To create truly functioning circularity in food packaging, small businesses need to be supported and end-users need to be educated, says Darragh Flynn of The Happy Pear.
From its beginnings as a fruit and vegetable shop, The Happy Pear has grown to a small sustainable food empire based in Ireland and the UK. The company is composed of three cafes, a sprout farm, a roastery, online courses and several best-selling cookbooks. In addition, the company operates a Happy Pear-branded food manufacturing and distribution business.
"We’re about health, happiness and community. A huge part of what we do is education and inspiration," says Darragh Flynn, The Happy Pear’s Managing Director.
Flynn has worked at the company founded by his twin brothers—hence where the name comes from—since day one.
"Sustainable packaging is expensive and the barrier to entry is still high for small companies. Government-led support is needed."
Switching to sustainable packaging requires investment and comes with challenges
The Happy Pear’s commitment to sustainability is so ingrained in its business that it has a team dedicated to environmentally friendly packaging.
Today, all of The Happy Pear’s takeaway food containers, cutlery, straws, napkins and paper bags used in its cafés and stores are fully compostable. In 2018, The Happy Pear adopted the Zeus Treefree Cup, Ireland’s only completely paper-free compostable cup made from sugarcane residue.
However, for a small or medium-sized enterprise like The Happy Pear, working with packaging suppliers is not always straightforward. Any kind of change in packaging can require months of discussions, tests, and trialling with packaging providers, and still problems can arise.
When The Happy Pear recently moved its granola from rigid plastic tubs into compostable pouches, for example, the company faced challenges with stock availability, longer lead times, and higher costs.
Processes such as converting residual waste from sugarcane into packaging are still relatively new, and existing manufacturing equipment may require retrofitting or tweaking.
"We want to push the boundaries out when it comes to compostable packaging, so some of the manufacturing companies we work with might need different machines or investments to help us make that happen," shares Flynn.
Home compostable packaging is the Holy Grail
It has also been important for the company to find unique packaging solutions that can protect food products and break down in a home compost bin.
In late 2019, The Happy Pear began using fully home compostable meal and burger trays; 55 percent of its entire wholesale product range now comes in compostable packaging.
While The Happy Pear’s packaging choices show that even a small business can lean into circularity, much remains to be done to truly design the whole value chain for circularity.
On its website, The Happy Pear addresses the issues of plastic recycling in its home country, Ireland, where most recyclable plastic is still not being recycled by consumers.
"Producing products in home compostable packaging is the Holy Grail for The Happy Pear," Flynn says.
"Not everyone, especially people who live in the middle of the countryside, has access to a curbside compostable bin collection system. With home compostable packaging, customers can dispose of those in their garden compost heap or curbside compost collection where it is available."
Consumers need clearer instructions and more education for recycling
In Flynn’s view, consumers need to be educated more about the whole concept of waste and the need for recycling and circularity as well as practical matters such as understanding on-pack icons.
"We need a lot more clarity around packaging symbols to help customers understand what all of them mean. Is it home compostable or industrial? If it says 'composting', consumers tend to stick it in their yards; if it’s made of bioplastics or PLA, it will then take forever to break down in a non-heat environment. A government agency or non-profit could lead an education campaign around this to help spread the message."
For its part, The Happy Pear has its packaging products tested at Thorntons Recycling, which operates Ireland’s largest fully enclosed commercial composting facility.
"Their facility turns our material into high grade compost over a period of 12 to 16 weeks. The compost is then analyzed to see if it’s safe to be sold on as a soil conditioner to farmers," explains Flynn.
Government support needed to help make circular packaging cost competitive
Flynn believes that companies could benefit from government-led support.
"Smaller guys like us are moving to sustainable packaging, but the barrier to entry is still high. We’ve had to invest more money in our own packaging over the last two years because the volume that packaging companies produce is a lot less. Once the bigger players start moving, the price then becomes more accessible. We need to get more momentum around this and move it forward in terms of sustainability."
The Happy Pear has had to absorb these additional costs. He says this is where policy plays its part, and taxes or incentives come in.
In an ideal future, Flynn hopes that locally grown organic produce will be packed in products that are compostable, regenerating the soil in the process. By then, a full circular system with good infrastructure and education should also be in place for food packaging.
"Consumers will vote with their purchases because they know the planet and themselves are one."