods’ best option is to move from its current packaging (not readily recyclable) to a #1 or #2 plastic pot and lid.

And don't forget that you can listen to Toby talk through this process in the two part podcast made by Consumer NZ