The Green Room

I'm an expert on sustainable materials and packaging. AMA

Hello I am Dr Rose Deakin!

I am passionate about all things sustainability but in particular materials and permaculture. I have a PhD in Sustainable Material Selection and previously studied Industrial Design and Technology. I have been studying and working in the sustainability field for over 12 years.

Since 2016 I have been running The Crop Club, a social enterprise which helps people grow food in small spaces and encourages sustainable living. We make eco growing kits for homes and communities and eco promotional gifts for businesses and charities. Our core mission is to reconnect people with nature, food and each other through the joy of growing food.

Hi Rose,

Thank you so much for doing this AMA!
To kick things off, here are a couple of questions for you:

  • What sustainable packaging and materials are already out there?
  • How else can they be improved?

Hi Karla,
Wow, that first question is huge!
Some of theattributes to look for in a sustainable material are attributes like location (raw material/manufacturing), transport, material source (renewable/recycled content) and end of life/circularity is it recyclable/compostable/reusable.

There are some wonderful examples of sustainable materials but it is hard to just say a material is sustainable. Take wood for example, often considered sustainable but if the first isn’t managed sustainably and the wood is transported a long way it may not be considered sustainable.

Sustainable packaging has come a long way in recent years, there are some great examples using leaves, bagasse but again these are not manufactured in the UK. There is work to get more hemp based products in the UK but this will take time.

Improvements could be simplified supply chains and more transparency on materials and where they are made and how they are sourced.

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Thank you!

You mentioned that improvements could be more transparency.
What other questions should we be asking suppliers when we source materials, aside from where they were made and how they are sourced?

Also, can we mix materials to create a smaller packaging footprint?

Another improvement is the provision for end of life/circularity. We are increasing the use of compostable cups for example in the UK but this isnt matched by increased access to Commercial Composting Facilities that can handle this waste for events and businesses.

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Adding on to where they are made and sourced would be who is involved in making them. These questions can be tricky as I have found some suppliers don’t know their entire supply chain. Added to that is the potential for language barriers if working with other countries and cultures.

In terms of recycling, mixing materials was always considered a bad idea as it means you have to ensure the materials can be separated for recycling. But many materials are compatible now for recycling or composting.

I agree! Sometimes, we take care into choosing packaging and materials that are made of sustainable materials, but this doesn’t always consider what happens to them after they have been discarded.

In terms of end of life, what is the best way for us to go about this?
What other examples are there aside from compostable cups?

Adding on to this, is there any way that we can find out the post consumer waste levels of packaging?

End of life is a phrase that although I keep using I am not a fan of! It makes sense to consider the term to mean end of life in that usage, not necessarily end of use. You need to really consider the item or packaging and think what can be done after we have used it? Will it be useful to someone else? can it be reused? If reuse is a route will it need maintenance? Is composting the best option because maybe it will be too contaminated with food to be reused or recycled? We still have a long way to go with recycling in the UK so finding better options than recycling is ideal.

Sorry I realise I answer your questions with more questions, but that it the way to ensure you are considering the options and choosing the right solution.

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No worries! I realise that there really is no easy process to this and that there are always a lot of questions we should ask and consider.

Another question, does a smaller package always translate to better sustainability?

Hi Rose. Bamboo is used on all kinds of products, from clothing to table wear. What are your thoughts on how sustainable this product actually is?

Other examples include looking at ways of reusing or repurposing existing packaging or products. Maybe looking for longer-lasting products that have a durability that can be reused multiple times. So when it comes to events you could look at signage as one area to improve. It might not make sense to make everything compostable at the end of event but maybe choose materials which are both compostable and have durability that they can be reused at multiple events. Some events have reused metal lunch boxes instead of disposable as one product example or encouraged people to bring their own coffee cup and elimate any offer of a coffee cup on the day.

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As a material I think its great, its fast growing and strong and is an incredibly strong material. In other countries it is used in construction and it can be surprisingly heavy once it has grown to a good diameter.

The issue comes back to transparency and ensuring the sourced bamboo is grown in a positive way which is much harder to do. Added to that is of course the fact that you have to transport it a long way so you need to understand the carbon footprint. You can now get compostable coffee cups made from bamboo but is a paper based one going to have a lower footprint? Some materials and products are simply not available closer to the UK so it’s not always easy to find more local alternatives.

It can be hard to say how good it is without a comparison to look at, eg a cotton t-shirt versus a bamboo T-shirt.

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If you were going to transport the package then usually yes as it will massively reduce the carbon footprint in packaging. When I worked in product design you would consider the size of a pallet and shipping crate to maximise the product number and minimse the carbon footprint. If you can reduce the weight aswell as the packaging size then even better.

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That can be really hard to do. WRAP have great data and do amazing research on our recycling in the UK. But UK recycling is still really behind which is why for year we have been shipping it abroad as we produce more waste than we are able to handle.

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What first steps can businesses and anyone else planning to switch to more sustainable materials and packaging take? What do you recommend them to start doing first and using first?

That definitely is an issue that we are facing here in the UK - shipping our recycling abroad.

What do you think the future of sustainable materials and packaging will look like? Are there any innovations that you are looking forward to seeing?

First step really is to look at what they are already doing and identify areas which can be improved. Identify what materials and packaging they are using and look for where the biggest impact can be made. Also talking to suppliers and understanding the supply chain to see where your products come from and finding out if your existing suppliers can help you make changes. Also a lot of people don’t consider what happens after you have used it. So find out from your waste disposal company what statistics they have. How much of your waste is recycled? Are there ways you can reduce your waste output or improve recycling?

One example I have was a company which had invested in coffee cup bins which separated the cup and the lid and had an area to pour the liquid. The people using the bin believed the waste was being recycled. the waste contractor however told me that they had never recycled any waste collected from the coffee cup bins as they were always contaminated with food waste. As a behavior, people use coffee cups as bins in meeting and training session so the cups would have tissues and wood stirrers in there. Also the cleaners hated emptying the bins as the liquid would be very smelly and they hadn’t been considered in the process. Understanding peoples behaviors and observing that can help businesses identify areas to make improvements too.

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I am excited about the materials which are reusing bi-products and waste materials to create materials, There have been companies working with egg shells from sandwich companies and orange skins from juicing companies. Coconut and hemp as materials both have so many uses. I am hopeful that Hemp will be grown more in the UK. Self-grown materials such as those based on mushrooms really interest me.

I am hoping the future will use materials and resources in a more considered and responsible way.

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That’s a wrap folks!

Thank you so much @Rose-TheCropClubCIC for a very insightful AMA about sustainable materials and packaging!

I have realised that there is a lot more to the process and with every single step we should continually be asking questions.

If you have any more questions to ask, please feel free to contact her at rose@legacy-events.com