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How the natural products industry is reshaping the plastic problem

Conversations around plastic pollution are increasing and evolving thanks in no small part to natural products brands' and retailers' commitment to earth-friendly practices and consumer-facing education.

A recent report from Brandwatch studied 6 million public social media posts and 4,000 survey responses to gauge consumers' thoughts about plastic waste.

The bad news: we’re currently living in the era of “peak plastic.” Every day, about 8 million pieces of plastic make their way (or are dumped) into oceans, and 120 million plastic bags—which are typically used for an average of 12 minutes—are consumed globally every hour. Soft drink companies alone produce more than 500 billion single-use plastic bottles annually.

But there is hope, and natural food brands and retailers are uniquely positioned to help educate consumers and implement policies that can put a tangible dent in the plastic problem. 

Retailers are pioneering plastic reduction 

In 2010 MOM’s Organic Market made a bold move within the retail space; as part of its “Plastic Surgery” campaign, the retailer removed bottled water from all six of its locations (it now operates 19 stores). Since then, MOM’s has continued to be a sustainability leader, and, more recently, has introduced new campaigns to address what has become an even more pressing problem. 

“We are doing a big push to convince customers to buy more bulk,” said Steve Geest, vice president of wellness for MOM’s. “In the last few weeks, we’ve rolled out a new concept in stores—a 4-foot wall merchandised with items that customers can purchase and then bring back and reuse the containers.”

For example, glass jars that contain marinara sauce make good vessels for dried beans, while baby food jars are perfect for storing bulk spices. Signage throughout the store highlights additional products with packaging that could be reused for items purchased in bulk. 

When Brandwatch survey respondents were asked who was responsible for improving the impact of plastic waste, the most popular answer—with nearly a third of respondents selecting it—was "consumers." But that doesn’t mean brands and retailers don’t play a major role, particularly when it comes to education.

“Especially in light of current recycling issues, it’s important to provide information,” said Geest. “Many people think that if they bring in their own container for bulk items, they will be charged extra because of the weight—they don’t know about taring the container so that weight is removed before calculating the price.”

Geest said that more education surrounding bulk buying is needed, even among environmentally-savvy natural products consumers. “We are just trying to give people options and get them thinking,” he said. 

In September 2019, Jimbo’s became the first natural products retailer on the west coast to open a plastic bottled water-free location. Like MOM’s, it offers the option of bringing in your own container or purchasing a reusable container in the store.

“For years, Jimbo's has been considering a plastic-free water aisle as part of our ongoing commitment to the environment,” said Kelly Hartford, director of marketing at Jimbo's. As indicated by the Brandwatch survey, the conversation around how to address plastic pollution is at a record high, which Hartford says made it the right time to make a strategic move.

“There was a discussion about losing sales, but we’ve seen things balance out because the sales of non-plastic waters and other categories that complement the water aisle—like sparkling water and teas—have increased. It’s opening customers’ eyes that there are other options out there.” 

When it comes to packaging innovation, a little goes a long way

Geest encourages natural products manufacturers, brands and retailers to look for even more ways to reduce plastic, especially with regard to packaging. Recently he convinced the company’s private label manufacturer to source post-consumer plastic for shrink wrapping supplement bottles.

“Ask your private label folks to make that change for you,” said Geest. “I’d also like to see recyclable lids on products.”

Geest said that MOM’s actively reaches out to new brands and encourages them to consider ways to incorporate the cost structure of good packaging into their product from the very beginning. 

For companies that manufacture their own products, converting to alternative packaging is even easier. In 2019, healthy snack company and 2019 Whole Foods Supplier of the Year LesserEvil moved all of its packaged snacks to eco-friendly NEO plastics, which contain a microbial layer that accelerates biodegradation in landfills. Instead of the eight decades it typically takes for a chip bag to break down, NEO plastic breaks down 33% in just 15 months.

During the microbial digestion process, NEO releases methane gas which can be captured and used to produce clean, renewable energy. Currently, more than 600 managed waste facilities—typically those in or near heavily-populated metro areas—have the technology to process these biogases, representing 80% of the U.S. waste stream. NEO adds nominal production costs and can also be recycled with other plastics.

Change is happening

As the natural products industry continues to lead the way in terms of plastic reduction efforts, company executives acknowledge the challenges associated with the movement. In the case of LesserEvil, VP of Sales David Woods said it simply made sense for the brand.

While NEO or any other sustainable packaging is more expensive, the return on investment is significant,” he said. “Consumers are looking for more sustainable options, and often don’t understand those options are out there. It can be a lightbulb moment for shoppers and an opportunity to build trust and loyalty.”

Woods said that while it is easier for LesserEvil to absorb the extra costs associated with more sustainable packaging, it is still an affordable add for co-manufactured brands. “We hope big food will follow with some of these solutions that are viable and available now,” he said.

Hartford also recognizes that making a major move like eliminating plastic bottled water is not realistic for every retail operation. Still, natural products producers and retailers shouldn’t let perfect be the enemy of good.

“Businesses should sit down and evaluate all the aspects,” she said. “Take small steps—you don’t have to go gangbusters. Provide communication to your staff and customers as to why you are making certain changes. If you have all those pieces in place, customers will support and embrace what you are doing.” 

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