It’s great to have packaging that’s made from renewable resources and that is natural and compostable. But what about the lids or wrappings that are more than often also required with the package? To provide our produce customers with a more integrated solution we’ve had to search around the world for partners that could provide us with the right product.

Vexar is a certified commercially compostable netting brand carried by Conwed which we like because their nets are, of course, compostable, but also breathable, gentle and reusable.  Also, we like the flexible film product called NatureFlexTM made by Innovia Films, a company best known for their Cellophane brand.

The NatueFlex film is great and what’s needed today because it is certified home compostable by the European OK Home Compost standard as well as the ASTM D6400 and the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI). This is possible because the film is made from cellulose derived from wood pulp, which is harvested from managed plantations.

Innovia makes the film available in heat sealable bags or as wrap format that can be micro or macro perforated for added breathability. The application is quite broad from fresh produce packaging, to bakery items, and to confection and convenience food wrapping to name a few.

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The word Switzerland conjures up the image of finance, impartiality, watches, Swiss Army knives, pharmaceuticals, and yes, chocolate! We’ve also historically heard about the Swiss efficiency – but how does the country stack up on the environmental side – in particular waste management and recycling? I didn’t have to dig long to find various hits boasting about what a role model the country has been in this area.

It turns out that the Swiss do not landfill their municipal waste. In fact, since 2000, everything that cannot be recycled or composted gets incinerated – given that two-thirds of Switzerland is covered by mountains, I can see why! So we wonder about the air – wouldn’t that create an incredible amount of pollution and health hazards? Apparently the incinerators are so advanced, that the air pollution is minimal. But what is minimal? In any case, the incinerators are used to produce energy and the 28 facilities in Switzerland generate electricity for 250,000 homes – pretty impressive. What’s more, this substantially decreases the amount of oil imports required for heating.

On the recycling end, the Swiss can proudly claim to be among the top recyclers in the world. They’ll recycle about 76 percent of everything that’s recyclable or around 50% of all urban waste. To give you a point of reference, the US urban recycling rate is around 30 percent and our Canadian efforts are hovering around the same level. So how does Switzerland do it? Is the country so much more concerned about the environment than we are? Not necessarily. There’s a system in place – namely financial incentives and having the infrastructure in place to make it convenient for citizens to do their job.

While recycling is free, the waste removal is not. In fact, there is a per bag fee of about 1 Euro and each bag requires a sticker to provide proof of payment – no sticker no pick-up. Apparently the fine for not paying your waste disposal fee can be up to $10,000 if you’re caught.

But if the Government is going to have such fees attached to waste disposal, then access to proper waste management and recycling needs to be in place. Pretty much every super market in Switzerland has a bottle bank (with separate slots for different glass colours!) and batteries can be handed over at the counter. Every town has free paper and green waste pick up and there are plenty of specialty sites available for aluminum, tin, oil or chemical waste among others. In addition, consumers can leave all unwanted packaging at the cash register to leave the onus of wasteful packaging on the suppliers.

Once again, the Swiss efficiency seems to shine.

Sources:

Swissworld.com: Recycling
Swissworld.com: Waste Management
Stats Canada: Recycling in Canada
Wikipedia: Waste Management in Switzerland
Few holes in Switzerland’s Recycling Program
Recycling In Switzerland

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The other day someone asked in response to my story on the “Trailblazers for Good” blog on Care2.com whether or not I would consider influencing and bringing about change in the palm oil industry? Well, the quick and high-level answer is yes – this has been my intention from the beginning – to create change in the industry by helping to create positive role models and economically viable alternatives for the disposal of palm waste. We recently had a discussion with a large palm oil plantation company in Malaysia and they agree that our company “represented the future of the industry.”

We became one of the early members of the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), have volunteered to get a third party review done and verification to ensure the ethical sourcing of our raw palm fiber material, and continue to work with our supplier plantation to make improvements, measuring ourselves against the guidelines of the RSPO among others. And it really goes further than this.

After living in South East Asia for 15 years and returning to Canada, I was looking to develop a business concept that would allow me to not only address and help contribute to the sustainable development of the palm oil industry and a better quality of life and working conditions for those affected by the incineration of palm waste, but to also find a way to simultaneously address North America’s mounting waste problem, and the environmental and health hazards brought on by plastics. This is how Earthcycle Packaging was born!

Lofty goals? Maybe. But for me it is about aligning my values, passion and skills to affect incremental change in the short-term to hopefully inspire and bring about the necessary transformational change in the future.

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Because our company’s mission is so entwined with the palm oil industry and I have been around the Malaysian palm oil industry for over eight years, I sometimes get questions here in North America about the palm oil industry as a whole and its sustainability.

Here in North America, while we are generally aware of the controversies surrounding the palm oil production, we are largely unfamiliar with the bright orange and red clusters of palm fruit that grow on giant husks – the fruits that are the source for the oil that ends up as an ingredient in a wide range of food and beauty products all over the world. More than 70 percent of palm oil is derived from plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia, with Malaysia being the largest exporter of palm oil, feeding three billion people in over 150 countries.

The palm oil industry as a whole is a substantial part of the global economy, providing vital employment for over 6 million people. Palm oil is also highly efficient—it is eight times more productive per acre than soybean oil, and accounts for roughly a third of the world demand for vegetable oils. Palm oil is trans-fat free and provides many nutritional health benefits including antioxidants and vitamins. As such, it is a main source of calories and nutrition for people in developing nations.

In Malaysia, palm oil plantations make up two-thirds of Malaysia’s agricultural land which is 20 percent of the total land. Rainforests make up 60 percent of the total land. As such, 80 percent of Malaysia is green tree covered which makes it one of the largest carbon sinks in the world. According to the American Palm Oil Council, over the past twenty years, the areas converted for palm cultivation came from pre-existing farms such as rubber, cocoa, and coconut or from agricultural zoned land.

In recent years, the price for palm oil has jumped by 70 percent due to increasing demand from traditional food sources and from new demand for palm oil in the form of biodiesel, which in many cases is being subsidized by western governments. This hunger for palm oil has not only had a major impact on household expenditures in the developing world, but has also threatened the lush, diverse rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra that are home to numerous endangered species, such as orang-utans.

Enter the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). We became one of the early members of this organization. The RSPO is unique in that it brings together groups that would normally be on opposite sides of the table, to define and certify sustainability in the palm oil industry. Members of the RSPO include social and environmental NGO’s (including WWF), grassroots organizations and members along the entire supply chain—plantation owners, millers, traders, retailers and financiers. The RSPO agreed on a set of Principles and Criteria for the Production of Sustainable Palm Oil in 2005, launching the certification system in 2007. It was definitely high time for such an initiative.

Have a look at the CNBC 2008 Story on the palm oil industry challenges and RSPO’s efforts to address them – it’s a worthwhile clip

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In addition, here are further sources of interest:

American Palm Oil Council
Wikipedia – Palm Oil
Quick Info on Palm Oil
A healthful Diet can include Palm Oil
Roundtable For Sustainable Palm Oil

RSPO on Sustainable Palm Oil Industry

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A few weeks ago I was invited to contribute our Earthcycle story to the “Trailblazers for Good” blog on the Care2.com site. It sparked a variety of interesting comments and questions on the palm oil industry which I will address in this and the next few blog posts. Let’s start with the question of where we source our raw fiber material.

More than 70 percent of palm oil is derived from plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia, where the first palm trees were planted in the 1800’s. Earthcycle’s products are made from a waste product of the palm oil industry. Specifically, our packaging material is a moulded pulp product made from the husks where the palm fruit grows.

Before founding Earthcycle Packaging, I lived in South East Asia for 15 years where I became well aware of the destructive tendencies of industrial agriculture and the impact excessive demand was having on the natural world. It is well known that there are some areas that have been desecrated and we do not condone it – as such, we have veered away from doing business (licensing technology, sourcing raw material) from areas of the world that don’t have a mindset toward sustainability or don’t have the wherewithal to invest in RSPO certification.

We chose our suppliers of palm fiber carefully and also became an early member of the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). The RSPO is a unique organization, bringing together groups that would normally be on opposite sides of the table, to define and certify sustainability in the palm oil industry. Members of the RSPO include social and environmental NGO’s, grassroots organizations and members along the entire supply chain—plantation owners, millers, traders, retailers and financiers. The RSPO agreed on a set of Principles and Criteria for the Production of Sustainable Palm Oil in 2005, launching the certification system in 2007.

It was important to me to get a third party review done on our Malaysian plantation partners so we commissioned SGS Qualipalm, an authorized auditor for the RSPO to assess our source of palm fiber against the RSPO defined guidelines for land title, High Conservation Value (HCV) areas and agrochemical use.

Based on the SGS Qualipalm report, we can safely say that our partner plantation first planted palm trees in 1976, and has existing legal documentation for land titles and proof of occupation and use. The location is in an area of Peninsular Malaysia where there are no significant High Conservation Value (HCV) forests or wildlife habitats. No orang-utans were lost in development of the plantation since Peninsular Malaysia has not recorded sittings of orang-utans. Sittings of species protected under Malaysian law on the plantation include monitor lizards, barn owls and forest cats. Also, the assessment confirmed that there has been no conversion of Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESAs) to oil palm as per Malaysia’s National Plan. Issues of HCVF are minimal since current activities do not involve clearing of natural areas.

The quest for sustainability is a journey—if we were all perfect, there would be no need for the certification in the first place. So, it is expected that there are areas in the plantation management that need improvement as measured against the RSPO Principles and Criteria.

There is still much work to be done and I’m committed to working with our current and any future partners to help them improve best practices in their operations.

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Since we talk daily about our certified home compostable status for our Earthcycle packaging products, I thought it was high time to do a post on available composting systems, in particular for indoor composting. It is one thing to compost when you have a yard, but another thing when you live in an apartment or simply don’t have the time or inclination to start your own pile. So I went on a Google mission to see how long it would take me to find some great and easy indoor composting systems – I was at it way longer than expected. To save you some time and hassle, I thought I’d share a couple of my findings:

NatureMill Polypropylene Kitchen Composters seem to come out on top. I found references to this company on Earth911.com, the Oprah Winfrey Website, as well as the Top Composters Blog so I had to check out NatureMill’s website. Their automated magic box comes with an air filter and a system to control oxygen levels, temperature and turning to speed up the composting process to a mere two weeks. Their website is a worthwhile visit – also make sure to watch the demo video. One drawback is the price – this stylish little magic box retails at around US$300.

The All Seasons Indoor Composter (formerly Happy Farmer Composting Kit) with Bokashi seems to be highly popular and pops up in numerous blogs and sites such as Amazon.com and eBay. I saw a demo of it at the EPIC Trade Show in Vancouver last year. Just as the About.com review suggests, the distributors at EPIC said that for this system, you would want to purchase two buckets as they fill up quickly and composting can take several weeks. The bins are made from 80% recycled plastics and retail in the $70 to $100 range including the bag of Bokashi. The manufacturers’ website lists all distributors per region here.

Here are some additional links of interest:

Earth911.com: Composting While Cooking – A Guide for the Kitchen

Top Composters Blog

Indoor Kitchen Composters

Bush Systems: Recycling and Composting systems

Environmental Protection Agency: Composting

How To Use the All Seasons Indoor Composter™ Kit

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Claims of packaging that is sustainable, biodegradable, recyclable or compostable are floating around everywhere. Unfortunately, these claims are often unsubstantiated – they are not specific and not backed by third party proof. For example, for a package to qualify as “recyclable”, it needs to be accepted in more than 60% of US communities according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). For compostability claims, it is essential that packaging suppliers are specific as to whether it is home compostable or only accepted in industrial composting facilities and this needs to be accompanied by proof from the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) for example.

To address the issue of “greenwashing” in the packaging industry, Greener Package has established a database for packaging suppliers to register their “sustainable” products. The idea is to finally have one set of guidelines for sustainability claims, one place to check these claims against these guidelines by a third party, and one place to look up packaging suppliers that have been accepted into the database and meet the guidelines.

While this database does not replace further in depth research and analysis of a product, it is a significant first step as a base filter – in particular since database users can dispute questionable claims, have entries reviewed further, or even withdrawn.

Now with the FTC Green Guide, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition criteria which I discussed in a previous post, and the Greener Package Guidelines, we are starting to see some solid improvements from basic definitions and guidelines, to a vision for improvement, to actual measurement and policing. Setting such universal standards is instrumental to give consumers the tools to properly assess their purchase decisions while rewarding those companies who invest in creating packaging that addresses as many of the principles of sustainable packaging as possible.

Additional resources:

8 Tips to Green Guideline Claims

Greener Package unveils industry-first ‘anti-greenwash’ guidelines

GreenerPackage.com Releases Sustainability Claims Guidelines and Announces Third-Party Review of Packaging Sustainability Data

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These days, more than ever, selling on price point alone is not enough. Consumer demands for added value, environmental and societal considerations, economic pressures to decrease operating costs, and the need to increase productivity, are some of the many factors at play. According to research undertaken by The Produce Marketing Association (PMA) in 2008, 74 percent of leaders in the fresh produce industry recognize that making “sustainability” a priority in their company is urgent.

Sustainability is a broad concept so where do fresh produce retailers start? While the economic side of sustainability is critical for the business, the priority action items that consumers would like to see from a societal and environmental perspective are just as significant. What’s more, research shows that consumers are willing to pay a premium if they see certain social and environmental actions taking place.

The PMA survey showed that consumers place priority on the following top industry action items: pay workers fairly and establish worker safety programs; implement water and energy conservation programs; reduce pollution in transportation; reduce trash; and ensure products are packaged in recyclable packaging.

Let’s delve further into the packaging concern since this is the focus of the blog. A 2009 consumer survey conducted by the Hartman Group on behalf of the PMA verifies this concern. Most consumers (65%) want to see more emphasis on protective packaging of produce. In addition, a majority (60%) want to see more eco-friendly packaging.

While some may argue against using packaging in the first place, it is quite justifiable from a consumer health perspective as well as an economic bottom line. Packaging protects fresh produce from spoilage and dirty hands, and extends shelf life. In bulk displays, retailers are throwing away anywhere from 15 to 18 percent of produce due to it being picked over and damaged. With packaging, there is only five to eight percent waste at most.

But what type of packaging will create the right value in the mind of the consumer?

First off, we want to clearly reduce our dependency on petroleum based plastic packaging that goes straight to landfill, that litters and pollutes our oceans, that does not biodegrade nor compost, and that is not recyclable. The alternatives for fresh produce retailers range from PLA (corn plastic), to a variety of agricultural fiber based packaging made from renewable resources, such as palm, bamboo, bulrush, and bagasse. These fiber based products are 100 percent compostable in the backyard compost and once broken down, make a healthy contribution to the soil as humus.

We recommend that fresh produce retailers look to align themselves with packaging distributors that also offer an integrated merchandising program to assist with communicating sustainability efforts to the customers. For example, by creating a well integrated program that informs and educates the consumer, as well as tells the story of our eco-packaging, our company’s goal is to strengthen and substantiate the retailer’s commitment to sustainability and the reduction in petroleum based plastics. It shows the consumer that the retailer is part of the solution, not contributing more to the challenges.

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Sustainable, eco-friendly, eco-responsible, environmentally sound, green – the list goes on – are the terms we read and hear about on a daily basis in response to various new product innovations. The packaging industry is no exception to using this type of language. But what do all these words really mean? Let’s go with the word sustainable as it seems to be the most common yet most vague of the “green” terms. It is overused and means different things to different people. At the same time, it is hard to avoid, especially for me, being part of a packaging movement that aims to bring about the type of change that might be termed sustainable.

To start with a more fundamental, widely accepted definition of sustainable development, I like Dr. Gordon Robertson’s interpretation of the Brundtland Report definition. He explains that for sustainable development to take place, a balance between economic growth, social development and environmental protection is required – a triple bottom line view. According to his 2009 article, Sustainable Packaging: Does it Really Exist?, Robertson interprets that “sustainable development is the level of human consumption and activity which can continue into the foreseeable future, so that the systems which provide goods and services to humans persist indefinitely.”

So let’s relate this back to the packaging industry. Robertson goes on to criticise some efforts by the industry, namely the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC), to find a common ground around the meaning of sustainable packaging – he says according to their definition, no packaging on the market is currently sustainable. But here I argue that we have to start somewhere – and we require a widely accepted guideline to work from. And this is exactly what the Sustainable Packaging Coalition is trying to do. If we want to improve our industry and bring about change to the way we make our packaging, we need a framework like this to direct our activities toward improvement.

According to the SPC then, a package is sustainable if it meets the following criteria:

  • Is beneficial, safe and healthy for individuals and communities throughout its life cycle;
  • Meets market criteria for performance and cost;
  • Is sourced, manufactured, transported, and recycled using renewable energy;
  • Maximizes the use of renewable or recycled source materials;
  • Is manufactured using clean production technologies and best practices;
  • Is made from materials healthy in all probable end of life scenarios;
  • Is physically designed to optimize materials and energy;
  • Is effectively recovered and utilized in biological and/or industrial cradle to cradle cycles.

As a designer and distributor of eco-responsible packaging, I can look at these criteria as a progressive challenge and see where we are at and what areas we need to analyze further to make improvements to become truly sustainable according to this definition. I know that we have to make some significant improvements in the area of renewable energy and clean production technologies. But I also know that we are meeting this definition in the other categories. This allows me to speak with more confidence and clarity to my clients as I can show them these criteria among our other standards, such as ASTM D6866, BPI compostable, and Greener Package Database, to explain how we measure our success and compare to our competition.

Additional Resources:

Sustainable Packaging: How do we Define and Measure It?
Greener Package Guidlines
Sustainable Packaging Alliance
Wikipedia: Sustainable Packaging
Wikipedia: Sustainability

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In time for Earth Day on April 22, the City of Vancouver announced a new three-phase curbside compost pick-up program for single-family homes. According to the City, phase one will allow families to add their vegetable and fruit scraps, tea bags, coffee grounds and filters to their yard trimming bins. In early 2011, we’re supposed to see this service extended to include all food scraps including meats, fish, dairy, bread, cereal products and food-soiled paper. The compost will be handled by a commercial composting facility, Fraser Richmond Soil & Fibre, which can generate the right amount of heat and moisture to break down this matter appropriately and in a timely manner.

As of yet, this program is unfortunately not available for apartment dwellers, although the City is working on a plan for Metro Vancouver to add collection to multi-family units and businesses. The good news is that there are some private grassroots initiatives starting up in Vancouver that are addressing the commercial composting challenge. Growing City for example started servicing the downtown Vancouver area last year.

There are significant reasons why cities, such as Vancouver, are finally jumping on the composting bandwagon. While composting initially costs more than land-filling, over the long-term, the benefits will outweigh these costs. Organic material from single-family homes in Vancouver makes up over 35 percent of garbage that ends up in our landfill. By diverting it to a local composting facility instead, we can reduce a large source of landfill-generated greenhouse gases, extend the life of our landfill, and generate a valuable resource for the community in the form of premium soil and mulch. What’s more, this industry generates additional jobs, and word has it that Fraser Richmond will also add technology that will allow for the production of renewable energy as of 2011. You can find out more on this through their parent company, Harvest.

Significant municipal infrastructure progress, such as adding new composting plants and programs, is good news for the alternative packaging industry. Such infrastructural change makes it easier to introduce innovative new packaging materials (made from agricultural fibers for example) as alternatives to traditional plastic packaging. It is one thing to find alternatives to plastic packaging, but if the infrastructure isn’t there to support that switch, it is more difficult to promote change.

More resources:

The Province: Vancouver OKs yard composting beginning April 22

Andrea Reimer: Curbside & Neighbourhood Compost Comes to Vancouver!

Granville Online: Curbside compost pickup in Metro Vancouver

Compost Council of Canada

US Composting Council

Natural Resources Defense Council: Keep organics and recyclables out of landfills and incinerators

Wikipedia: Composting

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