If there is one company which has the right mindset for sustainability, it's us. Why then, did we end up packaging our vermicompost in plastic bags when we know the world needs less one-time-use plastic?
In our business The Compost Kitchen we collect kitchen waste from households, recycle it into vermicompost, and give vermicompost back to the customers at the end of the month to use in their vegetable gardens - creating a circular economy. We sell the additional vermicompost that we make to the general public. As you can imagine, one doesn't formulate this kind of model without caring deeply about sustainability, and so every decision we make we try to think of something that is not business-as-usual. Yet we still ended up packaging our vermicompost is the least favourite manner - how did this happen?
Packaging is very important because it is a measured volume, easier to transport, and helps the customer identify what it is. In the two years we've been operating, the way we sold the vermicompost has been a bit informal - we used recycled fire-wood bags to package the vermicompost, and we would ask the customers to keep the bags until they order again so that we could collect them and reuse them. We mainly did this because we liked the idea of not paying for packaging, but also because we couldn't afford to obtain any other packaging. We manually spray painted our logo onto the bags so that it looks more official and identifiable, but it got tiresome and scratched out easily. Several customers kept the bags until next time, several haven't ordered again because compost is seasonal, and several forgot about them or their staff put them in the recycling. So we didn't get most of the bags back and we lost our investment in the bags that we did buy, which was 10% of the retail price in some cases.
Next we looked into reusable hessian bags which would have a 'get back your deposit' system and would be easier to stand out from other bags kept in the home. This was well supported by our 11,000 followers in theory and it looked exciting. But the cost of obtaining them in bulk, from local suppliers, or from China ($2700 for 1000 bags), would seriously affect our cash flow and it would require the customer to use them several times before we would recoup our investment. They would have costed around R50 / bag if we including branding which is important because there is compost regulations which say that certain information must be on a bag in order to sell it to the public. We tried asking if suppliers could use recycled coffee bean sacks to make our bags but the main cost was in the labour of re-sewing them so the cost wasn't much different. The retail price would have ended up being double that of competitors, which would make it difficult for customers to choose us even though they could get back their deposit.
We did do a trial with putting vermicompost in these bags but we found that the vermicompost dried out too much so its biology benefit was lost. Additionally, grains of vermicompost occasionally spilled out while handling it. This would make it particularly unattractive to retailers who were targeting to put our product on their shelves because it would make a mess. But also importantly, we realised that few retailers would want the admin of explaining to customers how the deposit system works or having to set up systems to manage it.
After that we looked into paper bags and PLA bags, which could be composted. But their cost also ends up being around R50 /bag because compost needs to stay moist which would require a thick bag. Additionally, even if it were to be thick, they are still easy to puncture, making them unappealing to retailers to keep on their shelves, especially knowing that compost is usually handled quite roughly.
We then came back to plastic bags, which ticked all the boxes of being strong, cheap, printable, hold moisture and being familiar. We considered having a deposit system for the plastic bags as well but the cost of the bag (R4) was so low that we didn't think it was worth the customer's effort to bring it back to us. The bags also tend to be torn rather than neatly cut which makes them not usable again so we would just be sending them for recycling. We realised that most of our customers already have plastic recycling services at home so it wouldn't make sense for them to bring the bag to us for recycling when they could use their own recycling system. So we settled on making sure that the material is recyclable and putting a 'please recycle' reminder on the bag.
There were more options such as dispensing machines or cardboard boxes, but we needed the product to be ready in time for composting season. We are proud of our final product which meets all our customers' needs but we will continue to innovate.
This small journey of choosing a bag, also made us realise that the circular economy is focussing on getting businesses's to change, and businesses's want to change, but there are not enough solutions available which tick the same boxes as the popular options. We need more physical innovations to replace the ones we don't want otherwise business will naturally keep using them. We need to spend less time campaigning to get businesses to change and spend more time creating solutions which businesses can switch to.
We've purchased 10,000 LDP bags and after we sell all of them, we'd like to try again to innovate in the way we get vermicompost to customers. Please will you use this real case study to give us more ideas?
Visit www.compostkitchen.com/knowledge to find out more ways we're innovating