Reducing plastic packaging
Where are we now?
We’re using stand up pouches made right here in the UK. They don’t need a lot of extra packaging to post because they’re thin, strong and lightweight. They are made with fewer materials than rigid packaging such as jars, tins and tubs, plus the energy used to transport them is lower than for packaging that has been imported from outside the UK, or indeed for any of the more rigid packaging options. Our pouches are also made in small quantities, so we never have to dispose of any out-of-date packaging: waste is kept to a minimum.
The bad news is they’re made out of paper and single use plastic.
What are we doing about it?
We’ve tested various materials such as paper, glass, steel, aluminium, recyclable plastic, home compostable bioplastic and recycled plastic. While they all have their pros and cons, having carried out shelf life testing and assessing the Life Cycle Analysis of each material, the outcome is that right now a thin recyclable plastic pouch made in the UK is probably going to be the best option for striking the balance between keeping our whey protein fresh and keeping the environmental footprint of our packaging as low as we can. However, we are still assessing a few new bioplastic and non-plastic innovations with the hope of making the switch to something better in the near future.
Plastic litter and the fossil fuels that plastic is made from have been devastating to wildlife around the world, but other packaging materials bring their own flavour of environmental devastation too. Did you know fewer greenhouse gases are emitted making plastic than for almost all other commercially available packaging materials? Even recycled materials don’t always get off lightly; recycling paper, glass and metals can require more energy than manufacturing regular plastic. On the other hand, carbon footprint analyses don’t normally include the environmental cost of having to clean up plastic litter.
It is undeniable that greenhouse gas emissions are responsible for rising global temperatures, so I find it worrying to see so many companies switching to paper, glass, metals and bioplastics without also cutting down on the amount of packaging or offering a compelling reason for people to re-use the packaging after the first use.
In an ideal world we would offer a refill system so you could fill your own container, or offer our own returnable containers for people to return and reuse repeatedly but unfortunately, as we send our whey protein to people all over the UK and Europe, packaging reduction must instead be our top priority while improving recyclability as best we can.
How are we reducing our packaging?
- We've already reduced the size of our pouches quite a bit, so the next step is using a single material for the pouch (as opposed to multiple layers of different plastics and paper, as is currently the case), which will also enable them to be recycled anywhere that accepts plastic bags for recycling – while this is far from ideal, I don’t yet see a better solution for our specific situation.
- We are considering removing the resealable zippers from our pouches, as this is an aspect of the packaging that I don’t think is essential and the majority of people we surveyed were ok with us removing them.
- Tape-free packaging: at the moment if you’re ordering up to 5 packs then we will post your order in a box that doesn’t need any tape. They are also resealable, so if you need to return your order you don’t need to use tape either.
- We are in the process of making each box fit our pouches perfectly, so we can stop using paper padding to protect the pouches in transit. For bigger orders we may still need to use paper padding, however.
- We stopped sending a scoop in each pack back in 2017 and now only offer them as a paid option for those who feel they really need one. They are made in the UK from plastic and this is something we are ok with, as they can be used for years without needing a replacement. We could import wooden or metal scoops from China as a way of offering an affordable alternative, but that would likely increase the carbon footprint, only for the sake of appearing to be more environmentally friendly.
- Our thank you cards are made using 100% recycled materials, but we are shrinking the size of these and may look at removing them completely.
What about bioplastic?
Bioplastics come in all sorts of different forms and are normally labelled as compostable plastic or “plastic-free” plastic. Some of these materials can provide the necessary strength and barriers from moisture and air that our whey protein needs, by using multiple materials laminated together, some of which is fossil fuel-derived to improve the strength.
I don’t believe this a great substitute for recyclable plastic, as the chemicals in the material are unlikely to fully break down during the composting process and as far as I can tell they have a bigger carbon footprint than regular plastic, partly because there are multiple materials being shipped from manufacturers in different countries. What’s more, as with any compostable packaging there is still scant support for bioplastic composting from local councils and apparently 97% of people don’t even own a compost bin. Another point worth making is that if one of these compostable pouches ends up in the sea it is unlikely to break down for quite a long time. We’ve had one such pouch submerged in a jar of water for 6 months and it is still very much intact! We are still assessing the current crop of bioplastic materials though, so the jury is still out on whether or not bioplastics are going to be a viable replacement for regular plastic in our situation.
Looking at the bigger picture, if all fossil fuel-derived plastic packaging was replaced with bioplastics right now, a disturbingly large amount of deforestation (and/or destruction of other natural habitats) would have to happen in order to create the vast amount of additional agricultural land needed to support the switch.
The future of bioplastics looks promising though, with innovations involving the use of agricultural waste or even bacteria as the source material for bioplastic packaging, giving us hope for packaging with a significantly smaller environmental footprint than fossil fuel-derived plastics. If global plastic waste management also improves significantly, we could finally end up with a truly sustainable packaging system to replace the array of environmentally damaging materials we are currently stuck with.
Our continued use of plastic, albeit begrudgingly and sparingly, may not be the most popular move but until something legitimately better comes along this appears to be our best option for minimising the environmental footprint of our packaging. I believe increasing greenhouse gas emissions are still the biggest threat to our planet, therefore in our situation where going packaging-free isn’t yet feasible, using minimal quantities of plastic seems to be the most sensible choice. However, we desperately need plastic waste management to improve significantly or for a viable replacement to come along, as we can’t continue with the status quo indefinitely. We will continue testing new packaging innovations with the aim of transitioning away from plastic altogether when we find a truly sustainable alternative.
Plastic vs other traditional packaging materials:
- Life Cycle Impacts Of Plastic Packaging Compared To Substitutes In The United States And Canada (Franklin Associates, April 2018)
- The impact of plastics on life cycle energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions in Europe (Denkstatt GmbH, June 2010)
- Rapid uptake of plastic alternatives could increase pollution, MPs warn (Natural Productrs Online, September 2019)
- What's the real price of getting rid of plastic packaging? (BBC, July 2018)
- Plastic Has A Big Carbon Footprint — But That Isn't The Whole Story (NPR, July 2019)
- Which is more environmentally friendly: paper or plastic? (howstuffworks, no date)
- Why glass jars aren’t necessarily better for the environment than plastic ones (The Washington Post, June 2014)
Plastic vs bioplastic:
- The Truth About Bioplastics (Columbia University, December 2018)
- If plastic is the problem, is bioplastic the solution? (Social Innovation Japan, July 2019)
- Everything you need to know about plant-based plastics (National Geographic, November 2018)
- “Biodegradable” Plastics: A Myth of Marketing? (Elsevier B.V., January 2017)