Food packaging plan

Aty Zereywia Izquierdo Suarez from ANEI, one of Trade Aid’s coffee producer partners in Colombia. ANEI have a commitment to ensure the welfare of all that sustains our mother earth.

Trade Aid’s food packaging plan and the bigger environmental-protection picture.

As a sustainability focused organisation we are concerned about our environmental impact and packaging is an area of continuous work and improvement for us. We have recently completed a research project and compiled data related to our current packaging status, and we are pleased to share the results with you here:

Updated December 2020

The trend towards focusing on consumer waste-streams

In 2019 Trade Aid’s work includes selling a large range of food products which are packaged according to each product’s unique needs through a variety of retail and wholesale outlets.

New Zealand consumers in recent years have become, understandably, very aware of the waste created at the end of a product’s life cycle because this is most visible to them. However as a business concerned about making the best possible environmental decisions, Trade Aid’s responsibility is to take into account the product’s entire lifecycle and not just the waste stream that results at the end of a product’s life.

The heightened global consciousness around the impact of waste-streams on the environment is welcome and long overdue. However as consumers are increasingly being subjected to images of wildlife impacted by (mainly plastic) waste from our land and in our seas, they are also looking towards waste reduction as the largest priority for environmental protection, with plastic increasingly being seen as the enemy. However unless we are looking at the big picture when it comes to our consumption behaviour, we may inadvertently create a more detrimental impact for people, nature or wildlife. It is only by understanding the life-cycle of a product, and taking into consideration the production impacts of products that we can begin to act in ways that will have minimum impact on the environment.

On 8 Oct 2018, a landmark report[1]released by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns we only have 12 years in which to act for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5C, beyond which even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people. It reports that the greatest difference would be to nature: insects, which are vital for pollination of crops, and plants, are almost twice as likely to lose half their habitat at 2C compared with 1.5C; corals would be 99% lost at the higher of the two temperatures. And, that at the current level of commitments, the world is on course for a disastrous 3C of warming.

This is where the process becomes complicated, because how do consumers take this information and make changes in their own lives? On the one hand we have the visible waste from consumption clogging up the planet, and on the other we have the invisible atmospheric pollution from manufacturing and transport. It can be incredibly difficult for consumers to interpret what the scientific data means for different products, different processes, or to even access information about the life cycle of any specific product. We know that all the packaging we use has different degrees of impact; our challenge is to find a way to make that impact plain to see and understand, and to try and minimise it as much as possible. This can be very difficult as supply chains in the packaging industry are often long, complicated and obscure.

[1]Summary of the report available here (downloadable PDF).

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Inherent in our trading model is environmental protection

The products we sell are fair trade and mostly certified organic.

Trade Aid’s work has a global reach and the largest threat to our global environment is arguably climate change. Climate change and global warming are already beginning to transform life on Earth.  Without action, the impacts of climate change threaten to catastrophically damage our world.

Trade Aid believes that businesses should be contributing to developing climate change solutions, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and adapting to the impacts of climate change. This allows consumers to play their part by choosing to engage with businesses that take environmental protection seriously.

Fair trade encourages all actors in the supply chain to protect their environment and it allows for environmental awareness and action by producers, thus contributing positively to the global situation we are all facing. This includes:

  • encouraging, supporting and rewarding organic production, a farming method with many advantages and considerable potential for mitigating and adapting to climate change;
  • paying a price for products that recognises the need for environmental protection costs to be included. This could include costs of investment in technology such as effluent treatment plants, replanting of raw materials to replace what is used, gaining certifications to guarantee sustainable production, or sourcing more expensive sustainable options for raw materials;
  • celebrating the art of hand-made, and protecting the traditional methods and skills passed down over generations, thus resulting in low carbon production processes, and low carbon footprints for our craft products;
  • freighting products by sea not air, thus reducing carbon emissions and the use of fossil fuels;
  • offsetting carbon emissions from sea transportation of products and channelling these funds into climate change mitigation and adaptation activities as carried out by Trade Aid partners. The Trade Aid Climate Change Fund was set up to calculate our annual carbon emissions from sea transportation of product, and using the international carbon price, channelling the equivalent dollar amount to trading partner initiatives that focus on climate change mitigation and adaptation.

All of these aspects reduce the carbon footprint of fair trade products, and make them a good choice for consumers who are seeking to play their part in taking action against climate change and waste.

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We do need to package our products, so what is ‘best’ for the environment?

Packaging waste is a very emotive and topical issue, especially at the moment, and a lot of the discussion tends to focus on the problem with plastic. It is true that there is far too much plastic being used in ways that are far from sustainable in food packaging, but it is also true that there is just too much packaging in general.

In brief:

In order to have the least impact with our food packaging we believe Trade Aid should always have Reduce, Reuse and Recycle in mind when considering the problem – in that order. When we make our packaging decisions we will look to have as minimal a package as possible, and then, if possible it should be reusable and if not that, recyclable. However, there are instances where there is not a reusable or recyclable option available – for instance, for wrapping chocolate – as the technology hasn’t got there yet. In these cases, compostability is our preferred option. Packaging which has no options for disposal other than the landfill would always be our last choice.

This takes into consideration not only the physical waste at the end of a product’s life, but the emissions, effluent and side effects of extraction that result from its manufacture and contribute to our already dire situation of climate change. Recycling takes energy, but it takes less energy than manufacturing from raw materials, reusing a package just once halves the impact of the original energy used in manufacture, and reducing packaging uses less energy to start with.

This is the basic premise that we have followed to create a scoring system for Trade Aid’s packaging plan, which seeks to put in a place a process for us to over time continually improve our overall packaging sustainability.

Trade Aid’s scoring system for packaging

The scoring system allocates points for elements of the packaging that increase or reduce its sustainability. After an initial basic score is allocated for each product, an average score is tallied to give Trade Aid an indication of where our packaging as a whole sits along the spectrum. Recognising that volume of product plays a large part in how much waste is actually created from this packaging; an additional score is tallied by weighting each product score by its volume of product. This weighted score provides an indication of which products we should look to improve on first to gain the largest environmental benefit. This is a good way to make sure that scarce resources are being used where the greatest impact will occur.

The following elements are allocated the following scores in Trade Aid’s scoring system:

Points Elements
-1 Landfill only
1 1 component
-1 2 components
-2 3 components
1 bulk product
3 Reusable
2 Recyclable
2 Compostable
1 some recycled material
1 part recyclable
1 part compostable
1 Disposal instructions on pack

Skip to Trade Aid’s Food Packaging Plan 2019-20 for our average scores and goals and activities for improving these scores.

This is a simplified system. The reality is much more complicated than this.

Life cycle assessments (LCAs) are studies that can be carried out on different types of packaging that try to answer the question of sustainability more accurately; however, what impacts are measured varies widely with different studies – and, often, who is funding them. Unsurprisingly, paper bag manufacturers often conclude that paper bags are better for the environment than plastic bags, and vice versa.

Aside from the tricky issue of bias, working out what packaging material is best suited to the product and has the smallest environmental impact is a complicated calculation. There are many factors to be balanced together: production, transportation and responsible disposal, the damage from irresponsible disposal, the potential for reuse or recycling. Then we also need to consider the ability of that packaging to protect the product, look good on shelf and communicate necessary information to consumers.

To address these issues we first need to accept that no single use packaging can really be considered ‘sustainable’. All packaging has an environmental cost, and all packaging is manufactured using energy (often from fossil fuels) and natural and/or mined resources.

A lot of our packaging is made in other countries, or if it is made here, is made from materials which are made in other countries, so even before we put anything in it, it has been shipped and trucked around the globe to get to us – often to be used just the once, before it is discarded.

Unfortunately, in the current New Zealand retail environment, it is very difficult to use packaging which would be reusable and therefore more sustainable. Our packaging needs to protect our products in storage and shipping, display the products and our brand effectively, and of course we also need something that is durable, airtight and food safe.

We also need packaging that is cost effective if we are to remain a viable business. Compostable packaging is the most expensive of all the options for example and only certain products may hold enough margin to carry this cost. Certain material costs decrease as run sizes increase, so the ‘best option’ may only be affordable once the product gains traction with consumers and demand increases. Using a generic bag for multiple products to save cost and wastage may result in reduced recyclability of the bag by having to add a unique label, and added waste from label backing, rolls and packaging.

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Further detail about the complexity of different packaging materials:

Paper vs. plastic

When you begin to research ‘what is sustainable packaging’, one of the first results to come up in an online search will always be a comparison of plastic to paper packaging. Paper and cardboard packaging is generally accepted as a good alternative to plastic. This is an understandable attitude; paper is easier to like, it looks and feels good and ‘natural’, and intuitively seems to be a more ‘sustainable’ solution – especially if it is unbleached – it is made from a renewable resource and it is undoubtedly biodegradable and recyclable. However, when you research deeper it becomes clear that from an energy, water, and waste perspective, paper alternatives are far from benign.

Research shows that in most cases paper bags, even if recycled and made from unbleached paper, have a substantially higher carbon footprint than the equivalent oil-based plastic bag. For any product, the exact figures will vary according to production techniques, the type of plastic or paper, and the full life-cycle of the packaging, but there is a lot of research to suggest that a paper bag can increase the emissions of an equivalent plastic bag 300 – 400%.

The process of making paper uses large amounts of water and chemical additives to extract the fibre from the feedstock and to soften and bleach it. Paper production is a major cause of eutrophication or nutrient loading of waterways, leading to de-oxygenation which can be very damaging to aquatic life. Paper is also significantly heavier and more bulky than plastic, so it takes more energy (therefore producing more emissions) to transport than plastic does. This also means that when it is disposed of in a landfill a paper bag takes up proportionally more space than its plastic equivalent.

Plastic packaging may have a lower carbon footprint than paper but it is made from a non-renewable resource, and for a single use item, is very durable. Plastic does not break down for many hundreds –if not thousands of years and if not properly disposed of can end up as very persistent litter on land and at sea. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation just 14% of the plastic packaging used globally makes its way to recycling plants, while 40% ends up in landfill and almost a third of it ends up in the environment in some way.

This is the heart of the problem with plastic packaging – so much of it is small and light and easily ends up as litter after its single use. Once it is litter, plastic is ugly, it clogs waterways and blows around the streets, it is washed out to sea where it breaks down into small pieces and is eaten by all manner of sea life, it gathers in giant eddies in the oceans and provides very visible evidence of human pollution.

If it is unable to be reused, there are two main ways of disposing of plastic packaging; recycling or landfill, a lot of plastic is capable of being recycled if it is clean and dry and sorted into type, but a fair proportion is not. Recycling plastic has been shown to use significantly less energy and produce less waste than manufacturing virgin material, so has a positive effect on the environmental footprint of the material.  Unfortunately sorting used plastic packaging is labour intensive, dirty and expensive which means that often it is cheaper to use virgin material than recycled, this means that a large amount of recyclable plastic packaging is consigned to the landfill. One of the main arguments used in favour of paper over plastic is that paper is recyclable and plastic is clogging up the landfill. In reality, in New Zealand, about the same amount of paper as plastic ends up in the landfill – a relatively small proportion of the total. The last comprehensive survey of NZ landfill composition was in 2008, and it looked like this:

Degradable plastic

Degradable plastics are simply a conventional oil-based plastic with an additive that helps them to break down into smaller pieces under certain conditions. Their previously claimed environmental benefits have turned out to be far from the truth: the bags either end up in landfill, where, much like regular plastic they don’t break down, or they end up as litter and disintegrate in the environment leaving minute particles of plastic to disperse into the ecosystem. They cannot be recycled (in fact, if even a small amount of this plastic contaminates a load of normal plastic it makes the end product of the recycling unstable and it becomes a waste product). In short, it is far from clear whether degradable plastic has any environmental benefit over conventional plastic. What is clear is that this option is not one Trade Aid will pursue.

Compostable plastic

In recent decades the plastics and packaging industries have come a long way in the development of plant based resins which will break down in a composting environment. These resins are usually made of cellulose or starch from trees or crops such as corn or sugarcane and the final product has a similar look, feel and performance as conventional plastic. On the surface, this seems like a good solution to the packaging problem, and it is certainly a technology which has great promise, but it also has its limitations.

Corn is predominantly grown in huge industrial monocultures which are both energy and water intensive. It then takes a lot of energy and water to extract the starch from corn and convert it into plastic, with the end result that a starch-based plastic bag will normally use more energy and hence cause higher emissions than an oil-based one, even accounting for the oil used as a raw material.

The other main material used for compostable plastic is cellulose, which is usually obtained from wood. Extracting cellulose from wood is also a very energy and chemically intensive process, from the harvesting of the trees, to the processing of the wood to its basic components. Generally, it can be said that compostable plastic has a larger environmental footprint from its manufacture than does oil based plastic. It also cannot be recycled because it is made of completely different materials to conventional plastic and would contaminate the resulting resin.
If compostable plastic is actually composted or put in a worm farm, it has an environmental advantage over oil based plastic in that it ceases to be physical waste – it does release methane as it breaks down. Unfortunately, at this stage, in New Zealand, no municipal waste collection will allow compostable plastic packaging in their green waste, so home composting is the only way to dispose of it responsibly. Thus, consumers without home facilities are obliged to send it to the landfill where due to the lack of oxygen and composting micro-organisms, it does not break down.

Probably the biggest barrier to our complete adoption of compostable packaging is its price. Compostable plastic packaging is at present around twice the price of fossil fuel derived plastic, and for Trade Aid this extra expense must be justified by its environmental advantage.

Despite these complexities we must have a plan

So we have one. We have a vision that is compatible with our overarching Trade Aid New Zealand Environmental Policy, and we have results, goals and timelines to achieve them. We have identified the activities that are required to achieve these goals, and we will report on these on an annual basis.

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Trade Aid’s current status and plan for continually improving the sustainability of its packaging over time