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JTG is becoming plastic-free

As a human living on this Earth, I've been concerned about reducing waste for the sake of environmental protection since my first Earth Day experience in elementary school in the 1980s.

When I originally launched Just the Goods in 2009, many of us were still under the impression that responsibly deposited plastics were recycled as promised by our local municipalities and the companies with which they partner for this purpose.  Since I would be shipping products from a part of the world known for having freezing temperatures any time between September and May, I made the choice to package using high density polyethylene (aka HDPE and/or plastic code number) because it provided the best intersection of consumer safety in that it is always made without the hormone disruptor Bisphenol A (aka BPA), and universal acceptance in all municipal recycling programs. 

But, now the world knows about what's really happening with a lot of plastic waste: it is not being properly cleaned before recycling, it is being mixed with the wrong materials, it is not being collected/sorted as promised, and it is ending up in landfill or being burned on the other side of the world. Without question, we're deep in a plastic crisis. 

I have spent the past three years assessing/testing compostable bioplastics with my formulas while exploring a plastic-free methods of packaging and shipping. In 2019 I pivoted to a different sort of alternative and released a three-part summary of my research:

Part 1: Glass is not a one-size-fits-all solution
Part 2: As it turns out, a lot of bioplastics are greenwashing
Part 3: We have a winner! (Spoiler alert: it's BPA-free aluminum!)

This was soon followed by Part 4: A discussion on a scale of relative priority when seeking zero waste solutions. And, relatedly, information about JTG's reuse of packing materials constitutes Part 5. 

Please find all five texts compiled below...

Part 1 of 3: Glass is not a one-size-fits-all solution

Just the Goods has been offering facial care products in glass bottles for approximately 3 months and, now that temperatures are starting to take a dip (overnight lows of 5 °C are already coming our way!) it's a good time to reflect on this summertime experiment.

First, wow! I’m thrilled that so many of you have been so keen to shift to a non-plastic alternative! However, as some of you may already know, Just the Goods is located in Winnipeg, Manitoba, which means that for a large part of the year (anywhere between September - May) temperatures can reach below freezing. In freezing temperatures water turns into ice and, as it expands, it presses against the wall of glass packaging causing it to shatter during transport, which is not only dangerous and messy, but also a waste of both packaging and products.

But, apart from glass packaging simply not being a viable option for the larger part of any given year, it is important to recognize how frequently it is prone to breakage even under ideal environmental circumstances. Swipe left to see pictures of what I receive from my supplier at least once or twice with every incoming shipment. I don’t blame them -- they’re doing the best they can to transport fragile material in a realistic way. And the same is true for JTG when we pack finished products for outgoing shipping -- we re-use packing materials, so parcels sometimes contain re-claimed bubble wrap, foam peanuts, etc; however, most of the time we try to use paper but, simply stated, no matter what materials and effort we put into safe packing, success when shipping glass is a numbers game… glass is prone to breakage #facts

And there are other downsides, too…

  • glass requires a great deal of carbon input to make and recycle
  • it is heavy, which means it needs more carbon to ship as compared to a lighter material capable of packing more densely into each transport load
  • it has low intrinsic value as a commodity, which means it doesn't have a particularly good rate of recyclability

Environmental sustainability has been a top concern for me since starting Just the Goods 10 years ago, and I’ve been looking into a better packaging material that can be shipped 12 months of the year this whole time. What’s exciting is that I had a shift in inspiration a few months ago, and I’m happy to report that I’m very close to unveiling the perfect solution. I had a few false starts, and learned quite a bit about the benefit of some manufacturing techniques over others, but things are looking good. I can’t wait to share details… stay tuned for my next post in a few days!

Part 2 of 3: As it turns out, a lot of bioplastics are greenwashing



In earlier "behind-the-scenes" posts, I've discussed the challenge of finding biodegradable packaging that is stable for long enough to hold a product until it has been safely delivered and used completely, while also being stable enough to not adversely affect the integrity of the cosmetic formula contained within (i.e. it can’t quicken mould, rancidity, etc). The type of plant-based plastics used for restaurant take-out containers, for example, definitely won’t work. However, as it turns out, more durable plant-based plastics are not as biodegradable as they suggest 😔

This isn't to say all bioplastics are a greenwashing myth necessarily because criteria for what constitutes “biodegradable” is as vague as the term “organic”. Some products will break down into smaller pieces, but they can’t or shouldn’t be reabsorbed into soil in a guaranteed safe way such as, for example, a banana peel. Where it gets really tricky is when a seller promotes biodegradability suggesting complete reintegration with soil, without disclosing that the packaging can *only* breakdown under specific conditions such as those available in industrial composting sites, which are rare in Europe and virtually non-existent in North America. In cases where a home garden compost bin can’t adequately control humidity and temperature, or the availability of needed bacteria and fungi, you can be certain landfill sites most definitely can not due to the sheer weight of material creating tomb-like conditions without sufficient light or air exchange.

Some manufacturers have taken the position that plant-based ethanol bioplastics, which do not decompose at all and are intended to be recycled with regular petroleum-based plastics, creates a material that is less harmful than that derived from new drilling. Yet the case of waste remains because plastic simply isn’t recycled as frequently as anyone hopes when tossing it into a blue bin.

My search for a bioplastic that is both suitable for JTG’s needs and *genuinely* biodegradable has carried on for the past decade, and yes, all kinds of interesting developments have been made since then, but not quite adequately. Then suddenly I had a whole new take on the problem when I noticed a beverage container in my kitchen cupboard. In hindsight it seems funny that I didn’t think of it sooner! More on that tomorrow 😉

Part 3 of 3: We have a winner!



So, what is light, durable, safe for all JTG formulas, and safe to ship year 'round? What has the highest recycling rate due to its inherently high commodity value … so high that some countries have undertaken minding it out of landfill sites? And, what has relatively low energy consumption during shipping and recycling, making it a genuinely closed loop material?

BPA-free aluminum! Because it resists corrosion, it’s lightweight, and it’s safe enough to hold food and make contact with skin. And because, whereas sand needs to be heated to over 1760 degrees C (3,200 degrees F) to form glass (or heated to between 1,427 - 1,538 degrees C (2,600 - 2,800 degrees F) when it is being recycled, the melting point of aluminum is less than half that at only 660.32 °C (1220.58 °F)! Re-melting aluminum therefore uses far less energy, and is thus less expensive producing new aluminum (one stat indicated that it recycling uses about 5% of the energy needed to make the metal from its raw ore). And furthermore, because each and any scrap of aluminum holds value as an in-demand commodity, rates of recycling are on the rise.

Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons:

Pros:

  • Safe for our bodies and JTG’s formulas, and even safe to ship even during below freezing temperatures.
  • Lightweight thus requiring less carbon for transportation.
  • Durable enough to require less safe packing to reduce overall material consumption and further contribute to lighter parcels. 
  • Holds inherent value, making it more highly recyclable than glass, plastic, or paper.
Cons:
  • Opaque, so you can’t see what or how much of something is inside… then again, a great deal of plastic is opaque and it’s really not too much trouble to shake a bottle to estimate the remaining content inside.
  • Can not be squeezed, so products such as facial moisturizer and hand/body lotion most definitely need a dispensing pump, especially since the machined edge of the bottle’s mouth probably won’t be comfortable to tap repeatedly against the palm of one’s hand.
  • Dissipates heat faster than plastic or glass so if a bottle was frozen during transport then left at room temperature to thaw before opening/using, the outside of the bottle will gather condensation (just like a can of soda or beer) making the bottle appear wet, or as if it has leaked, when in fact it has not
  • More pricey to procure than plastic... but ultimately less expensive than glass because nothing will be lost due to breakage upon arrival from the supplier, and shipping costs will be lower due to the products being lighter making for a more affordable alternative to glass overall.

I’ve just concluded my packaging tests, so I’m ready to purchase from the supplier … provided they can guarantee they always source from the same manufacturer so I can be assured against leaks *fingers crossed*

When the packaging arrives, I’ll be offering 4 oz bottles for facial care products, 8 oz bottles for hand/body lotion, and then expand accordingly. 1 oz bottles are not presently available, but I may be able to custom source them with a minimum purchase of 10,000 - 50,000 units… this is an area to be explored in the future. .
I still have some of the bottles with the different mouth that *did not* prevent leaks (flanged vs machined edge), so they aren’t suitable for face wash or toner, but they will be appropriate for hand/body lotion, so folks will begin to see those options loading into the website over the next few weeks. I’m excited about this shift, and hope you’ll be, too! 

Part 4: I’d like to talk about imperfections and, by extension, scale of relative priority

First, a brief re-cap...

Aluminum, as I’ve discussed in other posts, makes an excellent plastic-free packaging option for Just the Goods products because it is:

  • Safe for our bodies and JTG’s formulas, and safe to ship even during below freezing temperatures
  • Lightweight so it requires less carbon for transportation
  • More durable than glass, so it requires less safe packing to reduce overall material consumption and further contribute to lighter parcels for lower shipping rates
  • Holds inherent value, making it more highly recyclable than glass, plastic, or paper

Of course, there are also some drawbacks, which include that it/it is:

  • Opaque, so it’s not possible to see what/how much is inside
  • Often requires a dispensing pump because it can’t be squeezed
  • Dissipates heat faster than plastic or glass, so if a bottle was frozen during transport then left at room temperature to thaw before opening/using, the outside of the bottle will gather condensation (just like a can of soda) making the bottle appear wet, or as if it has leaked, when in fact it has not
  • More expensive to procure than plastic, but ultimately less expensive than glass because nothing will be lost due to breakage upon arrival from the supplier, and shipping costs will be lower due to the products being lighter

… and here’s one more: it’s thin, so it is easily dented.

What is the impact of a dent and, in this circumstance, does it constitute a defect?

1) I don’t want to culturally misappropriate the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi (a world-view predicated on observing the universal nature of impermanence and imperfection), but it does come to mind as I think about what priorities underpin a desire to seek plastic-free and zero-waste lifestyles.

A dent in aluminum packaging for cosmetics is - at most - an aesthetic inconvenience in that it does not affect the quality or function of the product inside. Just like a can of soda, a dent that has not contributed to a leak does not impact the quality of the product inside -- it can still be consumed and enjoyed.

If the purpose of choosing an aluminum bottle is to choose a plastic-free option, it is logical by extension that we would not pack that bottle with bubble wrap because doing so would negate any benefit of the aluminum packaging itself being plastic-free.There is also the matter of where/when the dent occurred as it should be noted that -- since aluminum is simply a more fragile material than plastic -- despite efforts by the packaging manufacturer and distributor to prevent any imperfections, the bottles can still arrive to me with occasional dents. So, if the purpose of using a low waste packaging material is to reduce the impact of consumer materials on the planet, would it be logical to toss a dented bottle into the recycling bin? I would argue that, since the dent causes no harm, it would be a bad idea to not use those bottles as it contribute to wholly unnecessary waste.

2) Should dented food cans be avoided? Yes, because they are made out of steel, not aluminum, and a dent can contribute harmful bacterial growth. Is it a misunderstanding about the differences between steel and aluminum that contribute to a sense that a dented can is a defective one? Or, maybe it’s a value for money proposition -- the idea that something dented offers less value. And, if that’s true, is it strictly an aesthetic preference?

Whatever the case, I would like to emphasize that Just the Goods has always staked it’s value on the product inside any packaging -- that is JTG products are made from “just the goods” without any of the bells and whistles of market leveraged branding/packaging.

[To clarify, food is canned in a vacuum -- if the can is dented, there is the risk of the vacuum seal breaking, and air entering and contacting the product within which would be the cause of potential spoilage. I wrote this quickly, and realized afterwards that not everyone will know why. Just the goods products are not packed in a vacuum -- they are not "canned" like preserved food. Beyond this, the only way aluminum would crack is if it is deliberately punctured or *crushed*. A dent won't have the same impact.]

3) The entire purpose of offering Just the Goods products in aluminum bottles is to prevent plastic waste and its adverse impact on our environment. Discarding dented aluminum bottles as waste -- when the dent has no bearing on the quality of the product inside -- is counterproductive to that goal. So, please know when purchasing a product in aluminum that it may risk being dented. And, since no guarantee can be offered that it won’t be dented, no compensation can be offered in the case of a dent on arrival. Plastic packaging will continue to be offered as a dent-free option while the physical, logistical, and cultural shift to a plastic-free world continues to unfold.

Thank you so much for taking this journey with me!

Part 5: Reduce Through Re-Use

Since JTG's clients are largely located outside of Winnipeg, we need to pack every parcel carefully to protect against damage during transport... and this is true, more now than ever, due to working with so much additional glass.

What you might be interested to know is that all our parcel fill materials are re-used. When we buy raw materials, our various suppliers themselves employ a range of materials, and we repurpose everything instead of throwing it away. Sometimes we even re-use their shipping boxes, onto which we write "Re-used packaging is Earth friendly! 🙂" Outside of this, we've also received gifts of used parcel fill from local folks who have saved up large quantities to pass on rather than throw away.

In ten years of operation, JTG has never purchased new foam peanuts, bubble wrap, etc. And, this is why all parcels we ship are stuffed with so many different types of things, depending on what we've salvaged, including release paper from product and shipping labels.

Of the materials we do buy new, our padded mailer are plastic-free/stuffed with post-consumer paper, and the industrial grade tissue we use is made from unbleached recycled content - both are safe to compost or recycle. Our shipping cartons are not coated with any non-recyclable materials for the sake of "cool branding" -- just remember to pull off any packing tape before recycling 😊

In our day-to-day activity, Amanda and I are conscious of every object that passes through our hands: every scrap of paper gets the double-sided treatment through the printer, or for handwritten notes. Even raw-material jars, jugs, buckets, and drums get re-used for workspace organization, or are washed thoroughly and used for bulk product shipping, or in-house material storage in cases where there is no risk of allergy cross-contamination.

If you've received a parcel from us with foam peanuts, bubble wrap, etc., we'd like to suggest collecting and donating these materials to local makers and/or retailers in your area that ship products. Some UPS outlets, which are independently owned/operated, are even willing to take these things so they can pass them to to folks shipping items from their location.

To all the folks who've asked about these sorts of things over the past few months: thank you for being conscientious! My first Earth Day was in 1987 -- I was in Grade 5, and we learned about acid rain, the ozone layer, and recycling -- and all of it has stuck with me, while growing and evolving decades later. JTG was in fact founded with these long-standing values in mind, leading me to pass on the many bells and whistles hyped as delivering a "value-added" customer unboxing experience, but actually feel sorta wasteful. This is all to say, I'm definitely aware of big picture sustainability, and I'm always thinking of ways to reduce, reduce, reduce, re-use, re-use, re-use *thhhhhhennnnn* recycle, as much as I can 💚

---

Updates:

  • Just the Goods still provides the option of adding re-usable pumps / spray tops / flip tops / to bottles in order to both maintain a low product price and reduce the amount of waste directed to landfill
  • I aim to phase out plastic by 2022 for all full-sized products that do not need to be prepared in a container where it's important for me to see if it has correctly layered inside (i.e. eye makeup remover, leave in hair conditioner) ...... update at of April 2020: I haven't had any opportunity to pursue this since COVID-19 has impacted my day-to-day operations and supply chain; I can no longer commit to this date, and will update it when I have more news. 
  • Plastic will not be completely phased out until I can guarantee that all aluminum containers are guaranteeed nickel-free
  • Waterless products that can be switched to glass are already available in that option (i.e. dry facial scrub)
  • I am still in the process of finding 1 oz aluminum containers that are guaranteed to NOT leak
  • I am looking into non-plastic alternatives for lip balm that will not lead to the product becoming inaccessibly priced
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