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Why we're returning to Plastic, in the name of environmental sustainability. Huh?!

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Why we're returning to Plastic, in the name of environmental sustainability. Huh?!

You may be wondering what these photos have in common 

(1. Aho Wrap, 2. Mulch on top of Cardboard packaging, 3. Kitchen Kai Scraps 4. Compostable Courier Bag).

Bear with me, it may take a few steps backwards to gain a little context.


When we set out in business, our goal was (And is!) to create a business and products that align with our values as kaitiaki of our whenua for the generations to come.

That meant delving into the whakapapa, sustainability, ethics and lifecycles of each part of our products to ensure that we’re making decisions that tread lightly and with minimal or positive impact on Papatūānuku.


We started with the cotton of our Pēpi wraps- grown without pesticides, printed with non-toxic dyes in a closed loop factory, packaged with 100% cotton paper made from the refuse from the cotton waste. Essentially, you could dig a hole in healthy whenua (rich in microbes etc), and within around 3-5 months, they will have broken down back into whenua.

A taonga that gives, but when it’s served it’s life, leaves no negative impact on the earth (an irony we see tooooo often in products that superficially reflect whakaaro Māori, but are inadvertently contributing to an environmental catastophe- both in their production and in their end-of-life state).


Our Pēpi wraps are shipped to us in cardboard boxes.  There’s no plastic packaging there besides the tape used to seal them (one we’re trying to get swapped to a cellulose based tape rather than plastic selotape. So once the boxes arrive, we unpack our wraps, and either send the boxes for recycling, or we strip off all the tape and use them as a layer in mulching and building up our garden beds and compost.

 

The third image, is literally, our household compost. Composting is something that for the longest I kept at arm’s length. Favoring the council green-bin which turns your green waste into compost commercially (which you can then buy back :) ).

 

That was until we moved whare. The first summer I started poking around in the whenua and discovered an astonishing lack of life. I remember literally shrieking with excitement when I happened across one sad looking worm. We live atop old river beds in south-west Christchurch so the topsoil is shallow, nutrients low and rocks a-plenty. It didn’t exactly bode well for my dreams of sustaining our whānau, at least in part, with kai we’ve grown ourselves.

It set me down a path of learning about how to revitalise our whenua, to nourish the soil and foster a living microcosm that is essential to growing kai well. 

So now, compost is a part of our daily ritual.

 


And lastly, Compostable Courier Bags.

When we started Aho, these things didn’t exist yet. There were only virgin-plastic bags and the level of environmental consciousness by the big corporations was years behind where it is today.

I flat out refused to ship our products in virgin-plastic courier bags as I just couldn't reconcile the idea that we’d put all the thought and effort into designing and developing a product that was so aligned with our values- only to ship it in landfill.

You can imagine, when these ‘home compostable’ bags came along I was beyond excited. 

No longer would I need to wrap every single order painstakingly in brown paper and hope it wouldn’t rain enroute to its destination. So I did the research (with the information that was available at the time), and jumped on board this green evolution!


You may have heard the saying ‘when you know better, do better’. And that's the cross roads I feel like we’ve reached. It’s taken a little while to reconcile all the research that we could, but now that we’ve learned what we have, we’re charting a new course. We will not continue to use ‘home compostable’ courier bags.


There are a bunch of reasons for this and for the sake of brevity, I’ll bullet point below

  • As I learn about composting, I have come to realise (and other avid compost enthusiasts have discovered) that although these bags may be technically compostable, they don't really generate ‘good’ soil. Good soil comes from putting good ‘ingredients’ in, like food waste, grass clippings, dried leaves etc. Balancing carbon and nitrogen. Even within the most efficient composting systems, these bags don’t really break down beautifully and with that, you’re probably not going to be giving your crops and kai their best chance.
  • The courier/address labels that are stuck on these bags aren’t compostable (they’re plastic), and they can be fiercely hard to remove. So the bag probably goes to landfill.
  • These bags can not be recycled, so when they’re ‘wishcycled’  *when you optimistically put stuff in the yellow bin in the hope it could be recycled, they cause problems and can compromise actual recycling processes (This often means that enormous amounts of recycling is redirected to landfill because it is not viable to separate the non-recyclables from the actual recyclables).
  • These bags aren’t suitable for commercial composting in NZ, so they can’t go in the green bin
  • The only proper way to dispose of them (if not home composting without the label) then is to put them into the rubbish (we did a loose instagram poll on our audience and less than 15% of respondents said that they actually had a compost at home ) so that means at least 85% of these home compostable bags are going in the bin and to land fill
  • When these bags go to landfill, because of the way that they are made (with compost-ability in mind) they are a less stable chemical compound so they actually release more methane gas than any other standard plastic courier bag would in the same conditions.
  • The compostable bags (or at least most of the ones we know about) are made in China (where manufacturing is powered by coal- that is shipped to China from offshore) and then shipped to us in Aotearoa. So umm. That surely negates much of the environmental or sustainability greenwashing that we so eagerly absorbed about them.

It’s icky, and frustrating, and disappointing. I feel like we should have known better in some respects, that the incredible marketing and greenwashing took us in. That although these plastics are an innovation and an evolution, and are genuinely (ok, there’s some good financial motivation here too) trying to offer more sustainable alternatives, as a new technology, there’s every chance that they’ll contribute as many new issues as the ones they sought to resolve.


So where does that leave us?


With the knowledge we can’t go back.

With the number of parcels we now ship, it is totally not feasible to be trawling second hand stores for rolls of surplus brown paper and wrapping each order with paper and tape like these beauties back in 2017. 

 

With some more awareness about our own susceptibility to marketing hype.

And a decision, until we know better, to ship with Courier bags made right here in Ōtautahi (Chch), made from 80% recycled New Zealand post-industrial soft plastic waste.

These bags can be returned to soft plastics recycling (where it is available in your rohe), which is then recycled again within NZ.

Alternatively, if you put them in the Red bin or general waste, they’ll go to landfill (where the majority of the compostable bags end up too), however due to chemical composition of the plastic, they’re a much more stable material and do not release the same methane gas as the compostable alternative.


There’s this idea that of something is biodegradable then it must be good. 

Biodegradable essentially means that an item can be broken down into increasingly smaller pieces by bacteria or microbes to be reabsorbed by the surrounding environment, ideally without causing any pollution. 

Some things are naturally biodegradable, like food and plants, while other items break down into harmful chemicals or gases. We like to think of biodegradable as being something environmentally positive, but the trouble is, everything we use or create can be called biodegradable because eventually everything will break down. From compost and food scraps, to plastic packaging or microplastics shed from fabrics, to the tractor left in the paddock for years. 

So as I take small steps toward feeding our whānau from our whenua, and creating fabrics to wrap them in that whisper of their whakapapa and belonging in this whenua, I must become active in protecting the world and whenua they will inherit, and increasingly conscious of the ways I’ve become complicit in posioning Papatūānuku.

 

Small steps. Know better, do better. And gratitude to you for joining us in this journey of learning and unlearning. Observing, evaluating and changing tack.

Any questions, or reflections, welcome! While we don't have all the answers (or even all the right questions), we're keen on research guiding best practice, so we're committed to understanding these issues as best we can.

 

Some of our points of reference: