The Challenges with Compostable Packaging
As a pioneer in the food industry when it comes to using compostable packaging, we often get asked - "why aren't more food companies using compostable?" Today we help explain the answer to that question by discussing some of the challenges food companies face when trying to transition from plastic to compostable. We'll also share some of our first hand examples of how we've dealt with these challenges.
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Challenges with Compostable Packaging
1. Compostable Packaging has a Shelf life
One of the things that makes compostable packaging unique is that compostable packaging has a shelf life and is designed not to last - unlike plastic, which will last for thousands and thousands of years on earth. This doesn't mean if it's in your pantry, it's going to disintegrate and disappear. But it does mean that over time, the packaging won't look as good or perform as well - for example, the zippers might stop workin.
2. Packaging Aesthetic
Compostable packaging isn’t as vibrant as plastic packaging, and it tends to be much more delicate. The second you put a compostable bag in the shipping box with product in it and ship it somewhere, it's going to look a little worse than when it left like the manufacturing line. And then add on to that people handling it by touching it and moving it around over time, it starts to get wrinkly to the point where it doesn't look that good. If you're selling online like us, this isn't really an issue. But if you're walking down the aisles of a grocery store and you're looking at thousands of products in beautiful pristine plastic packaging, and there is one little brand on the shelf that is wrinkly and doesn't look as perfect, that's where the problems arise. You are either going to pass by and not notice it, or you are probably going to look at it and think: "that looks old." We are not trained as customers to look for sustainable packaging yet.
Until we get to the point where grocery stores have designated sections for plastic-free packaged foods like the way they used to have for organic or gluten-free, it's going to be a challenge for brands to sell through traditional retail channels like grocery in compostable packaging.
We learned this firsthand when we first transitioned to compostable packaging two years ago. We were so stoked to be making the transition away from plastic, but we quickly saw sales decline in our retail stores once we transitioned. That’s why over the past couple of years, we have transitioned more of our business to more of an online business. We want to be able to use compostable as much as possible, and we think selling online is the best way to use it without dealing with the challenges mentioned above.
3. Durability Even when you're selling online, you still deal with the challenge of durability. There are two instances where we’ve experienced challenges with this. To start, the zippers sometimes come apart from the bags or sometimes don't work as well, and that’s because the compostable adhesive isn't as strong as a regular adhesive. Another thing that we've noticed is sometimes the bags break, especially when you put more than a pound in them. It’s really product dependent, too. For example, we’ve noticed quinoa and chia seeds tend to break more than other products packaged in compostable..
4. Supply Chain Implications
Compostable packaging is more expensive: less demand, less supply, higher prices. Plastic packaging has been here forever. If you need a source of plastic packaging for your business, it is so easy - you can find hundreds or thousands of suppliers. But when it comes to compostable packaging, there's only a handful of suppliers. I would expect pricing to go down as it becomes more prevalent on the market, but for now, we’ve seen that it tends to be at least 30% more than plastic.
Slows down packaging machines
Compostable packaging often slows down packaging machines. As an emerging brand, that’s something we can work into our pricing model. But imagine you're one of the leading bar manufacturers in the country, you're doing tens or hundreds of millions of energy bars every year and you’ve built all of your production plans and pricing on the bars being made at a certain speed. And then all of a sudden, you switch to compostable packaging and it takes longer to make those bars. That would be super disruptive to your manufacturing timelines, pricing, and more.
Longer lead times
Another challenge is a really long lead time with compostable packaging.If you want to order plastic packaging, it might take 3-4 weeks to get it. With compostable packaging, it is going to be 3-4 months or more. This creates added complexity to planning and inventory management.
This covers a lot of the challenges a brand or manufacturer faces when it comes to compostable packaging. At Sun and Swell, we're so committed to selling in compostable, and we know our customers are so committed to buying it, so we deal with these challenges together. But for businesses with other top priorities that aren't 100% committed to sustainable packaging and willing to deal with all the challenges - it might not be the right business decision.
Another major challenge with compostable packaging that we didn't discuss here is the challenges with end of life - we’ll cover that in a future blog.