Plastics are a massive problem; for our planet, our health and beyond. Did you know about 8 million tons of plastic waste land in our oceans every year? It’s up to us to tackle this global crisis, and the natural products industry has a unique opportunity to do so.
As a CPG brand, it might seem like a massive challenge to rid your company of plastics altogether, but there are sustainable packaging solutions and other approachable action steps you and your company can take to start fixing the issue. But, where to begin? We rounded up four industry experts to answer this pertinent question: What are the top action steps natural product brands can implement to help solve our plastics problem?
I feel that any company that wants to help with the plastic problem can and should start in the workplace. Any steps toward sustainability, no matter how small, can have a huge cultural and moral effect. Plus, it is never too late to implement good practices.
Having the courage to take steps toward reducing a company’s carbon footprint should be commended, as should sharing information about sustainable practices. I believe by encouraging companies that are trying to change, we can open up the path to large scale environmental consciousness.
—Mike Dirnt, co-founder of Oakland Coffee Company, the first coffee company to sell all of its products in certified compostable packaging
Make up your mind. You have two primary choices to make depending on your own personal stance. Some argue that eliminating plastics and finding alternatives is the best move (like switching from plastic to glass). Some hold the position that it's better to use more material and make it reusable/refillable. Others contend that plastic is the most efficient and effective material, and they are split into those that are choosing to make everything curbside recyclable and those that believe recycling is broken and it's just about using the least amount of material possible.
Do some homework and pick a side. They are sometimes in opposition, but the net result is brands being more intentional.
Don't screw it up. Learn a bit about the recycling system. Understand what makes something recyclable. Certain materials are recyclable and others are not; sometimes it just comes down to the material color. In addition, a lot of the decisions a brand makes will impact whether something can be recycled; the way it's assembled or decorated can ruin the whole thing. Most flexible food packaging is minimal and very effective but often not recyclable at all. If you're going to make something heavy and expensive so it can be reused, understand how much loss you're going to have and how long they're going to last. You may be creating more waste and CO2 emissions than other single-use packaging.
—Brent Lindberg, head of curiosity at Fuseneo, a packaging innovation, development and prototyping firm that crosses material and process boundaries to unlock solutions that help brands succeed online and on-shelf
ReGrained feels a responsibility and passion to change the packaging status quo; this is the spirit behind our pioneering of compostable films and weathering the challenges. Our temporary switch to conventional films is decidedly a “slow down to speed up” tactic, and we’re feeling more energized than ever before to rally the industry. Two first steps that I would recommend every brand leader take are:
Get educated. Join the OSC2 Packaging Collaborative. This will help provide a framework to put talent and resources into understanding the materials and remain on the cutting edge. In doing so, you’ll align with upstream materials suppliers and manufacturers.
Prioritize plant-based inputs. With compostable plastics, it is easy to get caught up in the downstream challenges. Is home compostable better than industrial/commercial? Will my customers put my wrapper in the right bin, if they have one? Does their municipality even offer compost? Will the composters accidentally sort out my packaging because it looks like conventional plastic? As brand leaders, we have the most direct agency over our supply chains. Traditional plastics are fossil-fuel derived. Downstream challenges withstanding, we can still make an impact on the plastics problem by reducing our demand on petroleum-based products and sourcing regenerative plant-based inputs.
—Dan Kurzrock, chief grain officer at ReGrained, a mission-driven company that rescues nutritious, edible byproducts and upcycles them into delicious, versatile ingredients
Don’t default to recyclable. In the United States, our single-stream system of recycling—i.e. putting all recyclables into one bin—is inefficient, expensive and dirty. For decades, developed countries like the U.S. have been exporting our trash to less-developed countries in southeast Asia, which are now refusing to accept it, literally turning ships around and sending it back. It’s great to make products that are recyclable. But to create real, lasting change, companies need to commit to designing them with recycled content to keep plastic in the supply chain rather than the landfill.
Embrace extended producer responsibility. Also known as “EPR,” Extended Producer Responsibility is defined as taking responsibility for the end life of the products and packaging that a company produces. This is a deeper commitment than simply shifting to “better” materials such as choosing “compostables” rather than plastics derived from fossil fuels. Because most plant-based plastics must be industrially processed, a brand that commits to following the principles of EPR in this context would also need to design a recovery mechanism that made sure these materials end up in an industrial composter rather than deposited in a landfill or recycled.
—Rachel Lincoln Sarnoff, CEO of Lincoln Sarnoff Consulting, a firm developing nuanced communications and operational strategies for mission-driven brands and organizations