Recycled, upcycled or downcycled? Corn-based or palm-fiber husk? Home compostable or industrially compostable?
All you want are new deli trays. Yet, when considering packaging possibilities, it's easy to feel overwhelmed by the options and that alphabet soup of acronyms—from OCC (old corrugated containers) to WCC (waxed corrugated containers) and beyond.
In a 2007 joint survey by nonprofit group Sustainable Packaging Coalition and trade magazine Packaging Digest, 73 percent of 1,255 packaging-based respondents reported an increased emphasis on sustainable packaging, creating new possibilities for retailers and consumers.
Consider local variables
One of the first mistakes is to assume that one best packaging solution exists— a magic package that solves all concerns about manufacturing and waste, says Wendy Jedlicka of Jedlicka Design, a faculty member at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design's Sustainable Design Certificate Program and author of Packaging Sustainability: Tools, Systems and Strategies for Innovative Package Design (Wiley, 2008).
Jedlicka says there's no one best package for either products or consumables, despite buzzwords. In order to discover the least-harmful option, consider local variables. As Jedlicka points out, a food product (and package) shipped to a destination without recycling will weigh differently on the planet than one in which most plastics are recycled. In areas without recycling, a retailer might choose home-compostable packaging, encourage consumers to reuse containers or seek other alternatives.
"You really have to understand the market that it's going to be distributed in, and weigh the thing out," she says. "Sustainability is so much more than looking at the materials. You also need to consider energy use and the supply chain."
For example, think about milk. Jedlicka points out that aseptic milk cartons reduce the need for refrigeration (cutting energy costs) and increase the amounts able to fit onto a pallet (decreasing food miles, or the distance that a product travels from producer to consumer). Milk in aseptic cartons takes longer to go bad on either store or consumer shelves, thereby reducing waste.
As another alternative, Washington's PCC Natural Markets offers milk in glass jars. Customers pay a deposit fee when they buy the milk, and the fee is refunded when they return the empty jar. The jar is then reused by the local milk distributor, beginning another closed-loop cycle.
Sustainability in store
PCC offers this alternative, and many more sustainable packaging solutions, because the company has appointed a director of sustainability, Diana Crane. Crane says PCC takes a hard look at packaging claims and makes sure those claims mesh with local realities.
"We must make certain that our local solid-waste facilities accept the products as claimed," Crane says. "A meat tray may say ‘100 percent compostable,' but in our market area, it is nothing more than ordinary destined-for-the-landfill trash until the local facility that processes waste for compost tests and approves it as compostable."
So PCC chose deli bake-in pans and food containers that were recyclable at a local facility. But the store's plant fiber-based hot-food plates and clamshell containers are still destined for the trash until they are accepted by either the recycling or composting facilities. Crane says PCC has had a difficult time locating nonleaking disposable containers.
"I often come across references to sustainability as a journey, not a destination," Crane says. "The dilemma any sustainably minded company faces is that there are always trade-offs underlying good intentions."
PCC also appreciates manufacturers that are striving to reduce packaging altogether—like Milwaukie, Ore.-based Bob's Red Mill and Nature's Path in Richmond, B.C. Milk alternatives and soups in Tetra Pak or prism packs are great ways to cut waste.
Tanya Young, membership and marketing manager at Menomonie Market Food Co-op in Menomonie, Wis., is excited about "upcycled" products. For example, Waltham, Mass.-based Preserve Toothbrushes by Recycline are made from yogurt cups. When they're finished with the brush, customers can pick up a postage-paid label from the store and mail the toothbrush back to the company, which then reprocesses the toothbrushes into plastic lumber. And Chico, Calif.-based Chico Bag allows customers to send in old reusable bags, which are then upcycled into rugs.
Durham, N.C.-based Burt's Bees is another industry example: The company's innovative "terraskins" are stone-sourced papers that wrap around bars of soap. Burt's Bees says its new lip balm and lip shimmer packaging got rid of 1,800 miles of shrink-wrap, which the company says would have wrapped around the Statue of Liberty 100 times.
Lora Shinn is a Seattle-based freelance writer.
What can retailers do? 10 ideas
- Offer alternatives to plastic. A few options might include "bring your own" mesh bags (instead of produce plastic bags) and glass in the bulk area. In the deli section, some cafés offer or sell reusable plates and silverware. At the checkout line, Menomonie Market Food Co-op provides reusable bags at four different price points (99 cents to $9.59) and reuses cardboard boxes from shipments.
- Closely examine local recycling options. Get creative with your results. At MMFC, there aren't recycling options for No. 3, 4, 5, 6 or 7 plastics. "Customers overcome this by donating used yogurt and dairy containers for reuse in our bulk department," says co-op membership and marketing manager Tanya Young.
- Celebrate sustainability with signage. Both PCC Natural Markets and MMFC point out locally produced items with signage. "It has been possible to reduce packaging and the materials associated with it (inks, tape, cardboard packing peanuts) with several local producers," Young says. "They often deliver products in large coolers, crates or cardboard boxes that are reused." Author Wendy Jedlicka says you can apply the same signage to products that reduce waste, are reusable or are otherwise examples of innovative packaging.
- Educate consumers. Print fridge-ready notes about local recycling facilities, a guide to what's recyclable and what's not, resources for home composting and which aisles hold reusable items like produce bags or tableware.
- Question food manufacturers. Jedlicka suggests asking: How was this package produced? Who designed or provided the packaging? Where was it produced? Is there a safe way to dispose of it once the product has been consumed? "It seems as though more manufacturers are putting their environmental positions and recycling information on the more visible parts of the package," Young says. "They have likely done their research and found that this information is becoming increasingly important to consumers."
- Seek certifications. Ask about certifications or memberships in the Forest Stewardship Council, ISO 14001, Co-op America and Sustainable Packaging Coalition, Jedlicka suggests.
- Check manufacturer claims against your composting reality. If a product says it's compostable, call your local industrial composting facility and ask whether the facility will accept it. Will your city's curbside organic waste service accept the package? Ask for documentation about home composting or ask your local extension office whether it has experience composting the product. How easy will composting be for your shoppers? Earthcycle, a Canadian manufacturer of palm-husk-based compostable fresh produce and deli packaging, provides step-by-step composting tips on its website.
- Get transparent with consumers. Show shoppers the pros and cons for each deli package solution and any struggles you have with selecting the best in ecologically and functionally designed packaging. PCC runs articles and letters regarding packaging issues in its monthly newspaper The Sound Consumer, on the store's website and in its monthly subscriber-based e-newsletter. And be open to new options that consumers may point out.
- Emphasize savings. Particularly in today's economy, shoppers appreciate a deal. Point out savings from buying shampoo, oils and foods in bulk. "A great deal of our customer education efforts are focused on the benefits of buying in bulk with a reusable container," Young says. "One of those benefits is significantly reducing packaging and the environmental factors and costs associated with it."
- Make sustainability fun. At MMFC, when customers bring in or reuse their own bags or boxes, the cashier gives them a bean worth 5 cents at checkout. Customers can put their beans into one of three clear bins associated with a local nonprofit organization. The co-op makes a yearly monetary donation to each organization based on the final bean count.