‘There must be greater acceptance of viewing the packaging world from a holistic perspective’

Caroli Buitenhuis, founder of Green Serendipity, is sitting among the packaging in her office in Amsterdam, ready for an interview. More important than one might think: the packaging and products all are made from non-fossil raw materials. Green Serendipity advises brand owners and retailers in opting for sustainable, non-fossil materials for their packaging or products. “You’re right, I am sitting right in the middle of it all,” she laughs. “Here you see all of the material and product packaging-related innovations.”

Green Serendipity views the packaging world from a holistic perspective. “That means that I consider the entire chain, the materials – their origin and their destination – as well as the products to be packaged or manufactured. I try to streamline these processes.”

Because, while companies often have a great deal of in-house knowledge, they lack the combined knowledge of the packaging and material chains. “We, at Green Serendipity, have this knowledge in our small but expert team.” Buitenhuis herself is a packaging expert and chain innovator; her colleagues are expert in biopolymers, bioplastics and/or the recycling of these materials.

More plastic than fish

When you visit the website of Green Serendipity you are greeted by the wisdom of the ‘old master’ Lao Tzu: ‘If we don’t change direction, we’ll end up where we are going’. “This text has been inspiring me for twenty years, the time I have been working on this problem,” Buitenhuis explains. “One day, when I was looking all around me, I saw the volume of plastic in the world. And I realised that it is steadily increasing. I wondered why no one was saying anything about this and why no one was doing was doing anything about it. I knew that if we continued this way we would have more plastic than fish in our oceans by 2050. This quote perfectly applies to this situation.”

In other words, we have to change, says Buitenhuis. “Changing is painful, innovating is painful and it costs a great deal of money. It inevitably encounters resistance.”

In concrete terms, Buitenhuis’ work means that a brand owner or retailer sits down together with her and her ‘step-by-step’ plan designed to make the chain sustainable. What better Dutch product to demonstrate this than Dutch cheese: “Suppose you want to package it. A block, slices or shredded cheese. You will need three different types of packaging, because each product has its own properties and barriers. This also means you’ll need different materials. Furthermore, we review where the packaging ends up: will it be recycled, composted or will it be transported to a waste site in Asia? And if we do not wish to use fossil raw materials, what are the alternatives? Our starting point is that we first reuse the plastic already in circulation and if this does not work then we also look at other materials. For each packaging need or product I consider all of these processes.”

A circular economy in miniature

Green Serendipity also develops circular concepts. A good example of such a concept is Schiphol, says Buitenhuis. The air traffic at this airport was greatly inconvenienced by geese. This is when it was decided to deter the geese in an animal-friendly way: by planting elephant grass. Geese are unable to land in this grass. The elephant grass has other benefits as well: it absorbs a great deal of CO2, attracts particulate matter and is sound-deadening. Farmers that lease the fields from Schiphol mow the grass. The resulting waste material was not put to any other use.

“That is, until the farmers’ general foreman asked me to think of a way to put this waste to good use. This resulted in the following: we use the grass to produce a biodegradable bioplastic than can then be used to produce catering materials and packaging that in turn is used at Schiphol itself. After this these materials can be discarded together with the partially consumed salad and be fed into the biodigester adjacent to Schiphol. But first you can extract valuable substances from this, such as nutrients and fibres, after which it can be biodigested to produce biogas. The biogas in turn can be used to fuel cars and the heat that is released can be used to heat homes in the nearby community. Anything that remains can still be composted and potentially be distributed across the fields around Schiphol. This way you end up with a circular economy in miniature.”

Furthermore, there also is a local earnings model, says the chain innovator. “It replaces the process of acquiring oil from Saudi Arabia or Iran, bringing it to China to manufacture polystyrene cutlery, transporting it back to the Netherlands where it is used for at most ten minutes at Schiphol, after which it disappears into the waste incinerator because we do not recycle polystyrene.”

Causing irreversible damage to the planet and ecosystems by depleting raw materials, while sustainable alternatives are available is unacceptable, says Buitenhuis. “Oil is a depletable resource, and yet we continue drilling. Gas is a depletable resource as well – and you know what is now happening in the Province of Groningen where the continuing extraction of gas is causing earthquakes. We are changing our ecosystems and this is something we should not be doing. We must maintain our ecosystems intact for future generations.”

A new generation, new materials

Buitenhuis has pinned her hopes on the younger generation. “The current decision-making generation would prefer to keep the present industry in place. But the younger generation is preoccupied with the climate, because that is their future. And the climate crisis is even more important than all packaging issues combined.” This is why Buitenhuis believes that in this respect the world will be radically changed in ten-years’ time. “The entire world of plastics will have changed by then. Because the next generation wants new non-fossil materials and new infrastructures. The current waste processing structures are no longer appropriate and are based on the wrong financing models.”

Over the last few years, far more attention has been given to sustainability and the climate. “The focus on the plastic soup has made a tremendous contribution to this shift. But that’s about consumer behaviour. Biodegradable plastics are not a solution to the plastic soup, because the material likely does not quickly and effectively biodegrade in the ocean. Biodegradation requires the right temperatures, microbes and humidity to be present at the same time. Everyone must be responsible for changing his/her own behaviour, first and foremost starting with companies. Regardless of the complexity of everything that needs to happen.”

There has been a minor turnaround to date. “A few years ago Coca-Cola clearly stated that the plastic soup was not their doing; after all it is consumers who discard the bottles. This stance was severely criticised. This summer they came out with the campaign: ‘Don’t buy Coca-Cola if you’re not going to help us recycle.’ A total about-face in other words. And not because they really want you to recycle, but because they know they cannot avoid this issue.”

Today, Coca-Cola also is a stakeholder in a number of new developments, such as PEF. “This an entirely biobased plastic that is fully recyclable.” Yet Buitenhuis knows that we probably won’t see any of their bottles in biodegradable form over the next fifty years. “Carbonic acid gas tends to seep through the packaging and biodegradable bottles for the time being do not provide for a sufficient barrier to prevent this. In any event, no longer than two weeks in my estimation.”

A look to the future

Green Serendipity has a clear vision for future developments. “The crux of the matter is that we must start to recycle carbon-based materials. The carbon-based materials we use to manufacture plastics will then no longer be extracted from the ground, from fossil sources, but plastics will then only be made from recycled materials, from biomass (for example, from the residual flows of the food industry) or from the atmosphere. We can then capture the CO2 produced by factories and convert this into building blocks for new materials for packaging or for fuel.”

The scientific community is busily working on this, but things are not moving fast enough in actual practice, according to Buitenhuis. “This is because we are still using old infrastructure and oil crackers.” She expects a turning point after 2030. In part due to the new generation. “At that point it will be far more acceptable to consider chains from a holistic perspective.”

Companies must be ready to anticipate this development in Buitenhuis’ opinion. “They must become aware that often there are multiple options for choosing materials for manufacturing their products. This requires independent expertise to avoid making the wrong choices for the future.”

In addition, according the Buitenhuis it is important for companies to closely review their own waste streams. “That is my personal mission. Companies can do far more to reuse their own waste streams for their own packaging. There is a simple example of this in the Netherlands: small tomatoes in greenhouses. The stems are also removed during harvesting. The fibres in these stems, which is biomass, can be used to make paper and cardboard. These materials can then be used to package the tomatoes. Slowly but surely there are increasingly more companies starting to work this way.”

Caroli suggests companies should give careful thought to what they consider important in terms of the materials and packaging they use. “If you want to make your packaging more sustainable, you should first check to see whether it is possible to use recycled materials. If this is not possible, consider options for using sustainably produced materials. You must also carefully consider the overall CO2 footprint, not only whether the materials are recyclable within the current mechanical recycling process. An effective Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) whereby the impact and costs of irreversible damage are calculated will provide a proper direction for the future.”

Many large companies are working on this, but as long as the fossil-based plastics are cheaper than recycled or biobased materials, they will primarily continue to choose the cheapest solution, says Buitenhuis. “But seeing the climate activists makes me feel optimistic again. And it also makes me happy to see how things are on the move throughout the world and the many things that are currently being developed.”