The U.S. generates almost 80 million tons of packaging waste each year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. When landfilled or incinerated, this waste pollutes the environment and poses health risks to humans and wildlife. Packaging is also the main source of the plastic pollution that is clogging the ocean and expected to exceed the weight of all fish by 2050 at current rates. The food industry is largely responsible for this growing packaging problem.
About half of the packaging waste in the U.S. comes from food and beverage products. And studies suggest that large food corporations like Nestle and Uniliver generate the majority of the plastic waste
Recognizing this issue, and under pressure from consumers, several of these very same corporations have recently pledged to reduce the environmental impact of their packaging. Many smaller companies in the food and beverage and industry are doing the same, and some of them have been on the forefront of packaging innovations for years. Food Tank highlights 16 food and beverage companies to exhibit the industry's various approaches to sustainable packaging.
Alter Eco set out a decade ago to find sustainable alternatives to the non-recyclable flexible plastic used for their chocolate truffle wrappers and stand-up pouch packaging. After several years of research and development, Alter Eco released the first ever laminated stand-up pouch made of plant-based compostable materials for their quinoa products. For the truffles, Alter Eco now partners with Natureflex to make a compostable wrapper made of eucalyptus and birch trees with microscopic aluminum layers that maintain freshness. The packaging will compost in home and industrial facilities and will biodegrade in the ocean. Alter Eco also uses non-toxic ink on all their packaging. For chocolate bar packaging, Alter Eco uses Forest Steward Council (FSC) certified paperboard that comes from sustainably managed forests.
BOSS Food's vegan superfood bars use compostable wrappers. The wrappers are made by TIPA. TIPA's propriety bio-based blend has all the properties of normal plastic but is certified for industrial and home composting. TIPA conducts shelf-life tests with each brand they work with to ensure the same shelf life as conventional packaging.
Boxed Water is Better
Reusable bottles are the most sustainable way to haul around water. But when that's not an option, Boxed Water is Better offers a more environmentally friendly alternative to plastic bottles. The 100 percent recyclable box is 75 percent paper. The cap is made of plastic, and the rest is aluminum lining. The packaging is free of BPAs and phthalates. The paper comes from well-managed forests, and they use some of their profits for planting trees in areas affected by deforestation and fires. The boxes flatten for shipping to regional filling locations, reducing the companies carbon footprint by using one truck for every 26 trucks needed for shipping plastic bottles.
Some companies would like to use more sustainable packaging but feel the nature of their product makes it difficult or impossible with available options. Recycling facilities can't accept the flexible plastic pouches Buddy Fruits uses for their small-batch fresh fruit purees. Sustainability is an important part of their brand, but the highly perishable product needs to be as airtight as possible. While searching for a more sustainable and equally secure alternative, BuddyFruits has partnered with TerraCycle. Terracycle collects and recycles hard to recycle products and makes new materials and products. Buddy Fruits customers can request an envelope from TerraCycle to ship-in their empty pouches. Many other food and beverage companies, like White Leaf Provisions, partner with TerraCycle for the same reasons as Buddy Fruits.
Celestial Tea does not use strings, staples, and individual wrappers for its tea bags. The company says these practices prevent 3.5 million pounds of landfill material a year. Celestial's tea bags are compostable, and their outer boxes are made with 100 percent recycled paperboard.
Don Maslow Coffee
Several companies sell coffee in bags that claim to be compostable but are not actually certified for composting. These bags use non-compostable plastic parts to keep them airtight. Fully compostable bags without these parts are also available, but they can't keep the coffee fresh for as long. A couple years ago, Elevate Packaging released the first coffee bag with compostable zippers and valves. Now Dan Maslow Coffee is one of the first to sell products in these certified compostable bags.
Instant meals are convenient in today's busy society, but they use lots of packaging. GF Harvest offers sustainable to-go option with their GoPack oatmeal bowls. The recyclable bowls are made from the IntegraFlex collapsible cup, with a rigid outer carton and an inner liner. The packaging comes flat to save space. When the customer is ready to eat, they prop up the outer layer into a bowl and add hot water. GoPacks come with a wrapped paper spoon that is partially made from FSC certified paper and is recyclable wherever coffee cups are recyclable.
This sustainability-focused yerba mate company is constantly seeking to reduce their packaging's environmental impact. It has been a difficult and on-going process — they identify packaging as the largest contributor to their overall GHG emissions. Almost all of Guyaki's packaging is recyclable bottles and cans, and they sell their loose leaf yerba mate in compostable Natureflex bags. They recently reduced their annual packaging use by 44,000 pounds by eliminating the overwrap and tea string from their single-use mate bags. A large portion of their cans are made of half previously recycled aluminum and use 95 percent less energy than conventional aluminum cans.
Honest Tea has Cradle to Cradle certification on their glass bottles. The certification indicates high marks in several sustainable indicators: use of reutilized materials, water stewardship, material safety, and use of renewable energy. Honest Tea is also in the process of rolling out new Tetra Pak packaging for their line of kids juices. Tetra Pak is 75 percent FSC certified carton, and the rest is a mixture of plastic polymers and aluminum. Numerous studies have found that the life-cycle GHG emissions of Tetra Pak is generally the lowest of packaging types. But not all recycling programs accept mixed material cartons like Tetra Pak, and some that do end up sending the cartons to the dump or incinerator.
Love the Wild
After a year of development and testing, Loving the Wild recently released a compostable tray for their line of ready-to-cook sustainable seafood meals. The tray is certified compostable and made from plant-based plastic. Loving the Wild will come out with a microwaveable version later this year.
Loving Earth's chocolate bar and superfood bar packaging is made with Econic, a compostable film derived from FSC certified wood pulp and non-gmo corn. Their chocolate boxes and line of boxed cereals are made of 100 percent recycled wood fibers. The inner bag of the cereal boxes is made from Econic. All of Loving Earth's products use non-toxic vegetable-based printing ink to prevent contamination of water supplies and compost piles. Loving Earth has also taken a sustainable packaging approach to all most all of their wide range of other products.
Mindful Inc packages their organic tea lines in Tetra Pak with a plant-based cap. Tetra Pak offers this cap as an option to companies utilizing their technology. The cap is made of plastic derived from sugarcane, and its production process has a smaller GHG footprint than conventional plastic caps.
No Evil Foods
No Evil Foods' vegetarian meat alternatives come in compostable packaging made by Kraftpak and are printed with plant-based ink. Previously, No Evil Foods used butcher paper with a non-biodegradable sticker, making it difficult to compost the butcher paper. Kraftpak is a biodegradable unbleached carton board that seals with water-soluble adhesives. The packaging unfolds like origami to mimic the unfolding of butcher paper. Kraftpak is also certified for recycling.
Numi Organic Teas
'Eco-responsible packaging' is part of Numi's environmentally and socially conscious business model. Their efforts include opting for biodegradable non-gmo filter-paper tea bags instead of nylon bags, using boxes made of 85 percent recycled paper products, and using soy-based inks. They are working with 30 other companies to develop the first home-compostable, plant-based, non-gmo material overwrap for tea bags. Also, Numi sells gift boxes made of bamboo, a more sustainable alternative to slower growing trees. In their last annual sustainability audit, Numi calculated that their packaging choices conserved 5,000 trees, 659 thousand pounds of GHG emissions, 4 million gallons of water, and 317 thousand pounds of waste.
The six-pack rings on this brewery's beers are 100 percent biodegradable and edible. Saltwater is one of a handful of breweries now using Eco Six Pack Rings technology. Saltwater makes the rings from barley and wheat ribbons leftover from brewing. The rings compost within a few days. On open land and in the ocean, the rings decompose in a few weeks. The rings are not recommended for consumption, but animals can safely eat them. But if left to decompose in an open area, the rings can still potentially entrap marine life and other animals.
Strauss Family Creamery
For 25 years, Strauss Family Creamery has packaged organic milk in reusable glass bottles made with up to 30 percent recycled glass. Customers can rinse their bottles and return them to the store where purchased to get back a US$2.00 deposit. Strauss then takes the bottles back to their facilities to reuse the bottles an average of five times before recycling them. The company has an 80 percent return rate on bottles, keeping about 500,000 pounds of milk containers and plastic out of landfills each year.
By Melissa Gaskill
Two decades ago scientists and volunteers along the Virginia coast started tossing seagrass seeds into barren seaside lagoons. Disease and an intense hurricane had wiped out the plants in the 1930s, and no nearby meadows could serve as a naturally dispersing source of seeds to bring them back.
Restored seagrass beds in Virginia now provide habitat for hundreds of thousands of scallops. Bob Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science / CC BY 2.0<p>The paper is part of a growing trend of evidence suggesting seagrass meadows can be easier to restore than other coastal habitats.</p><p>Successful seagrass-restoration methods include <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304377099000078?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">transplanting shoots</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1061-2971.2004.00314.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mechanized planting</a> and, more recently, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17438-4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">biodegradable mats</a>. Removing threats, proximity to donor seagrass beds, planting techniques, project size and site selection all play roles in a restoration effort's success.</p><p>Human assistance isn't always necessary, though. In areas where some beds remain, seagrass can even recover on its own when stressors are reduced or removed. For example, seagrass began to recover when Tampa Bay improved its water quality by reducing nitrogen loads from runoff by roughly 90%.</p><p>But more and more, seagrass meadows struggle to hang on.</p><p>The marine flowering plants have declined globally since the 1930s and currently disappear at a rate equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes, according to the <a href="https://www.unep.org/resources/report/out-blue-value-seagrasses-environment-and-people" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Environment Programme</a>. And research published in 2018 found the rate of decline is <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB005941" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">accelerating</a> in many regions.</p><p>The causes of decline vary and overlap, depending on the region. They include thermal stress from climate change; human activities such as dredging, anchoring and coastal infrastructure; and intentional removal in tourist areas. In addition, increased runoff from land carries sediment that clouds the water, blocking sunlight the plants need for photosynthesis. Runoff can also carry contaminants and nutrients from fertilizer that disrupt habitats and cause algal blooms.</p><p>All that damage comes with a cost.</p>
The Value of Seagrass<p>As with ecosystems like rainforests and <a href="https://therevelator.org/mangroves-climate-change/" target="_blank">mangroves</a>, loss of seagrass increases carbon dioxide emissions. And that spells trouble not just for certain habitats but for the whole planet.</p><p>Although seagrass covers at most 0.2% of the seabed, it <a href="https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/seagrass-secret-weapon-fight-against-global-heating" target="_blank">accounts for 10%</a> of the ocean's capacity to store carbon and soils, and these meadows store carbon dioxide an estimated 30 times faster than most terrestrial forests. Slow decomposition rates in seagrass sediments contribute to their <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238506081_Assessing_the_capacity_of_seagrass_meadows_for_carbon_burial_Current_limitations_and_future_strategies" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high carbon burial rates</a>. In Australia, according to <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15204" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> by scientists at Edith Cowan University, loss of seagrass meadows since the 1950s has increased carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to 5 million cars a year. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that a 29% decline in seagrass in Chesapeake Bay between 1991 and 2006 resulted in an estimated loss of up to 1.8 million tons of carbon.</p>
Eelgrass in the river delta at Prince William Sound, Alaska. Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC; Courtesy of Mandy Lindeberg / NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC<p>Seagrasses also protect costal habitats. A healthy meadow slows wave energy, reduces erosion and lowers the risk of flooding. In Morro Bay, California, a 90% decline in the seagrass species known as eelgrass caused extensive erosion, according to a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272771420303528?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> from researchers at California Polytechnic State University.</p><p>"Right away, we noticed big patterns in sediment loss or erosion," said lead author Ryan Walter. "Many studies have shown this on individual eelgrass beds, but very few studies looked at it on a systemwide scale."</p><p>In the tropics, seagrass's natural protection can reduce the need for expensive and often-environmentally unfriendly <a href="https://www.nioz.nl/en/news/zeegras-spaart-stranden-en-geld" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">beach nourishments</a> regularly conducted in tourism areas.</p><p>Seagrass ecosystems improve water quality and clarity, filtering particles out of the water column and preventing resuspension of sediment. This role could be even more important in the future. By producing oxygen through photosynthesis, meadows could help offset decreased oxygen levels caused by warmer water temperatures (oxygen is less soluble in warm than in cold water).</p><p>The meadows also provide vital habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, marine mammals such as manatees, invertebrates and algae. They provide nursery habitat for <a href="https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32636/seagrass.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly 20%</a> of the world's largest fisheries — an <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/seagrass-meadows-harbor-wildlife-for-centuries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">estimated 70%</a> of fish habitats in Florida alone.</p><p>Conversely, their disappearance can contribute to die-offs of marine life. The loss of more than 20 square miles of seagrass in Florida's Biscayne Bay may have helped set the stage for a widespread <a href="https://www.wlrn.org/2020-08-14/the-seagrass-died-that-may-have-triggered-a-widespread-fish-kill-in-biscayne-bay" target="_blank">fish kill</a> in summer 2020. Lack of grasses to produce oxygen left the basin more vulnerable when temperatures rose and oxygen levels dropped as a result, says Florida International University professor Piero Gardinali.</p>
Damaged Systems, a Changing Climate<p>Governments and conservationists around the world have already put a lot of effort into coastal restoration efforts. And that's helped some seagrass populations.</p><p>Where stressors remain, though, restoration grows more complicated. <a href="https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/en/publications/the-future-of-seagrass-ecosystem-services-in-a-changing-world(3a8c56db-7bed-4c9e-ac7f-c72453e2a102).html" target="_blank">Research</a> published this September found that only 37% of seagrass restorations have survived. Newly restored meadows remain vulnerable to the original stressors that depleted them, as well as to storms — and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis">climate change</a>.</p>
Seagrass in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Alicia Wellman / Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>In Chesapeake Bay a cold-water species of seagrass is currently hitting its heat limit, especially in summer, according to Alexander Challen Hyman of University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment. As waters continue to warm due to climate change, the species likely will disappear there.</p><p>Climate-driven sea-level rise complicates the problem as well. Seagrasses thrive at specific depths — too shallow and they dry out or are eaten, too deep and there isn't enough light for photosynthesis.</p>
But There’s Good News, Too<p>Luckily, left to its own devices, a seagrass meadow can flourish for hundreds of years, according to a <a href="https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2019.1861" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> published last year by Hyman and other researchers from the University of Florida. The researchers arrived at their conclusion by looking at shells of living mollusks and fossil shells to estimate the ages of meadows in Florida's Big Bend region on the Gulf Coast.</p><p>That area has extensive, relatively pristine seagrass meadows. "Our motivation was to understand the past history of these systems, and shells store a lot of history," said co-author Michal Kowalewski.</p><p>A high degree of similarity between living and dead shells indicates a stable area, while a mismatch suggests an area shifted from seagrass to barren sand. The researchers found that long-term accumulations of shells resembled living ones, suggesting that the seagrass habitats have been stable over time.</p><p>That stability allows biodiversity to thrive, creating conditions where specialist species can survive and flourish, according to Hyman.</p><p>Discovering the long-term stability of seagrass meadows has implications for choosing restoration sites, Kowalewski notes.</p><p>"There must be reasons they thrive in one place, while a mile away they don't and fossil data says they probably never did," he said. "If we remove a seagrass patch, we cannot hope to plant it somewhere else. It's not just the seagrass that is special. The location at which it's found is special, too."</p><p>A better approach is conserving these habitats in the first place, but we're not doing enough of that right now. The UN reports that marine protected areas safeguard just 26% of recorded seagrass meadows, compared with 40% of coral reefs and 43% of mangroves.</p>
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