Sustainable Packaging: Tips and Best Practices

While it is not always possible for a producer to completely and immediately overhaul their packaging process with new materials, there are a few small changes that can make a big difference.

  • Consolidating packages:

    • The biggest impact might simply be reducing the number of packing materials you have to use per order. This can be done in a few ways.

    • Offer incremental quantities using the variety function. For example, small pickling cucumbers can be sold in packages of 3, 6, 9, 12, etc. This makes sense as most people are buying multiple pickling cucumbers at a time.

    • Being proactive about consolidating products for the same customer. For example, a consumer might order 4 bulbs of garlic. It would be proactive to consolidate those 4 items into one bag. In this case, it is best to put all 4 QR codes on the outside of the bag so they can be individually scanned.

  • Using paper

    • Paper is not useful for all applications (for instance, greens which may be very damp or most things that will be stored in a fridge). But consider using paper bags for non-refrigerated items.

    • No packaging at all! Consider sticking the QR codes directly to the product, such as with rind vegetables such as pumpkins, watermelons, etc.

The above ways are great steps for easily and cost-effectively reducing your packaging and for bringing your own practices in line with the co-op’s vision of more sustainable processes. But if you’re curious or ready to take the next leap, here’s a breakdown of plastic-alternative packaging, complete with brands and sources.

Green(er) Substitutes for Petroleum-based Plastic Bags and Containers

For many reasons it is desirable to reduce the use of plastic and Styrofoam bags, dinnerware, containers and related products. Here is a review of the current options and issues, with an emphasis on the food service sector:

  • PLA (polylactic acid) plastic:

    • very similar to petroleum-based plastic products, though not identical – can be more brittle and not suitable for hot items

    • made from corn starch, sugar cane or tapioca roots: plant product goes through wet-milling to extract sugars which are fermented into lactic acids, then polymerized into plastic resins

    • does not release toxic fumes when processed (in contrast to petroleum-based plastics)

    • can (as in it’s technically possible to) be bio-degraded into compost, but not via backyard-style composting, needs higher temps/controlled conditions and in a typical landfill does not behave differently than petroleum-based plastic

    • can be recycled directly (not composted first), if accepted by local authorities. Check local ordinances for guidelines. For example, your area may not have the required type of composting/recycling facility and treat this product as landfill material

    • Sample providers: Primode, Progreen

  • Bagasse:

    • Made from sugarcane, sorghum or agave fibers (lignin) after sugar is extracted for other uses. This means it is a by-product of an existing bio-based industry. Historically bagasse was thrown away as waste or used as low-quality fuel

    • Molded into paper-like products (vs. PLA plastic-like products)

    • Preferable source (vs trees) for paper pulp

    • Sometimes combined with wheatstraw

    • Made from renewable resources (in contrast to petroleum-based plastics)

    • Producers claim less energy is used to produce Bagasse than PLA

    • Products are grease and cut-resistant, microwaveable, freezable, can withstand 200F

    • If sent to a recycling center the waste handler may landfill the entire contaminated load

    • Some communities accept Bagasse products in backyard compost, but check your local ordinances

    • Bio-degrades much faster than PLA products, can be composted at home

    • Still takes a lot longer time than standard paper products, faster if shredded or chipped

    • Sample Providers: Eco-Products, Bridgegate, PrimeWare

  • Wood:

    • Birch, Bamboo (cutlery, coffee stirrers etc), Palm leaves, Pine (dinnerware)

    • Considered single-use (at the user level can be re-used, but not in commercial practices)

    • Can be composted in the same manner as surplus wood (= takes quite a long time but is doable)

    • Sample Providers: Eco Gecko dinnerware, utensils (FSC certified = forests used are monitored for sustainable practices), Bambu: 100% organically grown bamboo, designed for single use, biodegrades in 4-6 months

  • Paper:

    • Many products are available made from all or partially recycled paper

    • Including take-out style boxes and clamshells suitable for food sales

    • In general these are recyclable, but if contaminated with food they should not be put in a recycling collection bin or yard waste bag

    • Food-contaminated paper products can be put in home composting systems

    • Some products are coated with waxes and other materials that slow decomposition. In general, if you can scratch off a waxy layer, it’s not compostable. Shiny surface is ok

    • Sample Providers: Avant Grub (search for recycled content products), Good Start Packaging

  • Glass:

    • Doesn’t need much explanation – very reusable and very recyclable

    • Several IFC producers use glass containers that are returned to IFC for re-use by the producer

Bottom Lines:

Recycling rules and opportunities are constantly changing and consumers need to be educated about the proper disposal of all these products! Beware the statement “Fully compostable at a commercial composting facility”: these facilities are not common. These materials will take many many months to decompose in a typical home composting system and are not welcome in municipal yard waste bags or recycling bins.If a plant-based plastic is likely to end up being put in a recycling bin by the consumer, it is better to use a petroleum based product for the sale (educate consumers on recycling practices) and the same goes for wood and bargasse products, if they are going to be put in yard waste bags; better to use something a consumer understands how to dispose of.

Many of these products are essentially single use. Not ideal, but at least they are made from sustainable resources (not petroleum). On a small scale some of the tableware can be washed and reused. Even paper containers are not always recyclable: if they are contaminated with food/grease or have a waxy coating they should not be put in the recycling bin

Some online resources:

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