WHY WE DECIDED NOT TO SWITCH TO COMPOSTABLE PACKAGING
Since the beginning Quinn has been constantly pushing to Be Better and Do Better in all aspects of our business, including packaging. Both climate scientists and consumers are increasingly pushing for a transition away from fossil fuel-based plastic. With this in mind we set our sights on reducing and eliminating petroleum-based plastic packaging in our products.
Last fall we were selected for the Boulder County Pollution-Reduced Packaging Pilot with the initial goal of transitioning some of our plastic packaging to compostable options. Through our work over the past few months we learned a ton about compostable plastics and the industrial composting system. Ultimately we made the decision not to switch to compostable packaging for now and instead focus more of our efforts on ingredient sourcing, while reducing our use of virgin plastic where possible.
Industrial Composting is Still Widely Inaccessible and Many Facilities Don’t Want Compostable Plastics
Currently 27% of the US population has access to industrial composting (the type of facility needed to process compostable plastics), but only 15% of composting facilities accept compostable packaging, according to a study by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. Many facilities are hesitant to accept compostable plastics because they lack the resources to sort out “lookalike contamination”, non-compostable packaging that looks similar to compostable options. Composting facilities also need their materials to convert to finished compost quickly, usually within 30-45 days, so they are able to sell finished products more often. Compostable plastics often take 90-180 days to fully decompose. Finally, compostable plastic, unlike kitchen scraps and other food waste, doesn’t add many nutrients to the final product.
Responsibly Sourced Compostable Materials Are Difficult to Find and Expensive
The first generation of compostable plastics were made out of corn-based PLA, often from industrially-farmed, genetically-modified corn. Current versions of PLA are non-GMO, but often come from industrial farming practices with very little traceability and are manufactured overseas. Newer options like eucalyptus-based bioplastics are becoming more widely available, but often have extremely high price points (more than twice the cost of petroleum options) that are prohibitively expensive for small brands like Quinn.
Ingredient Impact is 10x Greater than Packaging Impact
Packaging is an important, but often very small part of a product’s overall environmental impact. For most packaged food companies, like Quinn, the environmental impact of ingredients is roughly 60-70% of the company footprint. The packaging footprint is only 6%. One of the biggest advantages of plastic is that it does a great job of keeping food fresh. Compostable options currently available just don’t have the same barrier properties needed to keep our products from going bad on the shelf. While we are very concerned about the environmental and personal health impacts of the plastic crisis, we also need to ensure the work of growing, processing, transporting, and manufacturing our products doesn’t end up contributing to the growing food waste crisis.
So, given everything we learned here’s how we’re moving forward with sustainable packaging:
- Reducing the amount of virgin plastic in our packaging by integrating at least 30% post consumer recycled (PCR) materials into our Pop-at-Home Kernel and Pretzel packaging by 2023
- Exploring additional ways to reduce our use of plastics in all our packaging
- Continually re-visiting options for compostable packaging as the industry continues to evolve
This process has been eye-opening for us and we hope by sharing what we have learned you can better understand the challenges faced by small companies trying to make a difference. We know the landscape of sustainability is constantly changing, so we’re committed to continually re-evaluating our packaging strategy as new materials and technologies become available over the next few years. In our quest to use snacks as a force for good we’re always focused on progress over perfection.