Is less plastic always better for the environment?
What happened when a dip manufacturer tried to swap plastic pots for a greener alternative.
What happened when a dip manufacturer tried to swap plastic pots for a greener alternative.
For years, eco-conscious consumers have been calling for manufacturers to ditch single-use plastic packaging and replace it with environmentally friendly alternatives.
When Toby Green bought Wellington-based dip manufacturer Elysian Foods in 2017, one of the first things he wanted to do was reduce the amount of plastic waste the company was dumping on the world. He extensively researched which alternatives there were for his dips, only to discover that ditching plastic wasn’t quite as clear-cut as he had imagined.
We don’t normally write stories from the perspective of manufacturers, but following the journey of a small business trying to do the right thing by both its customers and Mother Earth piqued our interest. And what we uncovered raised a question we never thought we’d be asking: Is less plastic really better for the environment?
The answer seems obvious. Plastic = bad … right? Well, turns out it’s just not that simple.
To grasp the complexity of the plastic issue, we need to understand plastic. It’s not just one thing. There are lots of types of plastic – some can be recycled and some can’t. And even some that can be recycled are not. This is due to limited recycling services, which vary from council to council.
Plastic is grouped into seven types: numbers 1, 2, and 5 plastics can be recycled (in theory), while numbers 3, 4, 6 and 7 end up in your rubbish bin.
A common type of plastic used by the New Zealand packaging industry PET, is also referred to as number 1 plastic. It’s what soft drink bottles are made from and it’s the easiest to recycle in New Zealand. The majority goes to Flight Plastics, which turns it back into food and drink containers.
Like PET, HDPE is also easily recyclable. It’s most commonly used for dairy containers such as milk and cream bottles, as well as juice, shampoo, cleaning and detergent bottles.
PP is a hard but flexible plastic with a waxy surface, and it’s versatile. Predominantly it is used for margarine, yoghurt, ice cream, dip and takeaway containers.
You can learn more about the other four types of plastic here.
Originally Elysian Foods was using 5, polypropylene, for its pots. It’s the norm for most chilled dip containers. Theoretically they can be recycled in NZ, but here’s where it gets complicated: Not all councils recycle them.
If you’re in Taupo you can chuck them into your recycling bin but if you’re in Napier, it’s straight into the rubbish.
Councils have different recycling systems and don’t all have the capacity to recycle every type of plastic the way it’s intended to be. For an eco-conscious consumer wanting to do the right thing, it’s not cut and dried.
Also, number 5 plastic containers cannot be recycled into the same types of container they used to be. Instead, they’re downcycled and turned into things like wheely bins and fence posts. Recycling them doesn’t do anything to stop more dip containers being made. And the plastic pile grows.
Our latest Consumer NZ podcast episodes follow Toby Green’s journey as he tries to ditch Elysian Foods’ plastic pottles and switch to environmentally friendly packaging.
Elysian Foods, based in Miramar, Wellington, is a small, family-run business which manufactures Greek foods. Elysian makes by hand a range of Mediterranean dips and specialty marinated olives. And it’s the only company in NZ that makes taramasalata dip. The silky-smooth dip made from salted cod’s roe was so loved by Green, he bought the company in 2017, trading in his corporate career for his love of dips.
The original owners, Basil and Martha Yiannoutsous, a couple in their 70s, hadn’t been on holiday for 20 years. They’d come to the decision that if they couldn’t sell the business, they would close it down.
Despite the apparent risks, Green couldn’t stand by and watch that happen, so he followed his heart to become a dip master and keep taramasalata alive in New Zealand.
Elysian Foods has grown to sell around 120,000 pots of dip a year. Each pot contains 22g of plastic. That’s heading on for 2650kg (2.65 tonnes) of plastic a year.
The company represents 1% of the chilled dips market in New Zealand, so a quick extrapolation suggests that the chilled dips market alone accounts for around 265 tonnes of plastic packaging per year.
When Green realised how much plastic he was responsible for putting into the world, he was horrified.
“I was like, oh my God, two tonnes of plastic! I am personally responsible for injecting two tonnes of plastic into the environment every year!”
He set a goal: to make Elysian Foods as environmentally sustainable as possible. So serious was he about solving the company’s plastic problem, he vowed that if he and his staff couldn’t solve the issue, they would simply shut down. So in late 2021, Elysian Foods began its quest to ditch the plastic.
One night during the Covid-19 lockdown of August 2021, Green and his partner decided to order takeaways for dinner. It was the packaging that caught his attention: It came in bamboo pots.
“I thought, oh that’s nice, that’s cool – it doesn’t come in plastic.”
He ate his dinner but got distracted while cleaning up, leaving the pot soaking with water in the sink.
“I came back to it a week later and I noticed that the pot was completely unaffected. There was no sign of any seepage, the water was sitting inside, and the outside of the pot was still absolutely fine. I thought, oh, maybe that's something that we could use.”
Green tracked down the source of the bamboo containers – a multibillion-dollar Finnish company called Huhtamaki.
“I contacted them, and I said what I was proposing to do. And they were like, ‘no one's ever done that before, mate – that sounds crazy’.”
Nonetheless, Huhtamaki sent some samples and Green tested them with his dips inside. They seemed to work well.
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One of the big advantages of the number 5 plastic that Elysian Foods was already using is that it has a soft lid. Once the pot is full, you push the soft lid down and that creates the seal. The entire process is done by hand.
The bamboo alternatives, however, require a heat-sealed film on top of the pot and that requires machinery that Elysian Foods doesn’t have.
The cheapest machine Green could find to apply a heat-sealed lid was around $30,000. Bear in mind, Elysian Foods is a relatively small operation. And the new packaging machine is large but Toby's current kitchen is not.
When we first caught up with Green, Elysian Foods was operating from a commercial kitchen in Miramar, just shy of 20-square-metres. This was where the team hand-poured their dips into plastic pots, then packed everything by hand into cardboard boxes for distribution.
To take the next step on his plastic-free journey, Green needed to move to bigger premises to fit in the machinery. This was a big investment and a huge decision, but the one he decided was the right thing to do.
Green wanted to make sure he was doing the right thing for the right reason. He was cautious of falling into the trap of greenwashing – a form of deceptive marketing spin to persuade consumers that a business is environmentally friendly, when it isn’t.
He didn’t want to go down the path of investing time and money into upscaling for the transition to bamboo, only to find out bamboo was actually the new palm oil of 2025.
There isn't a New Zealand-specific tool that makes it easy to compare the impacts of different types of packaging. As part of its Rethinking Plastics in Aotearoa report, the Government has committed to creating tools to help with this problem, but they're unlikely to arrive much before 2025.
“These bamboo pots with the lid on weigh 17 grams. That's 17 grams of once-earthy material in there. Are they better for the environment than 22 grams of plastic, which is the current weight of the plastic pot and the lid?” Green asked.
“For me, that was just a no brainer. I was like, of course they are. Yeah. I barely need to check this. I mean, it's just so obvious.
“But the first part of that journey was like, who do I ask? Surely there are people who know this sort of information, and it turned out to be incredibly difficult to find people to talk to.”
Green eventually reached out to Sarah Yanez, a packaging technologist and founder of Totally Wrapt Packaging.
Yanez said: “He rang me one day … because he thought he had a plan and then I sadly burst his bubble.”
She knows consumers demand positive changes from businesses, but she said they’re not always the right changes.
“All these people who want zero waste and they want this, and they want that, but they actually have no working knowledge of what that means. A, for a manufacturer, B, for the product and C, for the recycling/reuse process,” Yanez said.
“So, then you get all these manufacturers like Green, who are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Because they really do want to do the best that they can. But if you start introducing novel materials into the market, the more novel materials we have, the less critical mass of anything we have and the less we can do with them.”
A novel material is basically anything uncommon. If it's not plastic, glass, cardboard, or a can, it probably falls into that camp. A bamboo container certainly does.
Reaching critical mass is the idea that if we have enough of one type of material, it becomes cost effective to develop recycling and reuse structures that support it. However, if every manufacturer heads off in a different direction and does their own thing, well, that's just not possible.
If NZ standardises around just a couple of materials, it becomes easier to build waste and recycling streams. This is one of the recommendations in Rethinking Plastics in Aotearoa.
Yanez’s advice to Green was to look at number 1 plastic, aka PET. The recycling facilities for number 1 plastics are more widely available, but Green was still hesitant.
There's already huge investment in PET recycling in New Zealand, including a $4m grant from the Government’s Waste Minimisation Fund to help Flight Plastics build its PET recycling facility. And unlike our other PET recycling facilities, Flight Plastics can turn them back into food-grade containers.
“To make that switch would be easier and cheaper and have the distinct advantage that the pots would be see-through,” Green said. “So from a customer's perspective on the shelf, people can see inside the pot. But I feel like that's a bit of a cop-out because you're still going to have that problem of plastic in the environment.”
By this point, Green had already bought a new building to accommodate a larger packaging line and demolition was under way, so it was a bit late to turn back. But now he had two contenders for Elysian Foods’ new pots: bamboo and number 1 plastic.
“My gut instinct is I still really liked the idea of going to a bamboo pot,” he said. “If you chuck it in the sea or out the window, it's eventually just going to break down and go back into earth. The worms will eat it and it'll become soil eventually. Organic waste. That just seems like a far better option.”
Let’s break it down. Is the bamboo pot all it’s cracked up to be?
The bamboo pot Green was looking at is a round, brown pot that resembles cardboard. Except the fibres come from bamboo, which is technically a grass. Unlike cardboard, a bamboo pot is waterproof because it's lined with PLA (polylactic acid) – and PLA is a plastic.
Unlike traditional plastics, the PLA Huhtamaki uses in its bamboo containers comes from cornstarch, not crude oil. It's also certified industrially compostable. Under the right conditions, it'll break down. Unfortunately, those conditions are 60°C and 95% humidity. Those aren't conditions you find in your home compost bin!
There are some industrial compost facilities here but there isn't any pathway for domestic waste to get there. Home dip connoisseurs have two choices: put the packaging in the bin or the recycling.
It looks a lot like cardboard, so chances are it'll end up in the recycling. We asked Oji Fibre, the country’s biggest cardboard and paper recycler, if it was actually recyclable. Oji was reluctant to comment but Philip Millichamp, environment and external relations manager, did concede it was unlikely. If it ends up in cardboard recycling, it runs the risk of contaminating the entire batch. This defeats the whole purpose of using it as ‘recyclable’ packaging, then.
Next, Green contacted Hannah Blumhardt from The Rubbish Trip, a zero waste advocator. Blumhardt replied straight away: “Oh, it’s not that straightforward.”
She pointed out that the only truly environmentally friendly solution to packaging is reusable. A good example is ABC’s Swappa Crate system. ABC has the longest running reuse system in NZ, going for 100 years. Servicing major breweries, ABC owns all the bottles and recollects them all after use. DB and Lion use the service.
Blumhardt said what we need is more reuse systems like this.
“What we need is reusable packaging companies, not individual companies like Green’s, inventing their own system. Because it’s not efficient.”
However, switching from single-use plastics to a reuse system would be more expensive because almost all our systems are set up for single use.
Green is supportive of reusable packaging. There’s a fill-your-own store around the corner from his factory which he supplies. And he encourages locals to pop by to refill their containers at the Elysian Foods warehouse.
But the reality is, Elysian Foods is too small to pressure the supermarkets or the Government to set up a reusable packaging scheme just for dips. For now at least, he still needs single-use packaging, and his goal is to find the packaging with the smallest environmental impact.
A seemingly obvious option is a good ol’ glass jar with a metal lid. Many consumers believe that glass is better than plastic, but again that depends on whether it’s reused. A glass jar requires four times the amount of greenhouse gas units to produce, compared with the same-sized plastic pot.
Glass production has a lower carbon footprint per kilo than plastic. But it takes a lot more material to make the same-sized container. And the extra weight means the carbon cost of transporting the products leaps ahead of the plastic option.
Jeff Vickers, technical director of sustainability advisory firm thinkstep-anz, was the next to offer advice for Green’s cause. Vickers said Elysian Foods was in the position many businesses find themselves in.
“They understand that plastic has potentially problematic environmental effects and they want to do something about it,” he said.
“But when they go and try and work out what to do, you just discover an absolute minefield of information. And it's often contradictory and it doesn't necessarily help you make a decision.
“One of the challenges you’ve got is when you say we want to make something more sustainable, or reduce its environmental impact – what impacts are we talking about? To assume that or even be able to calculate whether one form is more or less sustainable than another is difficult because it depends what you include in the scope,” Vickers said.
“So you want to get rid of plastic packaging, presumably because people think plastic is evil. I think there's this perception that plastic is always a bad thing, but it's precisely the attributes of plastic that people don't like that are what make plastic so useful.”
It doesn't break down in the environment and it's incredibly durable. The problem’s not with the plastic itself; it’s when it gets into uncontrolled situations where it's entering the environment.
The question Vickers always asks his clients before they consider getting rid of plastic is: What’s the likelihood of your product ending up in the environment?
This is called litter potential – assessing where the product is likely to end up at the end of its life. This and carbon footprint are the two key issues to assess, according to Vickers.
“If your product was a single ice cream on a stick and it's got a wrapper around the outside, the likelihood of that ending up in the environment is exceptionally high because you're eating it out and about. You're buying it at a dairy or a corner shop or a service station. You might be eating it on the beach. It's very lightweight. It's windblown,” Vickers said.
“Even if you try and put it into a bin, you know, it's the middle of summer, the bins are overflowing and the thing blows out even though you're trying to do the right thing, and it ends up in the environment. So, in that context is the risk high? Absolutely. Should you do something about it? Yes.
“If your product is a dip like Elysian Foods, however, unless they’re taking it out for a picnic, consumers are most likely taking it home and putting it in their fridge. If they're using it at home, to actually pollute, to put that into the environment, they have to throw it out their own window. They have to pollute their own property. So the difficulty in doing that, it's actually really high.”
When thinking about plastic in this context, is switching away from plastic trying to solve a problem which, at least for Green’s products, doesn’t exist?
The second issue, carbon footprint, is harder to quantify. It’s how much something is contributing to the climate crisis. There are always going to be tradeoffs, but the ultimate goal is to find packaging that has a low impact on both fronts.
So, the bamboo packaging is unlikely to end up blowing around the beach, or being recycled, but what happens if it ends up in the landfill?
“It takes up space,” Vickers said. “And that's not great. And we need to be more circular, we need to not just landfill everything. But the actual environmental impact associated with that is negligible.”
Plastic is chemically inert. This means nothing happens when you put it in the hole in the ground. You put it there, you dig it up a thousand years from now and it's still there. Modern landfills are lined and capped, so you don't have leachate running into groundwater.
“It's not great, but it's not high impact,” Vickers said. “We need to not put it into the environment. Putting it into a landfill is still containing it.”
The aim for packaging’s end of life is containment.
Bamboo is bio-based rather than plastic, which is good, but unlike chemically inert plastic, the bamboo pot might biodegrade. And if it's biodegrading, it's releasing methane in the landfill and having a climate change impact.
In one sense, the bamboo is carbon neutral. The carbon released when it breaks down in landfill is equivalent to the carbon it sucked up when it was growing. But the anaerobic conditions in a landfill mean that it produces methane as it breaks down, not CO2. Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas – around 25 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere. And that’s bad.
There are some situations in which bamboo packaging could be the best option – for example, large-scale events and festivals, where all the waste remains in a controlled environment and a commercial composter is lined up to take it all away. Spark Arena in Auckland has been doing this since 2018.
Vickers said that with bio-based packaging, you also have to ask yourself, ‘where did it come from?’
“Was it grown in what used to be the Amazon rainforest? And so you've got a concern about sourcing for bio-based materials. You know, where did they come from? Is there food competition? A lot of the bio-plastics that are being made now are food-based. They're coming from corn. From sugar cane. From wheat. And so there's some issues around that, around sourcing and what the impacts of some of that stuff is.”
On the landfill front, the bamboo actually has a higher overall climate impact than plastic does. That's the opposite of what bamboo users are trying to achieve.
Green has concluded: “Switching to bamboo packaging simply because I don't like plastic and some of my consumers don't like plastic – if it's not beneficial to the overall wellbeing of the planet, then it's pointless. It's just greenwashing.”
A life cycle assessment is a way to calculate the environmental footprint of a product over the course of its life, accounting for the full supply chain. Think birth to death.
“So, we start right from the point of where materials come out of the ground,” Vickers said. “If they're virgin materials and they’re being extracted from the earth, whether that's from mining or whether it's from forestry or some other form of agricultural operation.
“We look at all of the transport, all of the processing that happens to get them to semi-finished products, right through to final products that are ready to be sold to the customer.
“We look at packaging and we look at distribution of the final packaged product to the customer. Warehousing, retail distribution. Finally, how you get it home, what you do with the packaging, and the actual use of the product over its life. So, if it's an energy-using product like a refrigerator, we also account for the electricity being used and the production of the electricity.
“And finally, we look at the product’s end of life, which could be putting it in a landfill, or it could be sending it for recycling or, in some countries, incineration. Or depending on the product type, it might be composting or whatever else,” Vickers said.
The goal of life cycle assessment is to avoid burden shifting. That is, to stop moving problems from one place to another or one time to another – today’s problem put off for someone else to deal with five years from now.
Another business that's recently gone through a similar process to Elysian Foods is NZ Post. Receiving pressure from customers to replace its plastic courier bags, in 2021 NZ Post commissioned thinkstep-anz to produce a life cycle assessment. Like Green, NZ Post’s overall goal was to minimise its environmental footprint.
Thinkstep-anz looked at the manufacturing, transport and end-of-life elements of courier bags – that is, whether they were going to landfill or composting. The study compared virgin plastic, recycled plastic, paper and compostable plastic courier bag options.
A brown paper bag seems like a logical choice, but it depends on its end of life. It can biodegrade so if it ends up in recycling, great. However, if it’s sent to landfill to break down, there’s potential for it to release methane. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas. And while some of that is captured and burned by the landfills and turned into energy, there are cases where that doesn't happen, meaning methane is released into the atmosphere, and that’s not good. Also, a paper bag is heavier than its plastic counterparts and requires more material to get the same performance.
Home compostable bags seemed like another good option; however, they often use a fossil-derived biodegradable plastic, which has a greater environmental impact.
In the case of other bags, such as a plastic bag, they're chemically inert. If you put it in a landfill, not much happens. And so you end up with quite big differences at the end of life, depending on what the product is.
The NZ Post study results showed that the recycled plastic bags outperformed all the other bags in the study. A reason for this is due to New Zealand’s renewable electricity mix. Recycling plastics requires a lot of electricity. Because New Zealand’s electricity mix is quite clean and renewable, that means that the carbon footprint of recycling in New Zealand is very low.
After more than six months of research, Green has decided to follow the packaging expert's recommendation and switch to a clear recycled plastic: the PET container.
“Nothing would have given me greater pleasure than to switch to a bamboo packaging. We could get rid of the plastic and we'd be the first dip company in the world to go to a bamboo package,” he said.
“I would have fallen into that trap, and I would have led thousands of consumers of our products and the industry in general, to think that's a better solution.”
Green thinks there’s a real problem for both consumers and those within the food industry around misconceptions of plastic and what is and is not deemed eco-friendly.
“What we're being told is clearly very, very limited and quite misleading. The one thing that is very obvious, though, is there is a great lack of information. But … you simply cannot make a good decision if you don't have the information available.”