Recycling is a major component of the environmental trend that’s been heading up the nation’s green movement. Eureka Recycling in the Twin Cities is among the nation’s most innovative recyclers, and has been instrumental in making it easier for Minnesotans to recycle their waste. Eureka’s main target: plastic.
According to a Minneapolis based all natural cleaner manufacturer Restore Products, Americans collectively use 4 million plastic bottles every hour and only recycle 25% of them. But even for the most plastic-averse consumers it can be almost impossible to find their favorite foods and drinks in anything but plastic packaging. Many small business owners are being forced to choose between maintaining profit in competitive industries- using cheap plastic-and environmental values-using costlier recyclable alternatives.
Plastic packaging extends to all corners of the food industry. Lisa Nicholson, owner and creator of Salsa Lisa brand salsa based out of St. Paul, is grappling with mounting pressure to switch to plastic. Despite being more expensive to buy and transport, Lisa has always used glass for the product quality. However, last year Lisa’s glass jar supplier informed her they were shutting down, and should they reopen in the future, Salsa Lisa was just too small to sell to; she’d have to find her jars elsewhere.
Faced with no alternatives, Lisa was forced to switch to plastic. If she had to go plastic, she wanted it to be recyclable. She decided on the #1 resin labeled jar, which, though the most expensive option, was considerably cheaper than the old glass ones. But that’s where Lisa’s plan started to turn sour. When she called to see if the new jars could be recycled in the Twin Cities, she was informed there just isn’t a large enough demand around the Twin Cities to support a market for recycled plastic, and because the jars contained food they would be too hard to clean and reprocess and would likely be thrown out. At the same time, Lisa was receiving emails from her customers asking, “Why plastic?” This demand side pressure encouraged Lisa to keep hunting for a new jar. She finally found it, but at a price nearly 50% higher than the plastic jar, forcing her to increase prices by a few cents. She decided to make the switch, even though it would cut her profits. She felt better about the glass and so did her customers.
Plastic packaging has universally reshaped the face of consumer commodities. It’s easy to produce and comes in all shapes, sizes, and colors, making it significantly more attractive to producers and consumers. Fortunately, some environmentally-aware companies like Lisa’s have worked hard to retain their glass packaging in the face of pressure from waning glass markets and the booming plastic industry. Glass is considerably better for the environment, mainly because it requires fewer raw materials to produce (including petroleum) and is virtually infinitely recyclable whereas plastic, for the most part, can only be down-cycled into carpet, fleece, toys, plastic lumber, etc., none of which can be recycled again. Using recycled glass to produce new glass also makes the process cheaper and less energy intensive than making glass from all raw material; not so for plastic.
Unfortunately, many small businesses like Lisa’s struggle with the cost-benefit tradeoff of profit versus quality when competing with large retailers that move massive quantities of product in plastic containers. However, many small businesses don’t have the choice between glass and plastic. The only answer is plastic. It’s cheaper, easier to work with, and easier to move making it very attractive to producers, large and small, seeking the extra margin of profit.
For business owners it comes down to a conflict of values. How are small business owners expected to follow environmentally-friendly production practices when the larger market exists because of the less eco-conscious alternative? Lisa’s response: it should be consumer driven. Though, for her, plastic was cheaper and more profitable, she knew her customers would be willing to pay a few cents more for higher quality, glass packaging and encouraged her to stick to her own values. This consumer driven demand, if big enough, can affect change not only within small businesses, but also the larger recycling, glass, and plastic markets within the state and the nation.
However, consumers can’t do it alone; state policy must lead the way by making it easy and affordable for consumers to put their hard earned dollars to use and vote for the high quality, locally-made products that promote environmental consciousness. One easy way is Minnesota 2020’s Made in MN Gift Guide to support our local economy.