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Circular Economy Advice Needed

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?

Vermicompost in plastic bag
The Compost Kitchen's Vermicompost Packaging

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?

Food waste recycling model - get back vermicompost
The Compost Kitchen's Circular Economy model

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.

Vermicompost packaged in used firewood bags with our logo spray painted on
Packaging in firewood bags

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, gra