New boxes and the sustainability challenges of cold chain shipping
Shipping live cultures isn’t nearly as straightforward as shipping a t-shirt (or even beer for that matter). It takes a lot of hard work and a lot of extra materials to get our products to our customers quickly, and in good condition. We’re also very aware that sustainability and waste reduction are massive challenges in the brewing industry that will require an enormous amount of money, effort, and ingenuity to overcome. Even though we are primarily a producer of brewing cultures, we share many of the same issues as our brewing industry colleagues. This led to the creation of our Sustainability Task Force, members of which are dedicated to waste reduction and environmental impact projects.
If you follow us on Instagram, you may have seen a recent post regarding one of the projects that we’ve been working on for some time now; finding more sustainable materials for our cold chain shipments. Until now, we’ve been relying heavily on single use plastic ice packs, polystyrene (styrofoam) insulation panels, and urethane foam mailers in order to keep our cultures cold in transit. None of these materials are recyclable, biodegradable, or compostable, and all will likely end up in a landfill for eternity.
We made the decision a while ago that when we finally got around to updating our boxes with new branding, we also needed to freshen up the contents of our packages with materials that are less wasteful.
Testing new materials
A key goal for us was to ensure that whatever alternative materials we chose, they should perform at least as well as what we were currently using, as we did not want to compromise the integrity of our products.
We ended up trying out a few different types of insulation, including panels made from recycled paper products that were promising, but ended up finding a starch based foam that not only performed as good as styrofoam, it actually slightly outperformed it when we did side by side trials using time and temperature recording devices. We also found a supplier of ice packs that use a biodegradable polymer as the pouch material, with a non-toxic water-based gel. Lastly, we designed our new boxes with a plain kraft background, and added extra text to reduce the need for many single use stickers.
* Typical ice pack quantity for next day delivery
The End Result
Boxes, before and after: side view
Boxes, before and after: top view
Now that we have made these changes, we’re very happy with the results. Our boxes now contain roughly 85% fewer materials that are not recyclable, biodegradable, or compostable (by weight). Conversely, our shipments now contain approximately 95% materials that are recyclable, biodegradable, or compostable (also by weight). The only materials in our shipments that do not fall under these categories are the plastic liners, zip ties, and the closures for our jugs. This upcoming year, we estimate that we will send roughly 2200kg (4800lbs) less styrofoam to landfills, and 14500kg (32000lbs) less conventional plastic ice packs that will not break down for hundreds of years.
The work continues
While we’re very proud of the work we’ve done on this project, it’s important for us to acknowledge the fact that there’s still a lot of work to be done in the future. We don’t want to give the impression that this was simply a “greenwashing” exercise aimed at patting ourselves on the back for swapping out a couple of materials. These alternative materials, while better than what we were using before, still have drawbacks. Biodegradable plastics require certain environmental conditions in order to break down quickly, and aren’t disposed of properly by many municipalities. Corn, the primary ingredient in the starch insulation, isn’t exactly the most sustainable crop. We still have to rely on single use plastic liners for moisture control.
I’m confident that while we’re calling this project complete for now, this won’t be the last time we try to make improvements as to how we distribute our products. We’ve already made significant changes to which courier services we use so that we don’t put shipments on planes when they could be delivered just as quickly using a ground service. Until we figure out how to transition from a pure consumer economy to something… different, we’ll always have work to do to reduce our impact on the environment.
*Below is a list of all of the components of our packaging and shipping materials and how to dispose of them:
Box - toss in the recycling bin
Insulation - panels go in the compost (exterior liner can be recycled if LDPE accepted by recycling program)
Liner and zip tie - trash, unfortunately
Ice packs - if your municipality accepts bioplastics, toss them in the compost, otherwise they go in the trash (will still biodegrade in a landfill faster than conventional plastic)
Jug - recycling bin
- Jug closure - trash, unfortunately