Upcycling company Regrained is learning that doing the right thing is seldom the same as doing the easy thing, especially when it comes to tackling food waste. The company’s mission is to “align the food we eat with the planet we love,” and that includes not just the product they create, but the packaging it comes in. But when that eco-friendly packaging started to break down, the company had to choose a lesser of two wasting evils.
ReGrained works to reduce food waste by taking spent grain from beermaking that would typically be thrown out and turns it into flour. That flour is then sold to other food producers (Griffith Foods is an investor) and added into the company’s own Regrained snack bars. This leave-no-waste-behind ethos also extended to the wrapper those bars came in.
“We’ve used compostable packaging from the beginning,” Dan Kurzrock, Co-Founder and “Chief Grain Officer” at ReGrained told me by phone, “and drew a really hard line about that being a non-negotiable value for us.”
But as Kurzrock wrote in a corporate blog post last week, that compostable packaging has started failing. When the company was small, it did just-in-time production and delivered its product to retailers close by, so the compostable wrapping worked just fine. But as the company grew and started shipping product on trucks to travel long distance, they noticed the shelf life of their product degrading. Something about the heat and humidty on the trucks during transit was breaking down the moisture barrier in the compostable packaging.
“The problem that’s happened is that we’ve got products out there that are actually only 3 – 4 months into their [nine month] shelf life and are tasting stale,” said Kurzrock.
This left ReGrained in a tough spot. Switching to plastic meant creating more immediate waste, but leaving the situation as is meant their product wouldn’t last as long and would thereby be creating a different type of waste. As Kurzrock wrote in his post, it was a decision he and the company wrestled with:
We have lost a lot of sleep over the irony of the situation: in our effort to prove that waste can be designed out of the food system, we began to create waste through staling product. We were at risk in a number of areas, including the erosion of trust with our trade partners and consumers, the cost of damage control, and the maintenance of a failing status-quo. Without change course, we would have compromised our solvency and thwarted our primary mission: fighting food waste.
In the end, ReGrained decided to go with plastic packaging in order to make sure customers get the freshest product. Kurzrock hopes that they can switch back to certified compostable packaging within a year.
But as Kurzrock explained both in his blog post and to me over the phone, the issue of compostable packaging is actually quite complicated, and if we want to reduce waste in our food, there are a number of different issues that need to be addressed:
- There are obviously technical issues with compostable materials that need to be improved.
- Plastic costs about a third as much as compostable packaging so there is less incentive for companies to switch over.
- Consumers need more access to composting and to voice their preference for waste-free packaging.
- Composters don’t even like compostable wrapping because they aren’t sure which wrappers are compostable, and whether they actually add nutrients to the compost.
Thankfully, there is an increasingly loud chorus encouraging the reduction in waste throughout our food system. Whether it’s upcyclers turning food that would otherwise be tossed into new products, or marketplaces selling food near its expiration date, or even the big players like Nestlé and Pepsi experimenting with reusable containers, companies of all sizes are learning that by working together they can make doing the right thing the easy thing.