- Case Studies
Industry: organic food wholesale distributors
Project Type: packaging life cycle analysis
Location: Eugene, OR
Vincent Ferrero worked with Hummingbird Wholesale to assess sustainable packaging alternatives that reduce environmental impact while still meeting food storage, handling, aesthetic, and food safety criteria.
Hummingbird Wholesale distributes organic food to its customers, with a focus on locally grown products, regional ingredients, and minimal waste. As of 2018, Hummingbird used 54,250 bags every year to package their products. Roughly 40% of their packaging was made out of petroleum-based plastic which was neither biodegradable nor easy to properly dispose of. The remaining packaging materials were comprised of wood pulp cellophane which, although considered biodegradable, their degradation can be limited by additives that are used to treat the bag's exterior.
Hummingbird Wholesale strives to achieve a triple bottom line in their business practices: social, economic, and environmental sustainability. In line with these goals, they partnered with OASE to help identify where they could improve their packaging process to reduce their environmental impact.
Ferrero conducted a life cycle analysis (LCA) of Hummingbird's packaging materials to quantify environmental impacts and identify sustainable alternatives that reduce environmental impact while still meeting food storage, handling, aesthetic, and food safety criteria. To perform an LCA of current packaging, Ferrero first created an inventory of Hummingbird’s existing packaging products: Elkay plastic 5 lb bag, ULINE plastic 10 lb bag, and Pak-Sel Cello 1 lb bag (cellophane bag). The inventory included material makeup, manufacturing processes, transportation methods and distances, intended use of the product, disposal methods, and costs. The intern then used Sustainable Minds LCA software to compare ecosystem and human health impacts.
For comparison, the intern also conducted an LCA of alternative packaging material including glass, polylactic acid (i.e., biodegradable 'bioplastic' derived from plant matter such as cornstarch), organic compound plastics (i.e., biodegradable petroleum-based plastics treated with organic compounds), combination Kraft paper (i.e., recyclable and biodegradable paper or cardboard made from chemically-treated wood pulp), and post-consumer (i.e., recycled) plastic.
From the LCA, Ferrero concluded that, based on packaging 10 lbs of material, the best overall performing material was 100% post-consumer plastic, which offers a heavy reduction of fossil fuel use, however, this material also has higher ecological and human health damage compared to current practices. The second best option was domestic polylactic acid, which offers reduction in fossil fuel use but has increased ecotoxicity and carcinogenic output. When comparing packaging for 1 lb of material, the current cellophane plastic bag was the best overall option even though it had the highest fossil fuel use. The organic compound plastic fit Hummingbird's needs, but was cost prohibitive, and lastly, food safety modernization is moving away from glass packaging.
This analysis revealed that there was no one perfect solution to achieve sustainable goals and meet Hummingbird's packaging criteria, and each alternative solution required a high investment. However, if Hummingbird was to use 100% post-consumer plastic for their packaging, the could potentially annually reduce:
pounds of CO2 emissions