Product Design

In order to demonstrate our true commitment to environmental responsibility, we believe we need to understand and address the impacts at each phase of our products’ life-cycles. This all begins with how we design the products in the first place.

With our commitments to our GreenStripe and BlueStripe platforms, we feel pretty good about our offerings of environmentally preferable foodservice packaging. Actually, we feel great about it. But there are a couple of areas where we have obvious room for improvement: our packaging and a few legacy products that don’t meet our current design standards.

Plantware Cutlery in a Wrapper

Compostable cutlery kit wrappers:

Our Plantware® cutlery kits offer a compostable fork, knife, spoon, and napkin, all wrapped up in a non-compostable wrapper. We know, we know. . . this doesn’t make sense. When we launched the kits in 2011, we were not satisfied with the quality of the compostable wrapper that was available. Thankfully, technology has evolved and today compostable films that meet our performance expectations are available. In 2015, we did extensive research to find compostable films we could use in these cutlery kits. Having learned from experience, we don’t simply take our suppliers’ word when it comes to the compostability of their products; we conduct independent tests to verify such claims. While this requires time and money, we believe it is better to be safe than sorry where compostability is concerned. You can watch our video about this journey on our YouTube channel.

Luckily, we found a supplier and had a third-party lab confirm the film’s compostability. Unfortunately, our source dried up and we had to begin the process of finding an appropriate supplier all over again. We are happy to say that we have once again found a source of compostable films. As of early 2016, we are in the process of having the film independently tested for compostability. While we didn’t meet our 2015 deadline, we are recommitting to this goal for 2016. In next year’s report, we look forward to telling you that we have transitioned all of our compostable cutlery kits to compostable wrappers.

Legacy products:

As we explained in last year’s report, our Plant Starch cutlery and polypropylene soup cup lids do not meet our current standards for all new products to be made with 100% renewable resources or contain post-consumer recycled content. As a quick recap, back in our early days, the technology to produce heat tolerant compostable materials for foodservice packaging was not available. That led to offering a virgin polypropylene soup cup lid (because who would sell to-go soup cups without lids?) and cutlery with a blend of plant starch and virgin polypropylene (because for customers who can’t compost, 70% renewable is better than 0%). Today, we would never design products like these. To remain true to our design principles, we have set a goal to discontinue these products by 2020.

Most of our focus in 2015 for this goal was on the polypropylene lids. The first and easiest solution would be to find a source of post-consumer polypropylene to bring the lids into our BlueStripe design standards. In the United States we send a lot of polypropylene (PP) containers to recyclers, so buying post-consumer recycled (PCR) PP should be easy, right?

Polypropylene Soup Cup Lid Polypropylene Soup Cup Lid Sales Graph

After having spent more than 18 months in search of PCR PP, in contact with many of the largest recycled resin brokers and recyclers who provide our rPS and rPET, we are still unable find this material either in North America or in Asia. This hard truth is that much of the PP that is sent to recycling facilities is sold in mixed bales combining various types of plastics that historically have been sold to overseas markets. Where they go today remains a mystery, but we can assure you, if there was a source for PCR PP available today, we would be writing a very different update. As a result, we have turned to the more difficult road of discontinuing what remains a popular item. The PP lids today have been removed from our online and paper catalogs, as well as our e-commerce site. Once inventory is depleted, they will no longer be available through external online channels, such as Amazon. Customers will still have access to our compostable soup cup lids or 25% post-consumer recycled content lids as alternatives.

In order to understand why getting the legacy lids out of the market is not an overnight process, it is helpful to understand a little bit about how the foodservice world works as it relates to purchasing. When a big customer like a hospital or university examines their purchasing options, they usually benefit from being affiliated with at least one partner who helps them either manage their foodservice operations, or buy products at lower prices than smaller operators would have access to, or in some instances, both. The products that are available to these customers are commonly referred to as “on contract”, because as long as that hospital or university remains affiliated with those partners, they will have access to products at specific prices through specified distribution partners. While there are certainly exceptions, the overwhelming majority of high volume foodservice operators specify and purchase items on contract.

Now consider the fact that most of our relationships with the contract purchasing entities pre-date the launch of our compostable lids, so the legacy lids we are trying to replace are on contract and in distribution virtually everywhere. This means that the process of making product changes like the ones we’ve been describing here have to be approved by corporate purchasing departments that are rightfully focused on delivering the lowest possible costs to their members. Any cost increases are met with scrutiny and must be justified. The discontinuation of a contracted item and the substitution with another higher priced item is viewed as a cost increase, hence the challenge.

The good news is that these conversations have begun, and it is generally clear to everyone why it doesn’t make sense for Eco-Products to be selling virgin PP lids. That said, some of these conversions will take time to fully execute, though our preference is clearly for them to happen as soon as possible.

Other Material Issues:

One thing we know for sure, and have known since Eco-Products’ inception, is that even environmentally preferable alternatives to conventional foodservice packaging have flaws. The materials and technologies that are currently feasible for manufacturing products such as ours all have environmental costs. Some have a lighter impact, such as sugarcane and wheat straw that are reclaimed as byproduct from food production. However, one of our primary materials, PLA, has significant impacts about which we are cognizant, unhappy, and hoping to change soon.

Specifically, we often receive questions from customers and the public on the issues of GMOs and Food vs. Bioplastics. Therefore, we wanted to address these issues in this report.

GMOs: Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are a concern for many. We are often asked if our products made with plant-based plastic comes from GM crops. Unfortunately, today the answer is yes. The corn used to make the PLA in our GreenStripe products is made with a mixture of GM and non-GM corn. In the United States, the vast majority of commercially produced corn is GM. Certified organic corn is the best way to assure non-GM corn. Sadly, using only organic corn would price our products beyond many customers’ budgets. It would also be logistically difficult, as the PLA production plant would need to set up a separate operation for organic corn, or be completely emptied and cleaned of all traces of conventional corn before running a batch of organic corn. There is currently not enough demand for non-GM PLA to justify this effort, not to mention the fact that what we just described which would also add significant cost.

Technically, there is no GM material in our products. The part of the corn kernel used to make PLA is not the part that is genetically modified. In addition, during the manufacturing process, the high heat used to create the polymer removes all traces of genetic material that might happen to slip in. Nonetheless, we feel it is disingenuous to market our products as “GMO free” when this is not true of the feedstocks.

Food vs Bioplastics: Some people wonder whether using corn for bioplastics increases the price of food - a valid question. The first thing to be aware of is the fact that the type of corn used to make PLA (i.e., field corn) is not the same type of corn we eat (i.e., sweet corn). Apparently it tastes like crap! It’s also important to know that the same kernel of field corn can be used to make food products (such as corn oil and salad dressing), animal feed, AND bioplastics. So it’s not an either/or situation. Some really smart people have figured out how to get a whole lot of value out of a single kernel of corn.

We have conveyed to our PLA supplier, NatureWorks, our strong preference for non-GMO, non-food feedstocks. They are investing heavily in scaling non-GMO, non-food sources for PLA and other applications. They also offer several options customers may use to support the production of non-GM corn.

If GMOs or using corn as a feedstock is a concern for you, please feel free to reach us at sustainabilitymaven@ecoproducts.com to ask questions and share feedback.

Product Design Opportunities throughout their Lifecycle

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2015 Goals:

  • In 2015, complete the transition to compostable wrappers for our compostable cutlery kits
  • By 2020, discontinue legacy products that do not meet our current material standards for renewable resources and post-consumer recycled content

2016 Goals:

  • In 2016, complete the transition to compostable wrappers for our compostable cutlery kits
  • By 2020, discontinue legacy products that do not meet our current material standards for renewable resources and post-consumer recycled content

Product Design Standards

Every new product we bring to market must be:

Made with 100% renewable resources
or
Made with post-consumer recycled content
or
Compostable
or
Recyclable