The Packaging Problem: Why There is no ‘Perfect’ Package for the Planet

cardboard boxes

One of our goals for our company is to have the most eco-friendly packaging possible. We take the term ‘be the change you wish to see in the world’ seriously, and understand that as business owners and pioneering industry leaders, one of our greatest responsibilities is to set the standard for ethical and sustainable practices.

In order to preserve our precious mushroom cargo, we need packaging that provides light, oxygen and moisture barriers. We set out on a mission to find the perfect solution for our products. However, shortly into that search, it became clear that in the modern industrialized world, there is no such thing as a ‘perfect packaging solution’. Rather, it comes down to weighing the pros and cons of each.

For us, using traditional plastic containers was out of the question. Although they met all of our preservation criteria and can be recycled, the vast majority of plastics do not get recycled, and end up instead in our oceans and landfills.

Glass was one option we considered. It is a completely natural material made from sand, soda ash, and limestone. Aside from the emissions created during the manufacturing process, glass seemed like a very eco-friendly option since it can be recycled indefinitely. However, we learned that less than one third of consumers actually recycle glass, and at a consumption rate of 50 billion tons per year, earth is rapidly running out of it.

The most viable option we came across was a biodegradable bioplastic pouch. Bioplastics are a branch of plastics made from renewable plant-based materials such as corn and sugar. When used to their fullest potential, bioplastics provide a sustainable packaging option that is completely biodegradable. However, one of the challenges in purchasing them is that there are currently no regulations on what information companies have to share about these products. Just like the newly forming retail psychedelic industry, the packaging industry is a Wild West market burdened with propaganda and misinformation.  

For example, products labeled ‘oxo-degradable’ are commonly marketed as eco-friendly biodegradable plastics; however, they are neither bioplastic nor a biodegradable plastic. Oxo-degradable plastics are merely conventional plastics that have been mixed with an additive which mimics biodegradation. They do not break down at the molecular or polymer level like biodegradable and compostable plastics. Instead, they break down into tiny micro-plastics, which end up in our soil, our water supply, and our bodies.

When it comes to true bioplastics, there are two categories: biodegradable products which are compostable in industrial facilities, and certified compostable products that are safe to dispose of in home garden composts.

Unfortunately, we did not discover the second category until after we purchased a small supply of the first. While our biodegradable pouches break down within a few months to a couple of years in industrial composting facilities, most people do not have access to such facilities, and only a fraction of the ones who do actually use them. In a landfill, these bags can take upwards of 80 years to fully biodegrade, which is not the worst, but certainly not the best option. Thankfully we only purchased a small amount of these bags, and will be switching to certified compostable ones for the future.

Even after we switch to the more sustainable option of compostable bags, we are still left with the unsolved question of where these companies are sourcing the materials for their PLA (polylatic acid, which is a bioplastic material made from resources such as corn and sugar). Since the percentage of organic farms in North America accounts for less than 1% of the total agricultural area, we can only assume that the corn and sugar used to make the PLA comes from conventionally-grown, pesticide laden crops.

It is clear that the need for governing bodies to intervene with regulations for the packaging industry is imminent. We cannot have companies waving false flags of eco-friendly products when, as it turns out, some of them are even worse for the environment than conventional options.

The demand for consumer and corporate responsibility has never been greater. As part of our mission to minimize our impact on the planet, we will continue to research the most sustainable options. If you are aware of any eco-friendly packaging options that you think are worth a look, please share them with us in the comments!


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