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The Path to Better Packaging

Thomas J. Story
We have a packaging problem. Here’s what we’re doing about it.

Every food we create at Provisions is sourced in ways that restore the environment, and we’re proud of the results so far. But finding packaging that meets a similar high bar has been a serious challenge and a longer journey.

All our foods are shelf-stable, and most are packed in flexible pouches or sleeves. Food quality and safety are our top concerns, so we have to use materials that keep out oxygen and moisture. Both factors can quickly ruin any food; for instance, oxygen will make our Fruit + Almond Bars turn brown and dry. Moisture will cause our soups to clump up. The most effective flexible packaging materials, widely used throughout the food industry and by us too, are films made of multiple substrates bonded together—generally a heat-resistant plastic that can also be printed with the package design; another one or two plastics, often “metallized”—coated with a superthin layer of aluminum to help keep out moisture and oxygen; and a plastic that’s puncture-proof and sealable.

Unfortunately, recycling plants only accept single substrates, so they won’t take our packages. And our packages, being made of conventional plastics, are not compostable, either. That means they end up in the landfill, where they can take centuries to degrade, or into our waters (it’s been estimated that by 2050, there could be more plastic in the sea than fish). For a company like ours, dedicated to responsible production of food from every angle, it’s been the proverbial elephant in our living room.

So why haven’t we just used compostable packaging? A couple of reasons. Most compostable packaging in this country is made of GMO corn, and we believe that GMOs should be labeled (not currently the case in the U.S.) so consumers know what’s in the food they eat and the products they buy. So GMO compostables aren’t an option for us. When we’ve tried other compostable options, they haven’t had the same barrier properties or sealant strength as conventional materials. Some of our colleagues in the food industry laudably adopted these alternative non-GMO compostables—only to see their products fail shelf-life tests, or packages bust open from a simple fall off the display.

The Way Forward

Instead, we’ve poured our efforts into finding better solutions for our specific products. But it takes time. For several years, we’ve sponsored the Patagonia Case Competition at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. Graduate students from all over the world compete to solve the roadblocks to sustainability that our company wants to hurdle. Last year, we asked these PhD and MBA candidates to reinvent our food packaging, and their solutions provoked ideas we’re still exploring: reusable containers, films made from seaweed, biodegradable packaging with a nutrient booster for microbes so they’ll eat the package faster, and many others.

Also, Patagonia is a core member of One Step Closer to Organic Sustainable Communities (OSC2), a trade group devoted to creating compostable packaging. This spring, OSC2 is co-hosting a first-of-its-kind innovation workshop for stakeholders across the packaging chain—film manufacturers, food producers, distributors, retail stores, consumers, and waste management companies. Big players like PepsiCo have signed up, and it’ll be fascinating to see where this leads. 

In the meantime, by pooling our knowledge and buying power with other OSC2 companies, and by testing new materials, we’ve made a lot of headway.

Our Journey So Far

The gold standard is packaging that can be home composted, since not all municipalities offer composting. Also, the rules for industrial composting differ from place to place, making it confusing for consumers to know exactly how and what to compost.

So, for several years now, we’ve been looking at various non-GMO compostable films. One of the most promising: transparent NatureFlex™, an oxygen-resistant film made from eucalyptus pulp that looks and crackles like cellophane. In fact, it’s a lot like the original cellophane, invented in 1908 from wood pulp and used for candy wrappers. Cellophane, though, was coated with nonbiodegradable polymers to block moisture and make it heat sealable. The advantage of NatureFlex is that it’s coated with fully compostable versions. It will be our first zero-waste packaging, and has an appealing circularity: The eucalyptus is from sustainably managed plantations, and the package itself decomposes back into the earth. We’re using NatureFlex for our new line of spices, slipping the filled packets into boxes made from recycled paperboard.

NatureFlex has its challenges, though. The crimping that seals our package may be thicker than what’s been certified as home compostable. We’re optimistic that it will pass the test, but it may take a few more trials. And because this type of NatureFlex film won’t hold ink, we can’t print “compostable” on our packages as required by a state law. We may try embossing the film itself instead.

For all our other products in flexible packaging, which require more protection, we’ve been experimenting with plant-based laminates. Separately, each substrate is already certified compostable, but because we’re layering them, the material will have to be composted industrially—meaning under controlled conditions to ensure it’s totally gone.

We started testing laminates about four years ago, with a top layer of clear NatureFlex reverse-printed with compostable inks. Because we needed a good barrier against oxygen, moisture and heat, we bonded it to another layer of NatureFlex coated with vaporized aluminum—which, amazingly enough, microbes can digest at this thinness. Unfortunately, the combined layers proved too thick to go through our filling machines efficiently.

On The Horizon

Meanwhile, we’ve been exploring another promising material: a plant-based non-GMO polymer whose origins we can’t reveal just yet. It is 30 percent thinner than metallized NatureFlex. With high hopes, we’ve added it to our trials. 

New problems have cropped up, however. Seams on the bar wrappers sometimes open up, and soup pouches tend to stretch and wrinkle. So now we are widening the bar-wrapper seams to help the machine get a grip, and we’re building a new filling machine for our soups. More pivoting, more time. But we are determined, and so are our partners. 

Once we figure out the machine issues, we’ll start shelf-life testing—and that will take several months. Then we’ll submit for composting certifications. And then, at last, our foods will be in packaging that’s worthy of the contents. 

Some of our products have had the right packaging from the start, like our beers (in recyclable aluminum cans), mussels and mackerel (aluminum tins), honey (recyclable glass) and boxes (recycled cardboard and paperboard, and recyclable themselves). Now we have the chance to meet our goal: to use only packaging that is reusable, compostable, made from renewable resources, or recyclable by 2025. 

In fact, we may be there much sooner than that, and will share our discoveries with the wider food industry. It’s the light at the end of a long tunnel—and a heave-ho of the elephant.