Now more than ever, we’re starting to understand how much of an impact our discarded rubbish makes on the planet. Sustainable packaging is absolutely key to making sure our business doesn’t damage the environment. So, let’s take a look at our packaging, how we make it, and our plans to become even more sustainable in the future.October 19, 2021 4:41 pm October 18, 2021 4:29 pm
What is sustainable packaging?
Sustainable packaging is any protective case or cover for a product which is made from materials which do not harm the environment.
This can include:
- Recyclable packaging
- Biodegradable packaging
- Re-usable packaging
The idea is that these types of materials can replace damaging and wasteful alternatives, such as single-use plastic.
Why do we need sustainable packaging?
Over the last century, a huge range of convenient, affordable consumer goods have come on the market. Naturally, that also means an enormous increase in the amount of packaging we use.
Of course, the most vilified material of all is plastic. But it wasn’t always that way. When fully synthetic plastic was first invented in 1907 by Leo Baekeland (famed for Bakelite), it became the harbinger of a new age. It was strong, hard-wearing and cheap.(1)
Not only did it mean that ordinary people could suddenly afford luxury items such as cameras, telephones and radios, it brought in a new wave of inventions.
Plastic is used to insulate cables, to make space suits and blood plasma bags, in joint replacements and nylon stockings. In short, it was the ultimate ‘wonder material’.
So where did it all go wrong?
Plastic becomes a problem
In the post-war years, cheap and convenient plastic started to take over from materials such as paper and glass in common consumer products.(1)
Unfortunately, the same properties that make plastic useful also make it incredibly difficult to get rid of.
A disposable nappy takes around 500 years to degrade.(2) To put that in perspective, if King Henry VIII (or, let’s face it, probably one of the Queen’s maids) had been able to use a disposable nappy on Mary Tudor, we would only just be getting rid of it now.
Henry VIII’s hypothetical plastic toothbrush and disposable coffee pods would also still be with us; we would have finally managed to eliminate his plastic cups and water bottles in about 1971.(2)
When you start to think of the enormous amount of plastic each of us uses every day, it soon becomes difficult to comprehend quite how much of it accumulates when all of us throw it away. And unlike paper or cardboard, plastic doesn’t break down quickly; it hangs around for centuries.
So, the question becomes: what do we do with all our plastic?
Landfills and oceans
When you buy a product with single-use packaging, you essentially have two options as the consumer. You can throw it in the bin, or you can recycle it. Unfortunately, plenty of waste is also ‘mismanaged’ – meaning that it is littered or dumped in an inappropriate place.
If not recycled, plastic waste tends to end up in landfill (large pits of waste buried underground) or in our oceans. Waste is often transported there by river systems.
In one dreadful example from 1990, the Pasig river in the Philippines was declared ‘biologically dead’ due to the enormous quantity of plastic waste stifling life there.(3)
The famous Henderson Island in the South Pacific is completely uninhabited, yet is home to 38 million pieces of plastic waste which have been washed there from other countries by ocean currents.(4)
Or how about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? Also known as ‘trash island’ or ‘the Pacific trash vortex’, This enormous collection of rubbish floats together in the Pacific ocean, gathered by currents. Scientists don’t know how big it is; it’s simply too big to trawl.(5)
If it ends up in landfill, our plastic waste not only creates an eyesore, but releases gas, toxins and odours as well as causing pest infestations. And, due to the long lifespan of plastic, landfills will be with us for a very long time.(6)
Turning the tide
Enough horror stories; what is being done to prevent this level of pollution?
Fortunately, consumers are becoming much more aware of the negatives of single-use plastic, and are demanding alternatives.
That has led to many nations around the world introducing legislation to protect the environment. (Some, notably, have much catching up to do.)
For instance, in the USA, 16 states have introduced regulations around packaging waste, designed to reduce single-use plastics and encourage more recycling.(7)
Unfortunately, that means that 34 states have not.
Things are looking better in Europe, where France, Germany and the UK lead the pack in terms of environmental sustainability. Meanwhile, Thailand has banned single-use plastic bags and China has stopped importing foreign waste, while also increasing recycling and reuse of plastic products.(7)
What about private companies?
Many brands and businesses have caught onto the fact that consumers are no longer going to accept unsustainable products and practices.
Encouragingly, almost all of the top 100 FMCG companies have made commitments to meet sustainability goals. Most commonly, these include:
- Making sure their packaging is fully recyclable
- Using more recycled materials in their packaging
- Reducing the overall amount of plastic they use
- Innovation in packaging to reduce environmental impact.
Brands are also now looking at ways to completely revamp their business models, moving from single-use packaging to reusable, refillable options.
The unique problem of sustainable packaging for food
There’s much that can be done to make food packaging more sustainable. Many companies have already found innovative – or not so innovative – ways to do this.
For example, in the UK there has been a push in recent years to remove unnecessary plastic packaging from supermarket produce such as fruits and vegetables. Put simply, there is no need for this additional packaging; the food is protected by the skin of the fruit or vegetable itself.
In the UK, ASDA, Lidl and Aldi have all banned single-use plastic bags for fruit and veg. An easy win for the environment!
However, the issue becomes more complicated with other types of food, which does require packaging to arrive safely at its destination.
For example, soft drinks were one of the main culprits behind the boom in PET plastic bottles.(1) While lightweight, safe and strong, they are a nightmare to get rid of. So, what are the alternatives?
"The famous Henderson Island in the South Pacific is completely uninhabited, yet is home to 38 million pieces of plastic waste which have been washed there from other countries by ocean currents.(4)"
A better way of packaging food
At Erbology, we follow some simple rules when it comes to our packaging. The materials we use are: amber glass, cardboard, aluminium (for bottle tops), thin plastic film and paper.
1. Are we using as little of it as possible?
Our products embrace the power of simplicity, and our packaging does too. We don’t need flashy, excessive packaging – our products speak for themselves. So, the job of our packaging is to get them to you in one piece.
We always ask: how can we use the bare minimum amount of packaging that keeps our products safe?
That’s why our products use compact packaging. Our energy balls, for example, come in a small cardboard outer layer which protects the soft and squidgy balls from harm, without being any larger than absolutely needed.
Minimal packaging, minimal footprint.
Just like our products, we order our packaging in small batches. When one order is used up, we order another, making sure that nothing gets wasted.
We’ve recently made the decision to remove the cardboard casing from our snack range. While it looked beautiful, ultimately we couldn’t justify keeping the unnecessary extra layer.
2. Does it effectively protect our products?
As a food company, we have to make sure that our products reach our customers in tip-top condition. That means that we are excluded from using certain materials for our products, as they do not qualify as ‘food grade’.
One area we are particularly keen to explore is biodegradable alternatives to the plastic film we currently use in our snack range. Our crackers and granolas currently include a thin film which allows us to make the packaging airtight, protecting the product from contaminants and moisture.
We would love to replace this with biodegradable alternatives. However, there is a major issue with this type of packaging when it comes to food: the packaging itself may biodegrade around the product before it reaches its use-by date.
Currently, we don’t believe that there are good enough biodegradable alternatives on the market to make the swap. Do you know of one, or do you own a company that produces food grade biodegradable packaging? We’d love to hear from you.
Thus, for the time being, we have to use plastic film. So, we have made sure that it is BPA free and easily recyclable, along with the rest of our packaging.
3. Is the little packaging we use environmentally-friendly?
We make sure that all the packaging we use is as sustainable and environmentally-friendly as possible. While our packaging has always been recyclable, we’ve made a few changes more recently in an effort to become even more sustainable.
All our oils are packaged in recyclable amber glass bottles. It’s important to use amber glass as some of our products are sensitive to light. For example, exposure to light can degrade the antioxidant compounds present in olive oil, and cause the oil to produce compounds which alter its flavor.(9)
Amber glass is easily and widely recycled.
Glass versus plastic and paper
Over the past year, we’ve made the decision to move from cardboard-based packaging for our powders to amber glass jars. Not only do they protect our powders in the same way as our oils, they provide airtight storage in your cupboards and can also be reused to house other things.
Hold onto them if you make homemade jam, or transfer other powders bought in pouches or weaker packaging into them for safekeeping.
Furthermore, while paper and cardboard can be recycled, it must be chemically treated to remove inks and reform it for new use. This reduces the number of times it can be re-used, while glass can be recycled almost forever with no loss of quality.(10)
We are also moving away from recyclable plastic in our shot range. These will shortly be available in clear glass containers. The containers themselves are larger than the plastic ones we previously used, which means more product for you (at no extra cost!).
You might ask: if both are destined for recycling, what’s the difference between recycling plastic and glass? Well, glass is recycled at a much higher and more consistent level. In Europe, 80% of glass is recycled.(10)
Aluminium for our bottle caps
Finally, we’re moving to aluminium bottle caps for the same reason. Aluminium is an almost perfect material for recycling. In fact, recycling aluminium is about 90% more eco-friendly than producing the new material.(11)
Recycling a single aluminium drinks can saves enough energy to listen to a whole album on an iPod – and with 9.591 cans produced in the UK alone, you can soon see how much of a difference it makes.(11)(12)
It’s also a widely recycled material and retains its quality throughout the recycling process. Around 75% of all the aluminium ever produced is still in circulation today.(11) That’s quite the difference when compared with single-use plastic!
Our shipping materials
Now we’ve considered the materials for the packaging of our products, we need to think about how we get them to you safely.
Glass – while extremely environmentally-friendly – is a brittle material and may be damaged in transit unless we take steps to protect it. We therefore need to provide some padding to make sure it reaches you in great shape.
We do not use plastic, bubble wrap or polystyrene to protect our products, instead using brown paper as needed. We’ve also taken steps to remove padding wherever possible. Ever wondered why we sell our crackers in bundles of six, or packs of 12? It’s because they stack tightly in our boxes, keeping each other safe from damage without the need for extra padding.
After listening to feedback from our customers, we’ve also eliminated packing tape from our shipping materials. Instead, we now use self-adhesive paper tape to seal our boxes.
4. Is it easy for our customers to manage, making sure it doesn’t up in oceans or landfill?
So, now your products have arrived at your door. You’ve opened your box, excited to try out the new products inside (perhaps you’ve already had a nibble of one of the crackers!).
What can you do to make sure the packaging we’ve sent you doesn’t have a negative effect on the environment?
The first and most important point is to make sure all of our packaging ends up in the recycling. All the materials we use are widely recycled and will be collected by most councils.
Please make sure you break down our boxes before popping them in your recycling, as this will save space for other waste.
If you can keep or reuse any of our packaging, please do. Our boxes are made from thick cardboard which can double up as storage in your pantry or around the house. As already mentioned, our jars can be refilled and reused.
The future of our packaging
There’s always room for us to improve the sustainability of our packaging. The methods we use now are not set in stone; if another, better option becomes available we will switch to it.
We are keeping a close eye on the development of affordable biodegradable plastic alternatives and other ways we can eliminate plastic from our packaging for good. Similarly, we watch out for any new game-changing technologies we can use to make our packaging more sustainable.
One day, we’re hoping to be able to set up a packaging returns system which will allow you to send us back your used jars and bottles, so that we can give them a second life. Watch this space for more news.
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