Our decision to develop Next Generation Backcountry Meals that are cooked rather than rehydrated was simple. As outdoor enthusiasts, environmentalists, and a group that just enjoys good food, we saw an opening in the market to create a product line that is nutritious, tasty, and overall satisfying for both the process of creating and eating, while ensuring our product packaging choice would be minimally impactful on the planet to resonate with the values of our core customer base.
We believe the cook-in pouches used by freeze dried meal producers like many of our competitors don’t cut it from an environmental perspective. These products are designed with heavy-duty material that is designed to both hold boiling hot water and shield the user from the heat. These packages are also designed to provide a product shelf life of up to 30 years! Not only do they rely on large amounts of non-renewable chemical, petroleum, and metal resources to accomplish this, but these plastics are destined to sit in the landfill for hundreds of years after their single use. We believe in the notion that the resources we draw on to create and dispose of items such as these are intrinsically connected to the well-being of the very same places where we would bring them to use during recreational pursuits. We believe it’s our responsibility to preserve and protect the places we love, and ruling out cook-in pouches was an important step in the right direction.
On the whole, we sat down with these ideas about the sustainable path of the planet along with the requirements that the next, responsible, generation of backcountry meals must be tough enough for life in a backpack, able to withstand variable weather conditions like snow, rain, and heat, and look good for retail displays. And of course, the meals should provide an all-around great eating experience. With this in mind, we decided to embark on a path to turn the norm upside down and design meals that would be cooked by the customer -for the first time as opposed to being cooked n the factory, freeze dried, then re-cooked - in less time than it would take to rehydrate in a bag. Little did we know, wading through the options to find a packaging solution that fit all of our needs would be a serious crux move.The Research
When we started to research environmentally friendly packaging options, we paid attention to the products' lifecycle, from their creation to their disposal. From that four terms emerged: biobased, recyclable, biodegradable, and compostable. These four buzzwords sound awesome, and they certainly provided an initial trail for us to follow. Our findings taught us they are different yet intertwined, and in terms of their sustainability, it’s a sliding scale.
- Biobased: Biobased materials, most often paper or plastic, are created using renewable resources like sugar cane, corn starch, wood pulp, algae, and bamboo. In terms of packaging creation, outer and inner shells, small condiment pouches, labels, and even ink can be biobased. Because biobased products are made from renewable materials, they slow demand for plastics produced from fossil fuels and non-renewables, which reduces our carbon footprint and environmental impact. One smaller, yet notable, downfall to some bio-based packaging is the issue of sourcing raw renewables. These base materials can put strain on human food supplies, and also can come from genetically modified organisms (GMOs), meaning more soil-degrading fertilizer and toxic pesticide usage.
- Recyclable: Most of us are familiar with traditional recycling - it takes all different types of materials, both biobased or not, and breaks them down so they can be reused again. Many products today now list how much ‘recycled content’ they are made from, a great indicator that recycling programs work at reducing waste on both the product creation and product disposal ends of the lifecycle. This is wonderful, but it’s important to note that recycling does have its drawbacks. Because recyclable products can be made in so many different ways, it’s not guaranteed that they are created with sustainable source materials or production practices (e.g. hardwood trees and oil-based plastics, respectively). Recycling itself also requires further industrial processing, which draws on fossil fuel powered electrical grids and water sources. Also, as Politico reported last year, recycling ‘allows [people] to consume with a clean conscience’ and has been shown to lead to overconsumption and additional waste.
Omnidegradable, a trademarked characteristic owned by a specific manufacturer, is yet another option in the realm of sustainable packaging. While omni-degradable packaging does break down into organic components under the right conditions where certain microbes are present, the reality is that this stuff should in most cases end up in a landfill. There, the biodegradation process is little different from polyester film, according to the FAQs here https://tekpaksolutions.com/faq/ . Furthermore, the omni-degradable" material is made from plastics combined with an organic compound additive to help them break down. Plastics cause a great deal of pollution during processing, and is a material that originates with petroleum.
At the end of their lifecycle, products that naturally decompose, with the help of microorganisms or fungi, are considered biodegradable. Depending on the conditions, the process can be as quick as a couple months, but can also take up to a few years. Generally speaking, biodegradable materials are biobased and created from plant, animal, and mineral sources - though some are also fossil fuel based.
While biodegradation presents a good disposal option, as Nature’s Path writes in their blog, they can leave metal residues and other materials behind. Furthermore, biodegradable products have trouble breaking down without oxygen - like at the bottom of the landfill - and when they do, they can release methane gas.
Composting is another end of lifecycle consideration. Similar to biodegradation, compostable products are usually biobased and they break down naturally with the help of microorganisms in the proper environment. Composting as a process can be done either at home or on a large, industrial scale. It aims to provide the perfect balance of air, heat, and materials for microorganisms to thrive and aid decomposition. Materials labeled compostable must meet fairly strict standards, break down in about 90 days or less, and can’t leave any inorganic materials or residues behind.
The main benefit from composting, as compared to biodegradation, is the creation of humus. Humus is the ‘Holy Grail of the soil world’ as urban gardener and educator Ron Finley writes in his MasterClass article. This organic matter is important, both at home and on full-scale farms; it’s packed with nutrients, retains moisture, and restores soil health. This same organic material can be used in turn to grow the bio-materials that are used to create the packaging in the first place; thereby closing the loop. So when done correctly, composting is both sustainable and restorative. How many of us actually have access to composting facilities? And if you do, is it worth it to pack out your backcountry meals pouches and save them for deposit in the compost?What did we learn from all the research?
- Material labels can be quite broad and understanding where raw materials are sourced is important.
- While products created from renewable materials are great, the availability of disposal methods for them certainly has some catching up to do.
- Despite their imperfections in end-of-life disposal, the bio-based options are still better than fossil fuel based plastics.
- Because no end-all, be-all material exists yet, when searching the market, we needed to be open to options for finding the product that satisfies both our sustainable and practical needs.
- As a company, packaging would be an ever evolving process for us - we will need to work with manufacturers to continually improve the products we’re using.
Our final packaging from Company B turned out to work extremely well from the perspective of durability and retail-shelf worthiness. Our story evolved: now we offer product in 100% bio-based packaging, sourced from tree pulp.
- The middle barrier layer is a material made from FSC approved wood pulp
- The inner LLDPE is a biobased plastic. The company that produces it is ISCC certified
Bio-based is a radical departure from conventional heavy plastic and aluminum packaging, and it uses a material that is more directly renewable, grown without agricultural intervention, and is completely separate from the human food chain. We found one more great feature of our final packaging: since it’s made from paper and bio-plastic it’s safe and clean to burn, works great as a fire starter. This means that as long as it’s safe to have fires in the area where you're camping, you don’t even need to pack it out.
Being plastic-free is our big achievement in its own right. A recent article in Sierra magazine highlights the prediction that 50% of the demand for growth in demand for oil and gas by 2050 will come from increased needs for making plastic, and goes on to explain that many plastics processing plants are located in places where they disproportionately impact communities of color with air pollution https://www.sierraclub.org/articles/2021/11/deep-injustice-plastic-pollution).
The reality is that most people don’t have access to composting facilities, and even when they do, there is little practicality in bringing meal packaging out from a camping trip and delivering successfully to the compost. Our case is that the material going into the packaging is as important or more so that what it could turn into under the right conditions after use. By going with 100% bio-based packaging derived from renewable resources, we feel we are doing our best to handle the burden of packaging with a sustainable life cycle on the consumers’ behalf.
Looking ahead on the trail to sustainable packaging
For 2023, we eliminated our non-compostable (non-biobased) labels so that the pkgs are 100% of what we envision. In the coming years, we'll continue investigating compostable options for meals packaging, and we’ll be on the lookout for bio-based packaging that utilizes material from an existing waste stream. One great example where industry has figured this out is composite decking and flooring lumber. Sourcing packaging closer to home and minimizing the embodied carbon associated with transportation of our packaging is another priority. We’ll also keep an open mind to considering post-consumer recycled plastic materials as an option.