Product Design

With our GreenStripe® and BlueStripe™ platforms, we feel really good about what we have been able to accomplish in terms of offering products with real environmental benefits. Where we have more room for improvement is in our packaging – the cardboard boxes and plastic sleeves our products are shipped in.

Plantware Cutlery in a Wrapper

In 2014, we looked into the environmental impacts of both. We learned that corrugated cardboard is almost always manufactured using high percentages of recovered fiber, and in the U.S., over 90 percent of corrugated cardboard is collected for recycling. We are not saying there are not opportunities to reduce the impacts of our cardboard boxes, but based on what we learned the boxes didn’t seem like the best place to start.

That brings us to plastic sleeves. We looked at the sleeves used for our Plantware® (i.e., compostable) cutlery kits, as well as the larger sleeves used for cups, plates, to-go boxes, etc.

While our Plantware kits contain BPI (Biodegradable Products Institute) certified compostable cutlery, unfortunately they are wrapped in a polyethylene (i.e., traditional, non-compostable) plastic wrapper. When we launched this product in 2011, we were not satisfied with the quality of the compostable wrapper that was available then, so that’s how we ended up with the polyethylene version. The good news is that we think we’ve found a solution that meets our quality standards, and we are currently having the film third-party tested for compostability, per BPI guidelines. We expect to successfully complete this testing and the transition to compostable cutlery wrappers sometime in 2015.

Unfortunately the situation is different for our larger plastic sleeves. Sure, there are compostable films that can hold a stack of cups, but compostable films that can hold a stack of 50 cups without tearing, at an affordable price point? Not so much. We will continue to keep an eye on compostable film technology.

If offering a compostable sleeve is not feasible at this time, an alternative way to reduce sleeve environmental impacts is to recycle them. Most single-stream recycling programs do not accept plastic films, making it very difficult for our customers to recycle this material. In fact, most recycling facilities hate plastic films because they get tangled and slow down the machines. Sure, many large grocery chains and big box stores accept plastic bags for recycling, but telling our customers to haul their sleeves to Target didn’t seem like a very good plan.

GreenStripe® Cold Cups in a Plastic Sleeve

When we researched companies who might want to buy these films, we found that most buyers are only interested at the bale-level (i.e., a lot of plastic). It is impractical for the typical foodservice operator to collect and store this volume of sleeves, let alone buy equipment to bale it.

That led us to speak with a number of different entities about the logistics involved in collecting plastic films at the foodservice operator level and getting them to a facility that will recycle them. We are making it a priority to pilot a take-back program for our sleeves in 2015. Stay tuned!

Phasing out Plant Starch cutlery and polypropylene soup cup lids

Today, our new products must be made with 100% renewable resources or contain post-consumer recycled content. In our early days, heat-tolerant compostable material was not available; as an industry we were also not as diligent or clear about our standards. This has resulted in two legacy products that do not meet today’s design standards: our Plant Starch Cutlery and our polypropylene soup cup lid.

Our Plant Starch Cutlery is made with 70% renewable resources. The remaining 30% is virgin polypropylene, which is used to achieve a combination of heat tolerance, full-size length/weight, and price. The big problem is that polypropylene renders this product not compostable. When this cutlery was launched, a heat-tolerant compostable material suitable for cutlery was not available. Today, we are able to offer two lines of compostable cutlery called Plantware® and Vine™ that are both compostable and heat tolerant. Unfortunately, they’re also more expensive.

Plant Starch can be a good option for customers who understand that it is not compostable and are not sending it to compost facilities with legitimate compostable packaging. But in reality, the appropriate end-of-life destination for this cutlery (i.e., the landfill) is neither ideal nor always clearly understood.

We evaluated the business implications of shifting out of Plant Starch and fully into Plantware. They are significant, both for the customer’s expectations on the size and weight of the piece as well as the impact of the increased price throughout the sales channel. Nevertheless, we believe the ongoing risk of contamination of the organics waste stream caused by non-compostable cutlery outweighs the benefits of offering ongoing support of plant starch material.

Moving to a fully compostable offering in the long term is the right thing to do. That’s why we set a goal for the ideal end-state: to discontinue Plant Starch Cutlery by 2020. In the meantime, last year we updated the messaging on the cutlery from “Made from plants” to “Non Compostable” to help reduce confusion.

Plant Starch Knife

Similar to Plant Starch Cutlery, our virgin polypropylene soup cup lids are also landfill-bound. They contain neither post-consumer content nor renewable resources. At the time we were launching soup cups, a heat-tolerant, compostable material was not available for the lid, nor was a post-consumer plastic that was suitable for this application.

Today, we offer compostable soup cup lids and post-consumer recycled soup cup lids. Because these options are now available and offer the same level of quality, we are finding it more and more difficult to justify keeping the virgin lids in our product mix. Due to financial and contractual implications with our channel partners, discontinuing these lids will be a complex process. Nevertheless, we are committing to phasing out these lids by 2020, along with our Plant Starch Cutlery.

This commitment is a perfect example of the complexity any business faces when addressing sustainability challenges – what do you do when the environmentally preferable thing to do is not financially accretive to our customers or our business? These are the situations that generate a lot of organizational soul-searching and introspection on how sustainability is prioritized among other drivers. Easy answers? Nope. Are we letting that stop us from trying? Nope.

Staying at the forefront of sustainable materials research

Research on biobased materials is developing rapidly. This is exciting in that it holds the potential for additional materials we could use in our products. Given our stake in renewable resources technology and its applications for packaging, we want to be involved in how this field develops. That’s why in 2014 we became a founding member of the Iowa State Center for Bioplastics and Biocomposites (CB2).

The CB2 is a National Science Foundation industry & university cooperative research center that focuses on developing high-value biobased products from agricultural feedstocks. Our membership gives us the opportunity to help shape the center’s research priorities and provides access to its findings. Three funded projects we are excited about will focus on biobased PET plastics, a lifecycle tool for assessing environmental impacts of biobased materials, and improving properties of biobased food packaging.

Our involvement in this organization is a testament to our thought leadership at every step of our products’ lifecycles: raw materials through to end of life.

We’re looking for opportunities to lessen our impacts throughout the complete lifecycle of our products.
Watcha think?
Write a comment or ask a question
We value your opinion and would love to answer any questions you may have!

2014 Goals:

  • Complete an analysis on the opportunities, costs, and implications associated with reducing the environmental impact of packaging used in product distribution
  • Review the business implications of phasing out our Plant Starch cutlery and 100% virgin polypropylene soup cup lid
  • Continue to research new materials that offer real environmental benefits for our products. In 2014, we will actively participate in Iowa State’s Center for Bioplastics and Biocomposites.

2015 Goals:

  • Pilot a take-back program for recycling the plastic sleeves our products are shipped in
  • 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