You want compostable? It’s going to cost you…

When I set up A Little Bird Company, it was vital to me that the food I sold was of the best quality, appealing to smaller birds and sold in compostable packaging. I was fed up with the amount of single use packaging we were throwing away as a family, and because my birds were getting through so much food, a big proportion of the plastic packaging was coming from bird food I was buying at the time.

When I started to research packaging for my own bird food, I found it was really difficult to track down well made compostable bags. Often, compostable packaging came in small sizes, or it was so compostable that it would seem to decompose when I filled it with the food – they weren’t strong enough for the job. I was keen that the bags I chose were easy to store and pour from too (I have wrestled with more than enough polythene bird food bags on a freezing winter’s morning – it’s no fun when bird food spills all over the patio!) There were recyclable options on the market, and bags that would compost in industrial environments – I wanted something that would break down in a home compost bin.

Although I eventually tracked down strong, compostable bags for my 1kg Little Beakssubscription, it quickly became clear that it would be hard to find compostable bags suitable for 4.5kg of bird food, which is what I wanted to send out for my Hungry Beakssubscribers. I started to approach packaging manufacturers to research the cost of having some made up. The response was unanimous – time and time again I was told:

“You want compostable? It’ll cost you more.”

Manufacturers were charging huge amounts, and only selling the bags in huge quantities of 10,000 or more – no good for a startup! In the end, I had to think laterally for my 4.5kg bags – at the moment I have come up with my own unique solution – a double ply bag using two 90gsm paper sacks, with a compostable liner to protect the food from water damage. It works!

The experience has made me reflect on how much more challenging it can be to make the sustainable choice in other areas of life. From cleaning products to clothes, to organic food to fair-trade coffee, it is often more expensive to buy the eco option. Had I chosen to bulk out my food blends with maize, wheat and dari and ship them in plastic bags the cost of producing my bird food bags would be much less. 

Why is the sustainable option often more expensive?

There are so many theories – standard products often rely on intensive farming and cheap labour, while more eco-conscious companies often pay their workforce more fairly and some also donate a portion of their profits to charities. Compostable bags are more time consuming to produce than plastic, so it makes sense that the costs are higher. The certification needed to have your company recognised as organic or fair-trade is expensive to obtain, and that cost gets passed on. There is also less demand for eco products, and lower demand typically leads to higher costs. Some companies impose their own “green tax”, charging customers more money for the sustainable choice because they know that eco-minded people will pay.

Will it ever change?

As we all know, making the sustainable choice is always preferable, even when it costs more and you end up buying less. When you buy from a company who have made a sustainable choice in their product, you will often find that they are making sustainable choices in other areas of their business too, from using recycled paper to shipping in recyclable packaging and paying employees a fair wage. As the demand for sustainable products increases, the products may become more budget friendly. Is this an issue that could be addressed at policy level, with incentives to encourage companies to be more sustainable in their choices? It would be a worthwhile debate.

In the mean time, we can only make sustainable choices when we can afford to do so, and re-use and recycle as best we can. What do you think? Will sustainable products become better value for money over time?

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