Organic companies explore cutting their use of plastic

Finding solutions to plastic pollution is a growing concern for many organic companies--and consumers. For Javier Zamora, owner of JSM Organics on California’s Central Coast, using non-plastic packaging is a choice he made more than three years ago for packing berries and vegetables.

“A lot of our customers were concerned about the use of plastic clamshell packaging, and it was also a personal concern for me,” he says.

When faced with the opportunity to avoid the use of plastic containers and instead use biodegradable cardboard-like compostable containers, Zamora said he immediately agreed.

Although he admits the new containers are four to five times more expensive that the price of plastic, he is quick to add, “But the results are 100 percent better!”

Zamora reports that his customers have expressed their delight in the paperboard packaging.

“By using non-plastic containers, we make our customers happy and at the same time we do something good for the environment,” he says. Organic farmers, he notes, strive to leave the land and the environment in good or better shape than they found it, adding. “That is definitely a personal goal of mine.”

Farming on more than 100 acres, Zamora’s certified organic berry and vegetable operation recently became a member of the Organic Trade Association. A mentor to other farmers and a leading voice in the local organic community, he received the Organic Trade Association’s Rising Star Leadership Award in 2018.

Partnering with packaging firms

The source JSM Organics uses is Sambrailo Packaging in Watsonville, California. Its sustainable packaging known as ReadyCycle is made using 100 percent recyclable cardboard that is biodegradable, contains no wax or plastic, uses food-grade adhesive, offers fully customizable structural design and branding, and is printed with vegetable-based inks.

“We began working on the concept about four years ago,” says Sara Lozano, Sambrailo Packaging’s Marketing Manager, explaining that the recycling infrastructure was suffering, and markets were closing overseas for handling plastics. By 2019, there was no recycling outlet for anything that contained low contaminants--such as paper labels and hot pack glue. Instead, recyclers reject it as contaminated PET.

“We first introduced this packaging to small- to medium-size organic farms that served consumers who would support the use of this packaging--people who were looking for something that they knew intuitively was not detrimental to the environment,” Lozano says. The paperboard is designed to break down easily in two to four months. The first customer?

Javier Zamora!

The main hurdle for wider adoption is cost, Lozano says. “It isn’t for everyone yet as it isn’t price competitive to PET.” Natural independent grocers and co-ops, however, are interested as their customers are generally willing to pay more for organic and for packaging that is better for the environment.

“It is really exciting to see the packages in the store. It is a great opportunity for educating consumers who want to reduce plastic packaging in the aisles,” she adds.

Orders for ReadyCycle packaging are currently concentrated in California and the Pacific Northwest, although co-ops in other parts of the country are starting to make queries. In Ohio, Dorothy Lane Markets now offer cherry and grape tomatoes in this packaging.

“The more media attention we get, the more this packaging makes sense to consumers,” she says, adding that as the volume increases, the company plans to expand its operations to balance production to meet rising demand.

Plant-based alternatives

Organic Trade Association member Coconut Bliss, a family-owned plant-based organic ice cream company based in Eugene, Oregon, is using eco-friendly pint packaging that is the first of its kind. The pint cup packaging is made with plant-based bio resin polyethylene, sourced from the husks of sugar cane, as an alternative to petroleum-based polyethylene resin material. The packaging is made from 97 percent bio-based resources.

According to Darcey Howard, the company’s Director of Marketing, Coconut Bliss was seeking a packaging solution that fit with its mission of supporting organic and sustainability. “What we were looking for wasn’t available,” she explains. Coconut Bliss was undertaking a complete rebrand, and saw this as an opportunity to address its concerns about packaging and commitment to sustainability.

Coconut Bliss was already using recycled paperboard, but it hadn’t found a vapor barrier for the packaging necessary for frozen products that wasn’t petroleum-based. It connected with Stanpac--a manufacturer of packaging supplies for the dairy, food and beverage industries--based in Toronto that was receptive to exploring innovative options. Stanpac then partnered with Braskem, a chemical company that created the sugar cane-based polymer, to provide the packaging Coconut Bliss now uses.

Although the packaging is more expensive than using plastic, Coconut Bliss is not passing on that added expense to its customers. “We are using the eco-friendly packaging based on our own values,” Howard explains, noting that Coconut Bliss, a woman-led company, values social justice and sustainability, and partners with the Water, Agroforestry, Nutrition and Development Foundation to provide business opportunities for women in the Philippines.

Coconut Bliss encourages other brands to also use less petroleum-based polymers for the sake of the planet’s health. Although this new packaging can’t be composted, it will break down in a landfill without leaving any petroleum residues.

Beetnik tests alternatives

Also exploring options, Beetnik Foods is an Austin, Texas, based organic food brand specializing in organic gluten-free, humanely raised, grass-fed beef and chicken frozen entrées. It is also another Organic Trade Association member company.

Beetnik Foods offers frozen and refrigerated meals that can be heated in a conventional or microwave oven, so that more consumers can eat organic foods conveniently and affordably. The brand is testing paperboard trays in its single-serve frozen meal line that are biodegradable, not just recyclable.

“We would like to see two compartment paperboard trays, as they could provide the opportunity to offer an even higher quality meal product,” says David Perkins, Beetnik Foods CEO.

The brand also continues to search for a solution for handling its 30-ounce product offerings. Although paperboard trays are available for the smaller 10 - 12 oz. products, there are none that have been found workable for the larger size -- where there is a greater chance for buckling or weakness, posing a risk of possible spillage and burns when handling the heated larger quantities.

Beetnik Foods is also looking for solutions to reduce its footprint on the environment. Currently, the tray liners applied to all trays are not fully biodegradable but they’re working on solutions that might address that issue. As a smaller company in the food industry it’s not always possible to get large packaging companies to move in lock step with the brand’s goals and priorities, “…but we’re pretty tenacious,” Perkins says.

“We share a deep commitment with organic consumers to environmental issues, and expect environmentally friendly, sustainable, recyclable and fully biodegradable packaging. However, we still have a long way to go,” says Perkins, adding, “As an organic company, we’re driven by our sense of values. It’s in our DNA to do the right thing.”

Steps under way

Recently, Pete & Gerry’s Organic Eggs launched a pilot program to introduce reusable egg cartons to reduce the use of plastic egg cartons. The move is meant to foster sustainability and decrease replying upon packaging materials that require large amounts of fossil fuels to make. The company maintains that research has shown that recycled plastic is more environmentally friendly because the process in marking egg cartons from recycled plastic results in less of a carbon footprint than the process involved with making molded fiber cartons.

Meanwhile, Happy Family Organics is aggressively tackling the package issue with its recent pledge to become the first organic baby food brand in the U.S. to make its packaging fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.

“At Happy Family Organics, we’re far more than producers of organic baby food. We aim to be pioneers in sustainable agriculture and manufacturing practices, knowing that the health of our planet affects the long-term health of our children,” says Anne Laraway, CEO of Happy Family Organic. “These commitments are a step in the right direction, and we recognize that global, systemic change is needed to truly make an impact.”

One of Happy Family Organics’ primary packaging initiatives is developing a recyclable spouted pouch – a convenient format for parents feeding children on-the-go. The pouches require less energy to produce, use fewer raw materials and have lower greenhouse gas emissions compared to alternatives, but they still end up in landfills. The company says that currently, there is not a scalable end-of-life solution for multi-layer film, but that it is actively working with suppliers to develop solutions to improve its packaging supply chain. The company is partnering with leading sustainability organizations to help scale its initiatives, and encourages other companies to join this global commitment to create a more sustainable future for our children and grandchildren.

As the Organic Trade Association’s Farm Policy Director Johanna Mirenda explains, “At each step of the supply chain, folks are focusing on how and whether we can reduce plastic use. But this is not just an environmental question. There is also its impact on human health--not only whether toxic compounds from plastic can get in food, but from a food safety point, that plastics are also used to keep food or products from spoilage and from contamination that can threaten human health.” //