Are bamboo pots better for the environment than plastic ones? This episode, we get to the bottom of the issue.
Jon Duffy: Welcome back to part two of Bamboozled: Can We Kick The Plastic? If you haven't heard the first instalment, then you know what to do.
(🎵🎵🎵 Music plays)
Jon Duffy: So, where are we? Part 1 saw us meet Elysian Foods owner Toby Green. Since he bought the company almost five years ago, he's transformed it from a small family business into a food empire, distributing nationwide, but that came with a problem.
Toby Green: Just in the first 10 months of the year, we'd already sold a hundred thousand plastic pots, which was two tons. And I was like, oh my God, I am responsible for injecting two tons of plastic into the environment.
Jon Duffy: So that's where we joined him on his quest to remove plastic packaging from his products. The first step was identifying a suitable alternative. Glass is out because of its large carbon footprint.
(Glass shattering sound) '
Toby Green: There's four times the amount of greenhouse gas units in a glass jar compared to the same size plastic pot.
Jon Duffy: But a chance lockdown takeaway led Toby to what he thinks may be the solution.
Toby Green: It came in these pots, which I subsequently found out was made of bamboo. I thought, oh, maybe that's something that we could use.
Jon Duffy: It's not as straightforward as switching out the plastic for this new bamboo container. Applying the heat-sealed film lid they need requires an entirely new packaging machine. A machine that's too big to fit in Elysian's current warehouse.
(Building and demolition noise)
Jon Duffy: Not one to shy away from a challenge. I picked up a sledgehammer and got involved.
(Sound of sledgehammer breaking wall)
Jon Duffy: Probably a more efficient way of doing this. It's the first wall I've demo'd.
And finally, at the end of the last episode, Toby asked a big question: is the bamboo pot better for the environment than the plastic he's currently using?
Toby Green: And 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. Who do I ask?
Jon Duffy: And that brings us up to speed. So on this episode of Consume This with me, Jon Duffy, we're asking the question: does 17 grams of bamboo have a lower environmental impact than the 22 grams of number five polypropylene plastic that Elysian Foods is currently using?
Jon Duffy: Toby's first port of call was packaging technologist and founder of Totally Wrapt packaging Sarah Yanez.
Sarah Yanez: He rang me one day and I was sitting in the car at the time. And in this car park I had a great chat with him, cause he thought he had a plan and then I sadly burst his bubble.
Their consumers are demanding things, but not always the right things.
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 actually for the recycling and reuse process.
So then you get all these manufacturers like Toby, who are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Cause 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.
Jon Duffy: 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.
A novel material is basically anything uncommon. If it's not plastic, glass, cardboard or a can it probably falls into that camp.
Sarah does have a suggestion for Toby, but first let's unpack what the bamboo container actually is.
It's a round, brown pot that looks like it's made of cardboard. And basically it is. Except the fibers come from bamboo, not a tree. Bamboo, technically, is grass. But unlike cardboard, this pot is waterproof. That's because it's lined with PLA and PLA is …
(Jon does a drumroll on the table)
… a plastic.
Unlike traditional plastics, the PLA Huhtamaki use in this bamboo container comes from cornstarch, not crude oil. It's also certified industrially compostable. Under the right conditions, it'll break down. Unfortunately, due to the PLA component, those conditions are 60 degrees Celsius and 95% humidity. Those aren't conditions you find in your home compost bin!
There are some industrial compost facilities in Aotearoa but there isn't any pathway for domestic waste to get there. Elysian's dip containers... They end up at home, where most of us, well, we have two choices. Does it go in the bin? Or does it go in the recycling?
It looks a lot like cardboard, so the chances are it'll end up in the recycling. That's where I'd put it, but is it actually recyclable? We asked Oji Fibre. They're the country’s biggest cardboard and paper recycler. They were reluctant to comment, but environment and external relations manager Philip Millichamp did concede it was unlikely. If it ends up in cardboard recycling it runs the risk of contaminating the entire batch.
Jon Duffy: That's not a great outcome. So what advice did Sarah Yanez end up giving Toby on that phone call?
Toby Green: Her advice was look at number one plastic. The technology's advanced a lot. It's a lot more solid. Because number one plastics are not as robust. So that is now a definite option for packaging dips and being able to hold up on the supermarket shelf.
The recycling facilities for number one plastics are much more widely available. To make that switch would probably be easier and cheaper and have the distinct advantage that the pots would be see-through. 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.
Jon Duffy: So at this point in the journey, there are a few options on the table. Firstly, Toby could do nothing. He could keep packaging his dips in number five polypropylene, but that feels like even more of a cop-out. The whole point of this exercise is to improve. Plus he's already bought a new building to accommodate a larger packaging line. Demolition’s under way.
Jon Duffy: So it's a bit late to turn back. The bamboo is still on the table, and now Sarah has also thrown clear number one PET into the mix.
Toby Green: My gut instinct is I still really liked the idea of going to a bamboo pot. 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 at the moment.
Jon Duffy: Maybe, but is it? Toby doesn't want to spend thousands of dollars making the switch to bamboo if that turns out not to be the case.
Toby Green: Oh, a hundred percent. And that's why one of the first questions I asked was is it actually better for the environment?
Jon Duffy: To try and finally settle things we invited Toby into the Consume This studio.
(MS Teams dialing tone)
Jon Duffy: ... and set him up on a call with sustainability consultant Jeff Vickers.
Toby Green: Alright, Jeff. Nice to meet you.
Jeff Vickers: Nice meeting you too Toby.
Jon Duffy: After the introductions were out of the way we got down to business.
Toby Green: Um, so we could switch to a #1 pot, or move away from plastic and go for bamboo. And we did some trials for the bamboo pots and they seem to work really well.
Jeff Vickers: Yeah. I think you're in a position that a lot of people find themselves in. They understand that plastic has potentially problematic environmental effects and they want to do something about it. 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.
And I think probably the first question to ask yourself is what is the problem you're trying to solve? So you want to get rid of plastic packaging, presumably because people think plastic is evil. And I think there's this perception that plastic is always a bad thing, but I think it's precisely the attributes of plastic that people don't like are what makes plastic so useful.
So it doesn't break down in the environment. Absolutely. It's incredibly durable. And those are the reasons why we use it.
Toby Green: Right.
Jeff Vickers: So the problem is when it gets into uncontrolled situations where it's entering the environment. And so I think the question you have to ask, and the question I always encourage our clients to consider before they consider getting rid of plastic is: what's the likelihood of your product ending up in the environment?
So if your product was, let’s say, 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 wind blown. 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. And so in that context is the high risk. Absolutely. Should you do something about it? Yes.
And then what is the problem you're trying to solve? You want to make it biodegradable in the environment, in the sea, on the beach, next to the corner shop, because that's where the problem exists. If your product is a dip, and people have to take it home and put it in the refrigerator. Then, unless they take it out for a picnic, which they might do, but 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.
Jon Duffy: This is something that as yet, Toby hadn't really factored in. Is switching away from plastic trying to solve a problem which, at least for Toby's products, doesn't really exist? Maybe.
Toby Green: If I was selling a product that was in a takeaway cup, and it's going to get thrown out a lot, you see them flying around in the wind and Wellington…
Jeff Vickers: Exactly.
Toby Green: But if you convert that to bamboo, that's great because if it gets blown into the sea, it's just going to biodegrade and it might be half a percent of plastic in there, but it's better than a hundred percent of plastic.
But as you point out, that's almost certainly not the case. You don't see empty taramasalata pots, or any pots of dip flying around in the rubbish really.
Jeff Vickers: I don't. No.
Jon Duffy: Yeah, me neither. So if they're not floating about in the ocean or blowing around the streets, where are Toby's dip containers ending up? Is his packaging creating end of life problems, or is he better off focusing on the lowest carbon option?
As we discovered earlier, the bamboo container is not recyclable. So let's look at the landfill.
We can consider both plastic pots together. If you were burying them in a big hole it doesn't really matter whether they're #1, PET or #5 polypropylene.
Jeff Vickers: What you're trying to aim for with packaging is containment. It needs to retain in the human world. We need to not put it into the environment. Putting it into a landfill is still containing it. It might not be the nicest thing cause you're filling up a hole in the ground, but plastic is chemically inert. So what happens when you put it in the hole in the ground is absolutely nothing. It takes up space. 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.
And the reason is because it's chemically inert, nothing happens. You put it there, you dig it up a thousand years from now, it's still there. It might decompose incredibly slowly, but it's physically contained. And modern landfills are what they call lined and they're capped so that you don't have leachate running into groundwater and that kind of thing.
And so is it not great? Well, yeah, it's not great, but it's not high impact.
And then you look at alternative scenarios, like the one you're considering with a bamboo-based pot.
Toby Green: Yeah.
Jeff Vickers: And so the concern with that is that yes it's, bio-based, that's good. But sometimes, with bio-based products, you have to look at, well, where did it come from?
Was it grown on what used to be the Amazon rainforest? And so you've got a concern about sourcing for a bio-based materials. You know, where did they come from? Is there food competition? A lot of the bioplastics 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.
And then also the other thing you have to consider is at the end of life, then you're putting it in a landfill. And unlike that chemically inert plastic, this might biodegrade. And if it's biodegrading, it's releasing methane in the landfill. And so it's having a climate change impact.
Jon Duffy: 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. Now, if you haven't heard, that's bad.
Jeff Vickers: So, if you're in a big city in New Zealand, your landfill is capturing most of the methane. It burns it, converts it back to carbon dioxide and produces electricity. But if you're in a rural area, where you've got a smaller landfill, it's not as economical to do those things. And so the methane is often just released to the atmosphere and has a high impact.
Jon Duffy: So on the landfill front, the bamboo loses, it has a higher overall climate impact than plastic does. That's the opposite of what Toby is trying to achieve.
Toby Green: And 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.
Jeff Vickers: Yeah.
Jon Duffy: So that's not to say we should ban the boo. That was a pun by the way. And I'm told by my producer Tom that it's funny.
Producer Tom: It is funny.
Jon Duffy: There are situations when bamboo packaging could be the best option.
Let's say you're running a festival where all the waste remains in a controlled environment, and you've lined up a commercial composter to take it away. That could work well. Spark Arena in Auckland have been doing this since 2018. However, that isn't the case for Toby's products. After you've eaten your dip and chucked the package away, it's going to sit in landfill, producing methane and accelerating climate change. But for plastics, there is another option. Recycling.
Jeff Vickers: And it will almost certainly be collected for recycling in most parts of New Zealand, but not everywhere. Number five, six, those sorts of grades aren’t collected everywhere. And even when they are collected, it doesn't mean we can recycle them.
So in New Zealand, we recycle grades one and two. We don't typically recycle the other grades. And so they get sent to other countries, typically in Asia, as mixed plastic bales.
Jon Duffy: Just a quick reminder: Toby's current packaging is #5 polypropylene. The plastic that Sarah Yanez suggested he switch to is number one PET.
Jeff Vickers: There's more domestic recycling and less export than there used to be, but effectively, products that we can't recycle onshore, get shipped offshore in mixed bales, or sometimes separated into different grades.
So can you recycle it domestically? Probably not. The current one, the polypropylene. Does that make it a problematic waste stream? I mean, I guess to some extent. Part of the issue is just volume. That's why we don't recycle it as much in New Zealand. There's just not as much of it.
Ironically, having more could actually be a good thing, because then there'd be more of a business case to put recycling facilities in New Zealand to recycle it. So it's kind of these counterintuitive things, right? You've got to have enough of something to make it worthwhile investing the money to have recycling facilities in New Zealand for it.
And so, for grades one and two, we've got the facilities because we've got lots of Coke bottles in number one, and we've got lots of milk bottles in number two, HDPE and PET.
Jon Duffy: This is what Sarah Yanez was talking about earlier. Critical mass. And it's the reason why almost every packaging consultant we spoke to suggested switching to PET.
As a nation, if we standardise around just a couple of materials, it becomes easier for us to build waste and recycling streams to deal with them. That's also a recommendation and the government's 'Rethinking Plastics In Aotearoa' report. The Ministry for the Environment is currently focusing on phasing out PVC and polystyrene food packaging, with more to follow in the second half of the decade.
Alongside that, there's been a huge investment in PET recycling in Aotearoa, including a $4 million grant from the Waste Minimisation Fund to help Flight Plastics build their PET recycling facility. And unlike our other PET recycling facilities, Flight Plastics can turn them back into food-grade containers. As a bonus, they're just around the corner from Toby's new kitchen and warehouse.
Jeff Vickers: The move to PET, that's something you could consider. It would make it more recyclable domestically. So there is an advantage there, but I do think that, you know, is there a huge problem with what you're currently doing? I would say there are many bigger problems in the world that we need to deal with first.
I think people get very caught up on this packaging thing because it's tactile. You're given that choice. You have to dispose of it. And so it's in your face. And waste seems like something that we all want to inherently avoid. Right? Which makes sense. We don't want to waste things, and landfill to many people as a concept is just utterly awful. And I can understand that.
But on the flip side, there are lots of different environmental challenges we're trying to solve. And I think we need to focus our energy in the places where it's going to make the biggest difference. And I do worry that people get very concerned about things to the extent that they make choices that have a more significant environmental impact.
I always think about reusable coffee cups and disposable coffee cups and things like that quite often, because you know, you might get people who say, "I've gone to the cafe and have bought my reusable cup. Oh, actually I forgot it. I'd better drive home and get it and bring it back, so I don't have to have a disposable takeaway cup." Well, the impact of you driving home and back again was far higher than the impact of the cup.
The challenge is that people have this view that there's one overriding priority in the world and they have to minimise waste. And yeah, we need to do things on waste, but I think carbon footprint and other environmental metrics that we monitor, I think are things that sort of slip below the radar a little bit more, put in the too hard basket a little bit too much. And they're things that really, we do need to be quite concerned about. Because yes, plastics in the environment are a problem, but equally climate change is also a problem for those same environments. Because if we're elevating the temperature, a lot of the species that we're worried about are going to significantly suffer anyway, regardless of whether there's plastic there or not.
And so we've got kind of these multiple crises that we have to try and manage. And I just think that we need to probably, as you said, increase people's level of education and awareness of the fact that there are these many things out there that we need to be thinking about. But also probably improve the way we communicate. To do it more effectively. Because I think, as you've found, you're trying, right, you're really trying hard to work the stuff out, and you just get into an absolute minefield where you can't work out what the right answer is.
We spend a lot of time on these sorts of questions and the answers are not always simple and they're not always obvious.
Toby Green: Yeah. There's definitely an asymmetry of information.
Jeff Vickers: If you wanted to make one change, moving to clear PET probably makes sense.
Toby Green: Um, right. I will have to go away and reassess my options.
(🎵🎵🎵 music plays)
Jon Duffy: A couple of days after this conversation, Toby popped Jeff and I an email. I wanted to get Toby to read it to you himself, but the last time he was in the studio, well, actually we forgot.
So, here it goes. This is voiced by our producer, Tom, cause he's British.
Producer Tom: Hi Jeff.
Thanks so much for your time on Friday morning. I very much enjoyed our discussion. Although I have to be honest and say that I find the conclusion to be sobering. I had developed a grand vision, clearly somewhat naive, that Elysian Foods could be a trailblazer, making a radical switch to a new form of packaging in the dips market, as yet unseen by any other company. We could do away with tons of plastic, switch to some harmless bamboo pots, et voila – in a stroke we'd become environmental champions.
The more practical conclusion is that we switch from #5 plastic to #1, and this would result in a marginally better packaging solution. Based on our conversation, we'll make more progress in our goal of making Elysian Foods as sustainable as possible by focusing on the impact of ingredients and business practices, rather than obsessing about the packaging.
And somehow we've got to communicate all this to our customers and the wider public.
Jon Duffy: So there we go. Six months ago, at the start of Toby's journey, I imagined by now we'd be standing in his new warehouse, watching bamboo-packaged dips fly off the production line.
Jon Duffy: Instead, as you can hear, the warehouse isn't quite finished yet.
And as for the bamboo, well, after more than six months of research, he's concluded that the best solution is to switch to a clear recycled plastic PET container.
Toby Green: It became apparent that bamboo packaging actually probably wasn't better for the environment than using plastic packaging.
Jon Duffy: So how do you get to that point? I mean, I find that really extraordinary.
Toby Green: Extraordinary. Yeah. It's hard to believe. It's hard to get your head round because it is a natural process, obviously enhanced by fertilizers and various other things. But if you look at a farm growing bamboo versus a giant petrochemical plant, you're probably always going to pick the bamboo plantation as the best for the environment.
And I didn't actually manage to find any information about bamboo plantations really, nothing that jumped out. So I don't actually know what constitutes a bamboo plantation, except for the very deep suspicion that they are grown in the tropics and therefore very likely to be grown in areas where native tropical forests have been deforested.
Jon Duffy: Right.
Toby Green: And how can that be good for the environment? It clearly isn't.
Jon Duffy: And we should be clear. You're not an advocate for the plastic industry. You're not here as a cheerleader.
Toby Green: I'm quite the opposite – I'm trying to do away with plastic.
Jon Duffy: I know. And I think that's the most interesting thing about your journey, is that you started off going I want to get rid of this. This is a packaging type I don't want associated with my product. And so, yeah. Where are you in your journey now?
Toby Green: Well, I think, you know, nothing would have given me greater pleasure than to switch to a bamboo packaging. And I think when we first met, I talked about the fact that here's a great opportunity in my then naive state.
We could get rid of the plastic and we'd be the first dip company in the world to go to a bamboo package and proudly put it on our shelf and that would be great. And I think if I hadn't stopped and asked the question, if we'd gone down that path and sort of blindly touted the benefits of moving to a more sustainable bamboo packaging and it's biodegradable and all this sort of thing, I could have been very guilty of greenwash. And I would have been guilty of it. 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, when potentially, well, quite likely it's not a better solution.
Jon Duffy: Right. So you wouldn't have been intentionally greenwashing, but you would have been inadvertently based on an assumption, I guess.
Toby Green: That's right. Yeah.
Jon Duffy: It's interesting for me to ask you, how do you feel now that you've got to this point? You're making the best worst decision you can, in a sense. Where does it leave you?
Toby Green: Well, I feel better informed than I did six months ago. Six months ago, I could have easily made a decision that would not have been an optimal outcome. We're still using plastic, but if we can encourage a system where we've got a closed loop on number one and number two plastics and better systems to make that happen, and we can encourage that process. That's great.
But I think the other big, much bigger picture is like - what an earth we've been told as consumers and through the food industry news press and all that. Everything that we read. And when you're in the food industry, what we're being told is clearly very, very limited and quite misleading. And I think that is a real problem.
Jon Duffy: So let's pause on that for a minute, because you've chosen not only to do the better thing for the environment, but not get the reward from it in terms of the consumer perception. How do we influence that decision-making process? Because there's a disconnect between what, from what you've told us, is good for the environment, and what consumers perceive as good for the environment.
Toby Green: Well I think when I started out on this process, I put my economist hat on. I was like, well, the obvious solution is you just tax plastic. And ultimately that would feed through into the consumer, how much the consumer pays for a product. Maybe in the same way they propose to do a sugar tax. But now of course, having gone through this process and realised, well actually, plastic isn't necessarily the demon that it's been made out to be. Where on earth does that leave you in terms of what tools are available in society as a whole to direct people towards better environmental outcomes? It's not immediately obvious.
The one thing that is very obvious though, is there is a great lack of information, and to use an economist’s term again, we're talking about making asymmetric decisions, but you simply cannot make a good decision if you don't have the information available. If we're all led to believe that plant-based packaging is a better solution for the environment than plastic, it's only rational that we'll all go down that path.
But it turns out it's not the better environmental option, and we shouldn't be going down that path. And yet how on earth would people be able to make that decision without that information available to them?
Jon Duffy: Mmm. We should caveat that by saying it's the best decision based on the research that you've done for packaging for your business. Right?
Toby Green: Yeah very specific to my business.
Jon Duffy: There could be other examples out there, even outside the food industry, where a plant-based package may be- I don't have an example to give you, but I mean...
Toby Green: When we talked to Jeff Vickers, he was very clear that if you think your packaging is going to end up blowing around and in the ecosystem, then it's better to pay that upfront cost of a slightly higher environmental cost packaging to get that plant-based packaging that's biodegradable. Cause if you think it's always going to end up, like takeaway stuff, those sorts of things, that get chucked around in the park and end up blown into the sea, biodegradable all the way, because you're going to have a better environmental outcome overall, even though you've paid a slightly higher upfront cost for it. But if your packaging is going to end up in the landfill or the recycling then try to make it as closed loop as possible. So it is a very nuanced situation. There's no hard and fast rules.
(🎵🎵🎵 Music in)
Jon Duffy: You've been listening to Consume This with me Jon Duffy. This episode was produced by Tom Riste-Smith and executive produced by Gemma Rasmussen.
Our thanks go to Elysian Foods and Toby Green for sharing their story with us. I also want to thank everyone else who helped with the research for this episode, including Jeff Vickers and Kate Thompson at ThinkStep ANZ, Sarah Yanez, Dame Juliet Gerrard, Hannah and Liam at The Rubbish Trip, Sarah Pritchard from WasteMinz, Nikki Withington and everybody else.
Consume This is brought to you by Consumer NZ. We're proud of our independence, which we can only achieve because we're a not for-profit supported by our members.