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Transitioning to Compostable Packaging: 5 Lessons Learned in the First 6 Months

Written by Kate Flynn, Co-founder & CEO of Sun & Swell Foods

A quick backstory…  

We launched Sun & Swell Foods because we wanted to make whole food snacking more accessible to consumers living a busy lifestyle.  However, a year into the business, my guilty conscious started to set in when I realized we were solving one problem, but contributing to another - creating single-use plastics.  In July of 2018, through some seriously aggressive google searching, I discovered there was a solution: compostable packaging.  

The second I discovered compostable was an option, I made up my mind we were going to transition to it.  The super eager, optimistic entrepreneur in me dove in head first without really understanding all of the complexities.  I was honestly just so excited about the option, and so eager to get away from single-use plastic, I went in with the mindset of ‘we’ll just figure it out.’

In many regards, I am grateful I went into this journey without knowing much.  It made the decision super easy for me. If I would’ve known all of the challenges ahead of time, perhaps I would’ve been more hesitant.  

But here we are - 6 months after launching it on the market - more committed than ever to continue our transition, but a little more educated on the whole thing! 

So I figured I’d share some of the lessons I learned over the past 6 months, in case it’s helpful to anyone else considering or in the process of making the switch to compostable. 

Are any of these challenges reasons not to transition towards compostable packaging? OF COURSE NOT!  But they are all things that are nice to know as you go into it! 

I would like to caveat - these are just the personal lessons I have learned and are entirely my opinion based on experience.   They might not be true for everyone, and I know there are plenty of people out there who know more than me / might disagree with me.  If you’re one of them - please reach out to me and share some of your wisdom!!

Lessons learned..

  1. Compostable packaging has a shelf life!  This is something I learned early on and was prepared for, but it’s one of the most important things you need to know about it.  Currently the packaging we have (and I believe the industry norm) has a 9 month shelf life. It’s not going to disintegrate in 9 months, but it can start to come apart.  For us, this meant that we had to shorten the shelf-life of our snacks packaged in compostable to 6 months (we receive the packaging, have 3 months to use it, then it has 6 months after the production run).
  2. Lead times can be really longLike 3-4x as long Remember - compostable packaging (and the raw materials used to make it) have a shelf life.  This means that the packaging suppliers can’t be sitting on a bunch of raw materials to make your compostable packages.  So they don’t order the raw materials until you put in your PO. It takes ~6 weeks for them to get the raw materials in, and then add on that another 4-6 weeks to make the packaging once it comes in.  Add on shipping. That puts you at a 3-4 month lead time for packaging, assuming everything goes smoothly. If you're planning is a little off, this can mean you are totally out of compostable for a while (we’ve been out of compostable for some of flavors for a couple months now). 
  3. Your packaging might not look as good as it did when it was plastic. We had several issues with aesthetics.  To start, our bags have a clear window, and the ‘clear’ window on compostable film is a little foggy. This makes it hard to see our bites.  For our snacks, we know consumers pick it up / are interested in it because of the product form, so this hurt our sales a bit. Another challenge aesthetically for us is that our packaging crinkles super easily, so if it gets a little smashed when getting shipped to retailers, it really impacts how it presents itself on a shelf.  Finally, our regular packaging is a soft matte. From what I know, you can’t get the effect of soft matte finish on compostable, and even the matte is a little glossy.
  4. There are actually a good amount of companies trying to solve this problem! This is a really good thing - you don't have to do it alone (like I did!)! There are other companies - much bigger companies than us! - who are working on this as well.  I recently learned about a group called OCS2 - who has a Packaging Collaborative working towards building more sustainable packaging solutions.  They offer things like subsidized shelf life testing in compostable packaging, and quarterly group meetings with all the brands that are a part of it.  I literally cried happy tears when I learned about this group the other week… when I realized I don’t have to fight this uphill battle all alone. 
  5. The waste infrastructure really isn’t there.  I went into this thinking that any city that offers composting is set up to compost our bags.  However, this is not the case. Many cities with compost facilities are only set up to compost food scraps.  Here’s why:
    • Food scraps decompose in an industrial facility within 45 days, so most compost facilities are set up on this timeframe.
    • Things like compostable bags, utensils, bowls - often have a much longer composting timeline (our bags, for example, are certified compostable within 6 months).  The facilities just aren’t set up around that longer lead time.  In some cases, this means that compost facilities are pulling out all compostable materials that aren’t food scraps, and putting them in landfill. 

In conclusion.. 

I’d be lying if I didn’t say sometimes these challenges have made me second guess our decision to transition to compostable.  It’s been super hard operationally, and in some cases it has hurt sales. But at the end of the day, we know we’re doing the right thing and we’re determined to keep pushing forward!