We’re becoming more aware of and concerned by how plastic is damaging human and planetary health.
You might know, for example, that one plastic water bottle takes at least 450 years to decompose. And yet, Americans still only recycle 30% of them. This plastic waste is killing millions of wild animals every year. Nearly all plastic – 99% – is made from fossil fuels, so it also has a major impact on climate change.
Other than decreasing our consumption altogether, we’re told the best action we can take to alleviate the harm plastic causes is to swap to alternatives. The second best is to recycle the plastic we do use.
There are initiatives across the world and in many industries to drive plastic use down. The plant-based food industry is no exception, as many vegan companies see the aim of reducing plastics as part of their ethos to create a more compassionate, healthy, and eco-friendly food system.
Impact Snacks, a start-up offering vegan bars, uses plastic-free, plant-based and home-compostable packaging that has a carbon-negative supply chain, meaning that the company is removing more carbon than it emits each year.
“When we decided to start selling bars and realized the existing packaging options were all petroleum-based, we were frustrated and disappointed,” says Corey Nobile, Impact Snacks’ founder and chief executive. “After significant research, hours of testing and recipe tweaking, we had a bar that worked with our wrapper, a wrapper that worked with the manufacturing machines, and a supply chain that was so green it passed our strict standards.”
Since Impact Snacks was embedded with alternatives to plastic as a priority from the start, it didn’t require any changes to its supply chain or budget. Nobile acknowledges that changing from plastics to alternatives wouldn’t have been as straightforward – but argues it’s not impossible.
“The alternatives definitely exist, but there is room for improvement,” Nobile says.
But switching to plastic alternatives isn’t straightforward, according to No Evil Foods, who produce a range of plant-based meats. The company is built on the values of encouraging flexitarians – people who primarily eat plant-based foods but occasionally include animal products in their diet – to reduce their consumption of animal-based meat, and helping reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, land and water use and pollution, and deforestation.
“But as we work to solve one problem, we don’t want to lose sight of how we’re contributing to another, and plastic waste is a big one,” says Sadrah Schadel, No Evil Foods’ co-founder and chief creative officer. “It comes down to recognizing a need for a more sustainable food system. The consequences of our reliance on single-use plastic can’t be ignored,” she says.
Schadel argues that companies participating in the creation of waste have a responsibility to lead the way with addressing its management and disposal. Recycling isn’t good enough, she adds, since the majority of plastic waste still ends up in landfills, oceans and other waterways, where they impact the ecosystem.
“People think recycling is working,” she says. “The problem is, everything we’re told about the benefits and success of recycling in our country is wrong – every single piece of plastic ever manufactured is still in existence today.”
No Evil Foods uses a kraft paperboard printed with plant-based inks to ensure its carton can be recycled or composted at home – but the product inside it wrapped in plastic. The company is currently plastic-negative, which means it offsets all the plastic it uses in its packaging. Specifically, this means that, for every pound of plastic in its packages, it removes two pounds from natural ecosystems.
However, the company is still in the process of finding a suitable alternative to plastic packaging for its products.
“We’ll keep turning over every stone until we find it,” Schadel says.
No Evil Foods is putting pressure on manufacturers to develop alternatives to plastic that meet its needs. In the meantime, the company uses the barriers to switching from plastic as an opportunity to start an important conversation.
“When consumers hear about our biodegradable packaging, they don’t expect to find the product inside to be wrapped in plastic, and they let us know that,” she says. “We approach this as a teaching moment and an opportunity to share the barriers to removing plastic from our food product while maintaining quality and safety standards.”
As demand for food that’s good to our bodies and the planet continues to grow, Nobile and Schadel agree that consumers will be increasingly pushing for companies to integrate plastic alternatives into their businesses.
“Consumers are beginning to demand more from the brands they buy from, and select companies based on value-fit,” Nobile says.
Schadel is frustrated that more companies aren’t taking responsibility for their plastic waste.
“Most packaging labelled ‘compostable’ requires special disposal in industrial composting facilities to adequately break down, she says. “Our cartons are appropriate for backyard compost piles, and they’re also recyclable. Brands of all sizes need to continuously make the demand for affordable, sustainable options; we need to do more than manage the piles of waste we create – we need to prevent it from being created in the first place.”
Schadel recognizes that making sustainable packaging decisions can create many challenges, including difficulty sourcing innovative packaging and overcoming prohibitive costs based on their purchasing volumes.
This is particularly the case for companies in the plant-based space, which are generally smaller and newer compared to other, bigger and more established industries, such as the fashion industry and the manufacturing industry. Even big brands have struggled with this, according to reports.
But the more that smaller organizations can manage it, the better, Schadel says.
“Emerging brands are leading with their choices and hopefully, pushing large, established corporations to do better. We need them on board, making the same demands for cost effective, sustainable alternatives, if we’re going to see success through broad adoption,” she says.
It will become easier, Nobile agrees, as more companies make the switch to plastic alternatives and make them cheaper and more accessible.
“At the moment, the two biggest issues are that plastic-alternative packaging is still more expensive because the scale isn’t there, and manufacturers either don’t have machines that can run the alternative packaging film, or they don’t want to run the film because the alternative material slows down production,” he says.
Some brands have been able to get close to plastic-free, but find many barriers along the way.
Kailey Donewald, founder and chief executive of Sacred Serve, which makes plant-based gelato, spent four years finding a partner to eliminate plastic from the brand’s packaging. This was partly because the start-up was operating on a small scale.
“The technology existed [plastic-free paperboard coating], but our packaging manufacturer was unwilling to import the sustainable paperboard we wanted because we were running such limited volume as an emerging brand,” Donewald says. “We had to come to market with plastic, albeit a slightly more sustainable option than regular pints, but we never stopped seeking out better solutions.”
The brand switched to a new supplier, that helped Sacred Serve transition to a more sustainable option – but it hasn’t been an easy process.
“Companies aren’t making the switch because it’s an enormous undertaking and more costly, Donewald says. “I think it will take more consumer pushback to get larger brands to take action.”
Currently, the technology doesn’t exist to allow ice cream packaging to be recyclable.
“We will be the first, with many to closely follow,” she adds.
As consumers become increasingly receptive and responsive to climate change and other environmental challenges, demand for companies to ditch plastics will undoubtedly ramp up. And while the barriers making it difficult for small companies to do so remain, being honest with consumers about these barriers will prove impactful, too. And hopefully, with time, those barriers will disappear. The planet and all its inhabitants would be better for it.
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