Natural Foods Merchandiser

Industry Innovator: Linda Kahler

Rainbow Light was the first company in the industry to convert its entire bottled-vitamin line to EcoGuard bottles, which are made from 100 percent recycled plastic and are safety approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

According to Susan Collins, executive director of the Container Recycling Institute, 44 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States come from products and packaging. To reduce that negative impact, Rainbow Light Nutritional Systems, a Santa Cruz, Calif.-based supplements manufacturer with $60 million in annual sales, was the first company in the industry to convert its entire bottled-vitamin line to EcoGuard bottles, which are made from 100 percent recycled plastic and are safety approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Rainbow Light President Linda Kahler says her company’s innovation will decrease its carbon footprint for bottles by more than 90 percent and keep more than 6 million plastic bottles from going to landfills each year.

We have been monitoring developments in packaging in recent years, but really it goes back to the first packaging-impact study we commissioned 20 years ago. We were a little surprised at that time, even, to learn that plastic was environmentally the winning choice [as opposed to glass].

[Our previous bottles] were recyclable, but they were not made from recycled materials because there was not a recycled-plastic process that was FDA approved for food products. It was only last fall that the FDA approved food-grade recycled plastic that could be used by plastic-bottle manufacturers for products like ours.

A big part of it is sharing the message. We’re having a tremendous impact because [we are] consistently ranked among the top three brands. We’re very high volume, with number-one selling women’s, men’s and prenatal multivitamins.

We’ve been tracking the corn [packaging] products since they hit the market. While they are presented as compostable, of course, they need commercial composting facilities to break that kind of plastic down. Those composting facilities are not readily available to consumers. The other problem with [corn] for products like ours is its lack of stability for sustainable shelf life.

We did have to figure out how to accommodate a bit of a cost increase, which we felt was worth it—an economic cost for an environmental gain. We were able to offset it because we also had an innovation in the label. We incorporated a label redesign so we are now using a full-body sleeve rather than separate component parts of a pressure-sensitive label. Plus, we are using a separate seal on the cap.

When we talk about 6 million bottles, it’s hard to imagine that stack of bottles. If we were to line them up end to end along a highway, you could drive for seven hours from the beginning of the lineup to the end. That’s how many bottles we are saving.

I think that the problem would be bad enough if all discarded plastic was just ending up in our landfills, but the problem is actually much worse. If we look at the quality of our oceans, they’re actually becoming collection vessels for the world’s plastic waste. So this initiative is closely tied to improving the health of our oceans and our marine life.

I think the most important thing for us all to do is try to raise our consciousness about all the small steps we can take every day, like bringing your own cup if you’re getting coffee to go.

It’s choices that we’re making within our ingredients—thoughtful, human-health–promoting choices bundled with planetary health–promoting choices—that allow us to make a bigger impact.

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