For all of the changes that natural brands have brought to the food industry in terms of ingredient sourcing, sustainable agriculture and the health of eating habits overall, they have had an Achilles heel: packaging.
So two years ago, some industry leaders came together to form a coalition aimed at filling in this significant gap. "The purpose of the coalition is essentially to provide access and a roadmap to food companies for sustainable packaging," said co-founder Lara Jackle Dickinson. "Current packaging is not acceptable from a sustainability perspective, but there isn't an alternative right now."
The Compostable Packaging Coalition, now 16 members strong, meets ten times a year to forge ahead with its agenda. In late 2014, the members tested 12 brands against several compostable pouch structures. We checked in with Dickinson for an update on how things are going; here are some highlights from that conversation.
On the results of the 2014 testing
Lara Jackle Dickinson: We had success with certain ingredients, but a lot of lessons on how to optimize the structure. We also realized we needed to vary the structures more by product/ingredient nature. Each ingredient interacts differently with the package. We are developing a knowledge database of how all these ingredients interact with the different structures.
On the challenges facing the coalition
LJD: There are many physical obstacles. Bonding the materials together the right way at the right temperature and speed is very challenging. The precision required to get the bag right is much higher than petroleum-based bags, which have a certain forgiveness which compostable materials do not in converting machines. There are several layers of materials and a number of variables within each material we have to get right for each ingredient.
The bag gusset styles are also key to the success of the bag. Compostable bags still need to hold up well in distribution and on the retail shelf, and the gusset style is key to ensuring the proper overall strength of the bag.
On next steps
LJD: We will do our next phase of testing of ingredients in packaging among our member companies late this fall. We will have shelf life testing completed early next year.
Alter Eco is re-launching its quinoa line into 100 percent compostable laminated stand-up pouches this year to reach shelves in the new year. Our goal is to continue to encourage other brands to step forward, using Alter Eco's test-and-learn strategy. We hope to have several industry leading brands launch their products or ingredients in the next two years.
At the same time, we are working on rollstock/overwrap products. We have had tremendous lessons via our pouch work that has informed a better approach for rollstock. This would have implications for tea bags, bars, and other single-serve items.
We are also working on certifications roadmaps, lifecycle analysis, and consumer and industry communication strategies for compostable packaging.
Editor's note: This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.