By Riyana Razalee
In Part 1 of this 3-part series, we’ll look at why the topic of sustainable packaging is important, some compostable plastic options, and what we had to be mindful of when exploring this option for our organic hydroponic nutrient and its potential effects on our product and customers.
When we first began exploring sustainable packaging options for our organic hydroponic nutrient, Away We Grow©, our intention was to see how far we could rethink packaging, while still delivering value to our farms as well as designing out waste to avoid leaving any carbon footprint.
The list of options was (and is) endless, exciting, and inspiring. The challenge: understanding the pros and cons of each option and how we could incorporate our specific needs as a manufacturer of liquid, water-soluble organic hydroponic nutrients sourced from vegetative byproducts.
What’s The Fuss Over Packaging?
Whether you’re B2B or B2C, consumers are attracted to good packaging. It’s in our nature, as humans, to be drawn to aesthetically beautiful things. While the definition of “good packaging” is subjective, there are common themes that are consistent for most. However, factors such as product security, ease of using the packaging, logistics of the packaging, and of course its environmental impact, are also priority. Therefore, finding the right balance between aesthetic value, but also being realistic about what works best for product was crucial.
Compostable Packaging: The Way Forward
This industry has exploded. It’s eco-friendly and in alignment with many governmental policies, so this was bound to be a game-changer. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that many business that improving their environmental efforts have either (a) shifted, (b) are shifting, or (c) are exploring shifting their packaging down this route. In fact, this industry is growing so healthily that the global compostable plastic industry generated $991.2 million in 2019, and is expected to reach $3.10 billion by 2027, with a CAGR of 15.4% from 2020 to 2027.
For us, many of our farms are serious about being mindful of their environmental impact. This is great because it aligns with what we believe in and are proponents of as well, which is closed-loop agriculture. Therefore, compostable packaging was the first place that we looked at because of its benefits. Recyclable plastic can only be recycled about 2-3 times before its quality decreases to the point where it can no longer be used. In comparison, compostable plastic can create nutrient-rich fertilizer which goes back into the food system, and it's carbon neutral.
"For us, many of our farms are serious about being mindful of their environmental impact. This is great because it aligns with what we believe in and are proponents of as well, which is closed-loop agriculture."
While we came across a range of compostable packaging options, we wanted to highlight a few which we thought were interesting (this list is non-exhaustive):
- The USDA is developing a food wrap with casein, which is a milk protein. Not only is this wrap compostable, but it’s also edible. Would our farm customers want to eat our organic hydroponic nutrient? Probably not. But we appreciated the usage of milk protein as a food wrap.
- Alter Eco, a company that wanted to find sustainable alternatives to non-recyclable flexible plastic. They developed the first-ever laminated stand-up pouch made of plant-based compostable materials, as well as a compostable wrapper made of eucalyptus and birch trees. This was interesting for us because we offer a range of sizes for our Away We Grow organic hydroponic nutrient, and so a stand-up pouch would be useful for our smaller options.
- While this isn’t a plastic, the EcoBottle is the very first paper bottle that is 100% compostable and can hold liquids and consumables for more than six months. The ability for the packaging to hold liquid without disintegrating was crucial. Additionally, because we source our product from vegetative food byproducts, we needed packaging which is FDA-approved and does not change the biology of our organic hydroponic nutrient.
- EcoVative Design, a company that uses mycelium, the root structure of mushrooms, to grow materials that replace plastics and reduce animal slaughter. As a company that also uses plant-based material and employs the idea of closed-loop agriculture, we were excited to find packaging that relied on plants to then support the growth of plants for our farmers.
"The ability for the packaging to hold liquid without disintegrating was crucial. Additionally, because we source our product from vegetative food byproducts, we needed packaging which is FDA-approved and does not change the biology of our organic hydroponic nutrient."
But Was It Right For Us?
While we are strong supporters of using compostable plastic, because our product is sold in large quantities, is liquid based, and is sourced from vegetative byproducts, we ended up facing a few roadblocks.
Firstly, we needed to find a way to transport our product to farms efficiently and sustainably without the risk of a compostable plastic disintegrating. In many cases, the compostable plastic is set up whereby it will react to water, begin dissolving, and thus the composting process will be triggered.
Furthermore, for many of these compostable plastics, it needs to be sent to a commercial composting facility where the perfect balance of heat, moisture, and oxygen is created to break down organic and plant-based materials. Access to these facilities varies based on region and so, a company needs to assess how easily either they or their customer can send their packaging to this facility. Opting to send compostable packaging to a recycling facility isn't feasible because compostable items are designed to be composted in a compost heap only, which doesn’t occur in landfills. In fact, because of the different chemical makeup of compostable packaging, it would be considered a contaminant in recycling streams.
Curating for Large-scale Manufacturing
Essentially, we realized that for large-scale manufacturers of liquid and food-based products, it was slightly challenging to find the perfect fit. What was exciting to see was that the agriculture industry is already benefitting from sustainable packaging. However in the realm of nutrient packaging, we believe there's room for innovation. We’re certain that the technology is being developed, if it’s not already out there.
As we continue to move the world of nutrients towards becoming closed loop, we hope to find a compostable packaging option that will change the direction of this industry. If there are any companies that are already doing this, we’re always looking for innovative ideas and would love to chat.
"What was exciting to see was that the agriculture industry is already benefitting from sustainable packaging. However in the realm of nutrient packaging, we believe there's room for innovation."
In part II of this series, we will explore the option of recyclable plastics and its role in the movement of sustainable packaging.