The challenges of using plastic packaging at Elysian
By: Toby Green 18 July 2021
Packaging for our products
Yes, we pack our products into plastic pots and bags. We consider this a necessary evil and are always on the lookout for ways that we can improve our environmental footprint. The following outlines the use of plastic (and other) packaging - and reviews some of the options available to a small food manufacturer like Elysian Foods.
The dip tubs are #5 plastic, so can be recycled.
There is a plant in Christchurch that can recycle #5 plastics and currently about two-thirds of councils collect and separate out #5 plastic for recycling. It’s not clear how much of this goes to the plant in CHC and how much gets sent overseas.
The lids are made from #4 plastic, so they are not recyclable (at the moment). For a really good and comprehensive article about plastic recycling in NZ have a read of the following:
We currently vacuum pack our olives to ensure they stay fresh. The bags that we use for the olives are not able to be recycled. I’m not sure what grade of plastic they are - or if they qualify as “soft plastic” and therefore able to be recycled that way. The main problem is that they need to be clean - and cleaning all the oily marinade residues would be very energy intensive and time-consuming.
What are the alternatives?
There are a few different alternatives that we have looked at:
- Glass jars and metal lids: Glass is easier to recycle (in theory), so that’s a positive. The metal lids would be too small and would probably end up in the general rubbish. Then there’s the discussion around the amount of energy and Greenhouse Gas (GHG) equivalents it takes to manufacture the current plastic tubs against a glass/metal alternative. An oft-quoted statistic is that it takes four to five times more energy to create the glass/metal alternative.
- A pot and lid that is made of compostable materials: We’ve done some research on this and everyone agrees that whoever wins the race to make a low energy, compostable packaging suitable for dips is going to become very wealthy. It’s a very active area of research in the food industry. We’re starting to see more and better truly compostable packaging options come onto the market - but none yet that would be suitable for chilled dips.
- Re-usable containers: An industry and nation-wide scheme to have everything packaged into standardised and reusable containers would be fantastic - but alas, a bit of a pipe-dream at this stage. However:
- You can bring your containers to Elysian Foods and get them re-filled while you wait. Whilst we’re not really set up for this to happen (we don’t have a retail presence in the warehouse) we love it when the odd customer drops by to get some dips or olives.
- We have one “refillery” shop (Hopper in Wellington) that we supply in re-used containers (the ones that our yogurt comes in). Once they’ve finished with the containers they clean them and leave them out for their customers to use.
The plan is to vacuum pack our olives for the foreseeable future. Which limits us to using those plastic bags in most (but not all) circumstances.
- Plastic bags that can be recycled: Even if the bags that we use were classed as “soft plastic” (which I don’t think they are) they would still need to be rigorously cleaned. It only takes a few less-than-perfect bags for a whole bundle of soft plastic to be rejected and end up going to the tip. So our advice should be - don’t recycle.
- Bio-degradable bags: There seems to be a lot of greenwash about bags that can be “commercially” composted or bio-degraded. My understanding is that, unless they are separated out and put through a special process, they might as well go into the general waste.
- Home compostable bags: These appear to be more of a reality (although I’ve never tested any out in our compost bins at home). However, they are not practical for use in vacuum packing our olives for two reasons:
- They don’t like moisture - they are suitable for dry goods only
- They are not recommended for use with a vacuum packing machine.
- Re-usable containers: To come extent the same comments above apply here, with the following modifications:
- We vacuum pack the olives to extend the shelf life of the product. For the smaller, retail-sized packs, the vacuum packing process also adds to the appeal of the finished product.
- We sell a lot of our olives in bulk to supermarkets and delis. They empty these into bowls and sell them over the counter. It is possible, particularly for local customers, that we could send out the olives in re-usable containers that we could pick up and re-fill. We already do this for Hopper and that seems to work well.
Minimising plastic and waste in the warehouse and kitchen
Packaging used when sending out our orders
Elysian Foods is still small enough that we haven’t had to completely standardise our order packing and despatch process. That means that we are able to re-use a lot of the cardboard boxes that come into the warehouse to send out our orders. You can read more that here.
One area that we would like to explore is switching away from using your ubiquitous plastic packing tape (think - very large roll of sellotape). There are paper-based options available and we will trial using these over the next few months.
Minimsing waste in the warehouse and kitchen
Check out some of the other articles that we’ve written in the past about what Elysian Foods has done to minimise waste in our processes.