No matter how sustainable your produce delivery or meal kit may be, it still carries one whopping environmental cost: packaging. One company is trying to solve that using a very old material — one that you might know from your sweaters.
The Wool Packaging Company came about when CEO Angela Morris was developing a way for British cattle farmers to keep meat cool during shipment without using polystyrene (also known as the much-maligned styrofoam). She had heard that wool was a natural insulator for buildings, and decided to try it out as an insulator for food. To her surprise, during test trials the wool kept the meat cool for 48 hours — outperforming even the styrofoam.
Established in 2009, the company’s brand, Woolcool, consists of liners and padded envelopes made of wool and covered in recyclable, food-grade polyethylene. The wool interior is biodegradable and will compost in one year; the outside lining is reusable and recyclable.
Anyone who’s ever splurged on a 100 percent wool sweater will tell you that material costs a pretty penny. But Woolcool uses so-called “waste” wool — that is, wool from the belly of the sheep that’s too short to weave into textiles and is often discarded by farmers, making it cheaper to buy.
According to Josie Morris, Managing Director of WoolCool (and daughter of CEO Angela), last year alone the company sold roughly 5 million of their liners. That’s the equivalent of over 2 million sheep. In addition to the liners — two will fully line the insides of most boxes — Woolcool also makes padded envelopes and pouches that can keep food, even the frozen stuff like ice cream, chilled below 5° C (41° F) for over 24 hours.
There are other perks to using wool as insulator. It’s more breathable than polystyrene, so it can absorb condensation from the air to keep food cooler for a longer period of time. (However, it’s sealed in plastic so the wool doesn’t come in direct contact with the food). It can also be flat-packed, which means less shipping cost than premade rectangular styrofoam boxes.
Roughly 75 percent of Woolcool’s clients are in the food industry: in addition to local butchers, cheesemongers, and farmers, the company also works with some pretty major customers such as juice and smoothie company innocent, Unilever, and meal kit company gousto. They also make insulated sheets and pouches for pharmaceutical shipments. Morris didn’t disclose exact pricing details, but said they were very competitive in the insulation market.
As of now the majority of Woolcool’s customers are in the U.K. and Europe. However, Morris said that they were looking to gain traction in the U.S., though they’re conscious of the increased carbon footprint of shipping their products so far.
Their emphasis on the environment also means that Woolcool has to work harder to prove themselves. “There’s an automatic assumption that if you’re going to use something eco-friendly you’ve got to sacrifice something too: either cost or performance,” said Morris. “Actually, that’s not true.”
Woolcool has had to fight to become known as not just a sustainable insulator, but also an effective one. “In fact, sometimes you have to prove yourselves even more because you’re a natural material,” said Morris.
As a growing contingent of people order food and groceries via delivery, more companies are working on ways to reduce the shocking amount of packaging required to ship said food around the world. Also based in the U.K., Aeropowder makes insulation sheets out of surplus feathers from the poultry industry. In the U.S., NaturalBlue transforms recycled denim into insulation. Ecovative Design uses mycelium — a.k.a. mushroom roots — to created insulated packaging.
But the eco-friendly insulation space is definitely not a zero-sum game. The global sustainable packaging market is projected to reach roughly $440 billion by 2025. With food delivery and grocery e-commerce also on the rise, Woolcool and its contemporaries have the potential to seriously shear (sorry) high environmental price of food packaging.