Convenient Truth: Bio Bags

Tuija Seipell
November 13, 2008
Written by Tuija Seipell
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A loaf of European Breads’ barley bread in the bakery’s new biodegradable packaging.
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A loaf of European Breads’ gluten-free buckwheat bread.
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European Breads assistant baker Yana Mozhehil displays a Napoleon cake.
In October, European Breads Bakery in Vancouver became one of the first Canadian bakeries to start selling its breads in biodegradable bags. This bold and groundbreaking move will prevent approximately 200,000 plastic bags from potentially hitting the landfills each year.

“If we can convince just four more bakeries to do the same, we’ll have a million fewer plastic bags littering the world,” says Vera Kobalia. She is the 27-year-old daughter of the bakery’s founder, Otari Kobalia, and the person responsible for the bakery’s switch to biodegradable packaging.

The Great Garbage Patch
Unless you have lived in a complete media block-out, you have most likely heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It is the ever-growing island of garbage gathered up over the last century in one of the most remote spots of open water in the world, the North Pacific Gyre. Alternately described as being the size of Texas or twice the size of Texas, this massive, ever-growing floating disaster forms because all the trash in the water rides the ocean currents and eventually ends up in this one spot.

The people responsible for this disaster are us – the three generations of the “Plastic Era.” Prior to the past century, everything in the world was biodegradable. When stuff floated into the gyre, it broke down into nutrients for fish and other marine life. But all the plastic ever made in the world still exists, and that is bad news for the environment and consequently for the human race.

These facts began to concern Vera Kobalia in 2005 after she attended a lecture at the University of British Columbia by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore. This speaking tour preceded the 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth, which won the documentary Oscar in 2007 and helped earn Gore the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

Not only did Vera hear what Gore had to say, she decided to do something about it. By doing so, she has joined the impressive list of leading manufacturers, retailers and other companies around the globe who have made environmental concerns and sustainability part of their basic company values.

Research
After the lecture, Vera started doing research into environmental packaging, and into recycled, recyclable and biodegradable options. “I was glad that stores had started to promote reusable bags at the check-outs, but what about food that already came in plastic bags, like our breads?” she asked.

She asked her Vancouver-based supplier, Ango Promotions, to start looking as well. Was there a biodegradable option they could use? She also attended food industry trade shows and realized that the concept of biodegradable bags was still young and there were no local manufacturers. Eventually, Ango found a bag manufactured in China. It is not clear, but slightly opaque. It costs about 7 per cent more than European Breads’ previous, conventional bags, but the bakery has not increased its prices because of it.

Composition of the biodegradable bags
The composition of the degradable bags is 80 per cent high-density polyethylene (HDPE) mixed with 20 per cent ST+MD. ST+MD is a type of a degradable material made of corn amylum. After the bag is used or buried underground, the animalcule in the air or underground will “eat” the HDPE, causing the bag to disappear, usually within three to five months.
 
Thousands of years of tradition
Being environmentally conscious fits well with the overall philosophy of European Breads Bakery, established in 2001 by Otari, who wanted to honour the thousands of years of baking tradition of his homeland, Georgia, a former Soviet Republic perched on the transcontinental divide between Europe and Asia, and Russia and Turkey.

Dedication to quality and the use of the best possible ingredients are part of the old style of bread making, as are the passion, feel and touch that each baker brings to each handmade loaf.

“When you love the process, everything works well,” Otari says. “You cannot make a film or a painting if you don’t love it. Baking is the same.”

The bakery specializes almost entirely in wholesale, although its small storefront cafe is a regular stop for those who love the heavier, stronger Eastern European artisan breads. Baked with organic ingredients by bakers from Georgia; St. Petersburg, Russia; Ukraine and elsewhere, European Breads’ 25 different kinds of loaves have become a common sight at nearly 60 food stores and restaurants in British Columbia. These include Urban Fare, Meinhardt’s, Capers/Whole Foods Markets and Stong’s Market.

The bakery’s bestselling bread is the earthy, organic Georgian Baguette that Vancouver Sun food critic Mia Stainsby described as being “shaped like a long baby alligator” and having a “satisfying teeth tug and inviting hollows for fillings.” The same loaf earned a spot on Vancouver Magazine’s 101 Things to Taste Before You Die, a list that was compiled from the best of British Columbia’s tasty food experiences.

One of the first stores to receive European Breads loaves in the new biodegradable bags was the Capers/Whole Foods Market on Cambie Street in Vancouver. Bakery team leader Huguette LeBlanc says that the move to the new bags is extremely positive.

“These are challenging times for the bakery industry so it is doubly positive to see European Breads make this move,” she says. “We are really excited to see this happen as it fits perfectly with our core values. And it just makes us love European Breads bakery even more.”

By late October, after nearly a month, LeBlanc had not received any complaints from customers about the opaque bag.

“Our customers are pretty empowered consumers, so we’d know if our customers didn’t like the bag,” she says.

With concerned consumers tugging at one end and eco-minded retailers pulling at the other, biodegradable bags will most likely become more common. The Kobalias hope that more bakeries, other food producers and non-food manufacturers will move into biodegradable plastics sooner rather than later. “When there is a good demand, some local manufacturer will start making them, and then we can all buy biodegradable bags made in Canada and that would make them even more eco-friendly,” says Vera Kobalia.

For more information:
• European Breads Bakery:  www.europeanbreads.com
• Ango Promotions:  www.angopromo.com
• About the Great Pacific Garbage Patch: 
  www.vbs.tv/shows/toxic/garbage-island/

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