Fishing for a Plastic-Free Packaging Solution

November 29, 2021

Fishing for a Plastic-Free Packaging Solution

Last June I clocked out of work for a few days to fish with friends along North Carolina's Outer Banks. Like many, I find a few hours drifting under open skies is often the best way to refresh my view on what's most important in life. That trip turned out to be no exception—but the vision I saw one afternoon while trolling a line certainly was.

Together my friends and I stood on deck casting into the grass line floating offshore, trying to lure the fish that fed among the seagrasses drifting there. But as we drew closer, the field of green leaves we were expecting to see waving in those blue waters looked anything but appetizing. Mixed among them was a mishmash of empty bottles, bags, and other plastic trash. 

As soon as I spied the mess, my stomach lurched in the same way it had years before when I first read Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. The Natural Resources Defense Council aptly characterizes this exposé on the ecological damages wrought by the use of DDT as a work that "eloquently questioned humanity's faith in technological progress and helped set the stage for the environmental movement." I was primed to join it as soon as I finished the book and am still amazed at Carson's insight into the alarming impact our species was having on the planet in a work written 57 years ago.

Silent Spring had a seminal influence on my decision to found Tierra Farm as a company based on the sustainable organic farming methods that represent the only sane way to nourish us and our world. But throughout my 23 years in business, I've been challenged to navigate between the ideals that inspire me and the practical demands of a company that must meet the needs of my customers, partner farmers, and employees. Sometimes, it's easier to see where others fall short in that corporate balancing act between principles and pragmatism. 

A few years ago, I was visiting one of our co-op customers. As I was leaving, I saw a local trash truck dumping the store's recyclables directly into the vehicle's trash bay. I was amazed that a co-op—the kind of community-based store that first helped launch the natural foods movement—could be so lax about their waste disposal. But when I went in to complain to the guy at the counter, I got nothing more than a shrug in return.

I thought about his reaction and my own complicity in contributing to the plastic stew I saw spoiling the surface of the sea that day. The path between them and what I witnessed was as direct as Carson's testimony before Congress a year after Silent Spring  was published: "Our heedless and destructive acts enter into the vast cycles of the earth and in time return to bring hazard to ourselves." By the time I'd packed away my rod and reel, I decided it was time for my company to stop one of those acts once and for all.

Discarded plastics occur throughout the water column, either as larger pieces like the ones I saw that day floating on the surface or as the 90% that can't be seen. Those microplastics are distributed across the seafloor of nearly every ocean and sea in the world. These plastic particles can bind with "Persistent Bioaccumulative Toxic Substances (PBTs).

As the EPA states, PBTs are especially insidious threats to human, animal, and ecological health because of their ability to "biomagnify" up the food web. As they do, they lead to toxic effects when ingested that go far beyond the thresholds measured at their microscopic sources. The longevity of these "persistent" toxins is particularly troubling. Though Silent Spring was primarily responsible for the US's ban of DDT in 1975, that chemical is still listed as one of the five toxins that the EPA's fish consumption advisories regularly warn consumers about today.

And those end-of-cycle results are just the final chapter in plastics' troubling tale. As the Center for Environmental Law notes: "Significant, complex, and intersecting human health impacts occur at every stage of the plastic lifecycle: from wellhead to refinery, from store shelves to human bodies, and from waste management to ongoing impacts as air, water, and soil pollution."

For me, the contrast between these life-threatening man made poisons and the healthy all-natural foods our company seeks to provide couldn't be sharper. So last October, Tierra Farms shut down its plastic packaging line and the $12M worth of annual wholesale business dependent upon it as our first step in becoming a plastic-free company. 

I was aware that this decision would impact more than our company’s bottom line. But I was also relieved to know that there was a strong chance the severance pay we provided to our former packaging workers would be enough to tide them over while they looked for new positions in a job market marked by the highest rate of employment in years. 

Tierra Farm’s efforts to foster a smooth transition for employees from this past line of business are balanced by our plans for the future ahead. That begins with a company-wide audit of plastic use. Right now, we're working to identify plastic components in every part and parcel of our business. That includes everything from the office supplies we use to run it to every package that puts our products into the hands of the retail consumers that are the new focus of our business.

That last target is undoubtedly the biggest since packaging accounts for 40% of all plastic used worldwide. To meet this challenge, we've taken a position as a major purchaser of a new product from an innovative provider who's met our demands for the kind of container that won't add an ounce to the world's plastic problems. This next-generation solution is 100%-compostable packaging that consumers can dump directly into their home compost bin.

While our company is committed to making this pivot from plastics, I have no illusions about the widespread disruptions to our business this transition will wreak for quite some time. And as the owner of an unleveraged company, I realize I have the freedom to make a move that more conventional businesses owners might not be in a position to make. After years of working to keep Tierra Farm not only profitable but relevant to the shifting needs of an increasingly complex and competitive global marketplace, I'm certainly sensitive to the challenges they face.

But the reasons for this decision are now as clear as the blue waters I floated over in June until I found the mess that threatens to foul them for good. Getting rid of plastics will inspire a turn in our business that brings me full circle to the reason I founded it in the first place: to help build a world where the food we eat doesn't come at the expense of the planet or the people on it. It's my hope that our customers, competitors, and others will join in to do the same.