If plastic manufacturing were a country, it would be the 5th largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world. Additionally, it is becoming more and more clear that plastic recycling is not nearly as successful as what we as consumers have been led to believe. Specifically, plastic clamshells used for leafy greens are problematic to recycle due to their unique composition and sorting challenges. While they are labelled as a #1 (PET) plastic, they are unlike other PET items like bottles. Clamshells are “thermoformed” which changes their physical properties that cause problems for recyclers, leading to even lower recycling rates, when mixed in the recycling stream.
But finding more sustainable, less plastic dependent, ways to package lettuce is a complex problem, and it’s fraught with the potential for good intentions to result in more harm than good.
Here’s the challenge:
- Consumers want to know their lettuce is fresh. Since that has been historically problematic for growers and retailers, consumers want to see the product to get a sense of freshness.
- Packaging needs to handle moisture that the plants transpire and condensation that occurs during temperature changes the package may undergo.
- It needs to be re-sealable and minimize oxygen from penetrating the package and shortening the shelf-life of the product (which spoils it and increases waste).
- It needs to look nice and present well on a retail shelf—as well or better than competing products in plastic containers.
- It needs to reduce (based on real science) the environmental impact of what we use today. However, there can be competing environmental challenges being solved for, such as landfill space or dangerous chemicals vs greenhouse gas production.
In short, how can we get the benefits of a plastic container while minimizing its negative impacts?
Can’t we just switch to biodegradable or compostable plastics?
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. While it meets the first four criteria above, it fails the last. It is not necessarily environmentally superior. It’s still a contentious issue with developing science. But in today’s context, in most of the country, it’s likely worse than conventional plastic.
First, let’s understand what these are. A biodegradable item will decompose in the natural environment, while a compostable item will decompose under more limited and specific conditions (like in a composter). Both are still plastics and require energy to make—even if the material is derived from plants. In fact, when the material is plant-based, that means valuable land is being used up to grow the plants to make packaging instead of food. Either way, both terms mean that over some period of time, under certain conditions, the item will decompose. The catch is, after how long and into what? Conventional plastic, on the other hand, does not decompose for a very, very long time.
So let’s consider “compostable” plastic clam shells used for mixed greens
Today’s compostable plastics don’t actually break down very easily. Which means placing them in your backyard composter is futile. As for commercial facilities designed to use heat to accelerate the decomposition of biogenics, it takes significantly longer than banana peels and even chicken bones. So a facility must keep them in their “tunnel” for a long time, which chews up much needed capacity for decomposing most of what’s in our green bins. As a result, these compostable plastics, especially the ones that don’t absorb moisture like lettuce containers, get screened out before even entering the composter. And since there is nowhere else for them to go, they are sent to landfills.
If you examine the website’s for the Ottawa or Toronto composting facilities, you will see that these compostable plastics are not actually allowed in our green bins. In fact, there are no composting facilities in Ontario that accept them.
So then what happens? The non-compostable “compostables” simply end up in landfills where they do in fact break down, but thanks to the oxygen-starved environment, they turn into methane gas which is 80 times worse as a greenhouse gas than CO2 over a 20 year period. In fact, if the clamshell is of traditional plastic, in some cases it could be recycled, but more importantly, if it ends up in landfill, that carbon is sequestered since it does not decompose (at least not for a century or so).
While there are some benefits to compostable plastics for the environment, like reducing reliance on fossil fuels and reducing the amount of garbage that ends up in landfills, it’s important to be clear about what problem we are most trying to solve. Climate change is existential and is at the top of our sustainability list at Fieldless.
So what’s the solution?
First of all, there is no silver bullet. And the best solution in today’s context might not be the best a few years from now. And any solution is going to have tradeoffs.
When we set out to solve this challenge, our target was to reduce the use of plastic of any type. And we believe we have the best possible solution within today’s reality, that addresses our criteria—minimizing climate impacts and maximizing freshness and enjoyment of our products.
Our new packaging is a first-of-a-kind cardboard-based package for cut greens. The cardboard has a removable plastic sheet that then gets sealed with another sheet of plastic with a “peel and reseal” opening. In total it reduces the amount of plastic we use by 90% of the conventional plastic clamshell we used previously. While the small amount of plastic will go to landfills, cardboard has a significantly higher rate of recycling or composting across all the geographies where our products can be purchased. The one criteria this fails on is the ability for the consumer to see through the entire package. But since our lettuce is fresher longer, thanks to how and where we grow, our consumers can trust that our greens are always delightful to eat. The new packaging has even proven to maintain freshness for even longer than our previous clamshells.
There is no perfect solution, and we don’t claim this one is. But it’s significantly better. And we’re extremely proud to be the first company to package cut greens this way.
Here are the instructions you will find at the bottom once you finish the lettuce:
Now, lettuce enjoy! 🙂