Bakers Journal

Features Business and Operations
Eco-friendly plastic packaging


March 4, 2011
By Brandi Cowen


Topics

Green packaging is a growing trend that can appeal to eco-conscious consumers and build a business’s reputation for corporate social responsibility. But, like so many other choices you make for your bakery, deciding how, or whether, to introduce greener packaging can be complicated by the number of options available. Two factors you must consider are which eco-friendly option best serves your customers’ needs, and which will be the most effective. Plus, of course, cost.

Green packaging is a growing trend that can appeal to eco-conscious consumers and build a business’s reputation for corporate social responsibility. But, like so many other choices you make for your bakery, deciding how, or whether, to introduce greener packaging can be complicated by the number of options available. Two factors you must consider are which eco-friendly option best serves your customers’ needs, and which will be the most effective. Plus, of course, cost.

Remember last March, when Frito-Lay rolled out a new 100 per cent compostable SunChips bag? In a press release the company boasted: “This new package will completely break down into compost in a hot, active compost pile in approximately 14 weeks. On store shelves, it has a unique sound, the new sound of green.” That sound of green soon had consumers seeing red. The compostable bag was made from a plant-based material called polylactic acid (PLA). Unlike the materials used in traditional chip bags, PLA isn’t soft when stored at room temperature. This resulted in a loud bag that annoyed many customers (and the people around them). By October, Frito-Lay had announced it would only use the bag to package its original flavour chips for the American market; all other varieties available in the United States would switch back to traditional packaging. In Canada, it seems the noisy bag is here to stay.

Frito-Lay’s intentions were good, but they miscalculated their customers’ tolerance for inconveniences introduced through green initiatives. However, that’s not the only miscalculation the company made along the path to greener practices.

It turns out most municipally owned composting facilities don’t want residents composting bioplastics like PLA. On its website, the City of Toronto states: “Biodegradable plastics do not compost well in Toronto’s or other municipalities’ systems, regardless of whether the processing uses an anaerobic (without air) or aerobic (with air) system.” The city also warns that biodegradable plastics can ruin recycling markets, as recycled plastics are used to manufacture new products designed to be durable, such as car parts. According to the city’s website, “The presence of biodegradable plastics puts the durability of these products with recycled plastic content in peril.” Since their municipalities would rather they toss the compostable SunChips bag in with their trash anyway, why should consumers put up with the inconvenience of excessively noisy packaging?

Frito-Lay’s experience with compostable bags may seem like a case study in what not to do when rolling out green packaging, but rest assured, there are valuable lessons to be learned from the company’s mistakes.

If you’re considering making the switch to green packaging, it’s important to understand the eco-friendly options that exist for both your business and for your customers.

Recyclable plastics
Recycling processes used materials such as plastic, paper and metal into new products.

According to data collected by Statistics Canada during the last census, approximately 90 per cent of all households in Canada have access to some sort of recycling program. The proportions of households with access to recycling programs for plastics (84 per cent), paper (83 per cent) and metal cans (81 per cent) are roughly the same. This may be good news if you’re considering a switch to, or are already using, recyclable packaging. Your customers can probably pop your packaging in their blue bin, confident they’re doing their part to cut down on the amount of waste headed for the landfill.

However, not all recycling programs are created equal. There are seven different types of plastics, and your municipality’s program may accept all of them, or only a few. In Canada, plastics bear a small triangle with a number stamped in the middle. That number identifies the type of plastic an item is made from. Check with your municipality to find out which plastics your local recycling program accepts before introducing any plastic packaging as a green option.

Biodegradable plastics
There are two types of biodegradable plastics: oxo-biodegradable and hydro-degradable. Those of the first variety (also referred to as oxo-degradable plastics) are made from a byproduct of oil refining. They are designed to break down when small quantities of metal salts are added to act as catalysts, speeding up the reaction. In the right environmental conditions, these types of plastics will break down into biomass, water, and carbon dioxide – a greenhouse gas – in a few years or even a few months. In contrast, traditional plastics can take hundreds of years to break down.

According to the Oxo-Biodegradable Plastics Association, based in the United Kingdom, oxo-biodegradable plastic “does not just fragment, but is consumed by micro-organisms” after the metal salt is added. “This process continues until the material has biodegraded to nothing more than carbon dioxide, water, humus and trace elements.”

The second variety of biodegradable plastics are the hydro-degradable variety, made from plant starches. These plastics tend to break down more quickly than oxo-biodegradable varieties, converting into biomass, water, and the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane. Because these types of plastic give off more greenhouse gases than oxo-biodegradable plastics, they’re considered to be less eco-friendly. Moreover, while oxo-degradable plastics can be recycled normally, recycling hydro-degradable plastics requires special machinery.

Finally, hydro-degradable plastics may sometimes go inert and stop degrading when buried beneath other waste, deep in a landfill. If customers fail to properly dispose of packaging made from this type of plastic, or if you operate in a municipality that doesn’t accept these varieties of plastics, choosing one may undermine your efforts to go green.

If you’re thinking about making the switch to greener packaging, bear in mind the lessons to be learned from Frito-Lay’s compostable chip bag. First and foremost, consider what customers expect from your packaging. If you don’t understand their needs, you won’t be able to pick a packaging option that meets those needs. You should also be sure to do your homework. Consumers are increasingly sensitive to “greenwashing,” a term used to describe the deceptive use of green marketing to give the impression that a business or product is more eco-friendly than it really is.  Advertising that your breads are sold in recyclable plastics that aren’t actually accepted by your municipality’s recycling program can hurt your green credibility and anger eco-conscious customers. It’s also important to remember what your customers expect from your packaging, and make sure your new eco-friendly option delivers.