Robert Colangelo, an environmental entrepreneur and author with over 25 years of diverse business experience, interviewed Allen King of Excellent Packaging and Supply for the Green$ense Radio show. We’ve included a transcript of the interview below.
I’m Robert Colangelo. Welcome to this edition of Green Sense where we’re going to spend the next 30 minutes looking at the environment and the people, policies and technologies that are changing our world. How we package food can also impact the environment. Allen King founded Excellent Packaging seven years ago, and they’ve figured a way to make plastic food packaging degrade faster.
For over seven years, Excellent Packaging has been producing compostable and earth-friendly food packaging and utensils. Allen King is president of Excellent Packaging.
Let’s get an idea of how bad the waste problem is from non-biodegradable food packaging. How much packaging is consumed each year in the food packaging industry?
Allen King: I can’t tell you in numbers, but I can tell you in dollars. We’re probably using $2 – 3 billion worth of packaging a year. Almost everything that goes out of any prepared-food operation, or restaurant or even grocery store comes in packaging that ends up getting thrown away, and, in almost all circumstances, going to landfill.
RC: Well, there are all sorts of different types of stock that makes plastic, from pet, to HDPE, to vinyl. What kind of plastic is mainly used in the food packaging material?
AK: In food packaging you have PET. You have polypropylene. You have polyethylene, and you have polystyrene.
RC: And how long does it take for those components to biodegrade?
AK: They don’t biodegrade. They remain in that state for many, many years. A polymer is a long chain of molecules. The fossil-based polymers have pretty strong bonds, and they don’t break down. The bacteria can’t eat them up and turn them into compost. They just stay in their original state, or if they’re exposed to sunlight, they might break down into tinier pieces, but even then they remain polymers. They don’t get converted by bacteria into compost. So, they don’t really break down.
RC: Well, explain what products you offer and how your products differ from typical food packaging.
AK: Our products are essentially me-too products. They’re products that will fill the same need as the fossil-based plastic products that are in the marketplace, but we use compostable – in almost all cases, compostable or bio-based materials to make them. A good example is polystyrene, which is a very ubiquitous oil-based plastic that is used in all your clear clamshells, many deli containers and other types of packaging, renowned for its clarity and its rigidity. We have replaced that a with a biopolymer called NatureWorks Ingeo, also known as PLA, for a number of years, or polylactic acid. Ingeo is made 100 percent from vegetable starch. It’s a polymer; it’s a plastic, but it’s made from a bio-based resource, and it is fully compostable in a municipally managed compost facility. And, I mention that, just because it needs a fairly high compost temperature to start to break down so the bacteria can get to it and consume it.
RC: So, walk us through the lifecycle of your plastic and why it’s good for the environment.
AK: NatureWorks Ingeo is manufactured by a company called NatureWorks, L.L.C., in Blair, Nebraska. What they’ve done is they’ve taken the starch from the corn put it in their NatureWorks factory and converted it into polymer. The NatureWorks factory is a zero carbon emissions factory. They use solar energy and wind power energy, and their process is very efficient. So, when they’ve made the resin, the resin then goes to a converter factory somewhere around the world where they will take that resin and turn it into finished product, such as clear cups or the clamshells that we sell or little, compostable souffle cups, portion cups for portions of ketchup and salad dressing.
And once it is taken home by the consumer, they have a number of options. In most cases, it’ll go in a landfill where it’ll sit in the landfill which is not necessarily a bad thing because the plastic came from plants, and the plants absorbed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere when they grew. So, that carbon is actually in the container that gets thrown away and is fixed in the landfill so it’s not going back into the atmosphere. The whole lifecycle of Ingeo is one that has a much lower carbon footprint. It will break down more quickly than polystyrene.
RC: How long do you think it’ll take before your food packaging and the utensils you produce will be the norm rather than the exception?
AK: With the trend that I’ve seen happening even in this recession of more demand in the marketplace – not that it’s all coming to us, mind you, but the demand is out there and we’re seeing it throughout the industry. I think in five – twelve years, somewhere in that range, you’re going see the changeover rapidly occurring.
RC: As you just discussed, the upfront cost is higher, but let’s look at the backend cost. You talked earlier about disposing these as compost is much better for the environment than just having them go in a landfill. Would somebody actually pay you a fee to take this because it becomes a feedstock?
AK: Well, actually, no, but what happens in most communities where municipal composting is available is that the tipping fee or the cost for a 55-gallon garbage can of garbage versus the same volume of compost, the compost might be 25 – 30 percent less costly to dispose of.
RC: So, when you look at the total lifecycle analysis from the purchase to the disposal, this product may be more competitive than it looks on the front.
AK: It may be more competitive and actually is if you look at even a deeper sense of the true cost. What are the costs of using a non-renewable resource for ten minutes and throwing it away? We don’t have those costs built into the packaging. That’s a cost society pays, and we all pay it in terms of landfills, in terms of toxic waste when things break down and then it gets into the groundwater. When you look at that, then green packaging is competitive on a societal level, and it’s a good investment. It’s an investment in being green, and you’re paying for it upfront.
RC: Allen King is president of Excellent Packaging. Thank you for listening and keep those comments and suggestions coming. E-mail me at [email protected] We are now entering the long election season. Some of you may be from a red state, others from a blue state, but it’s time we come together as a country. So, I want you in a green state because when you’re green, you grow. That’s it for this edition of Green Sense.
Green Sense is a production of Environomics Communications, Inc., Barrington, Illinois – Bob Tessler, executive producer; Ed Rasher, web production; Penny Lampress, executive assistant. Visit www.greensensemedia.com to download this and past shows.