The Problem with Packaging: Part I, Plastic.

 One of our ambassadors, Cole DeNormandie, tested our our Unwrapped Burrito this winter.

One of our ambassadors, Cole DeNormandie, tested our our Unwrapped Burrito this winter.

This is Part I of a series on why TrailFork has chosen to opt for compostable packaging rather than the plastic cook-in-bag packaging used by most backpacking food companies. This option will not be for everyone! Sometimes managing pack weight, corralling and carrying loads for little ones, and minimizing cooking logistics must be paramount. But we wanted to see if we could convince you to give compostable packaging a try, and to shed a little light on why we’ve made the choice that we have.

Packaging Part I: Plastic.

By now many of us understand the damage that plastic can do both to the environment and our own bodies. Here’s my layman’s understanding of why we should be wary of the excessive use of plastic, especially as people who like warm food and the outdoors (note that I am not a scientist, only a paranoid consumer):

Risk to Human Health

This study documents in detail the link between exposure to plastic and rates of cancer, endocrine disruption, and insulin resistance. To the extent that they’ve been studied, the effects of plastic exposure on the human body are harrowing. As this article in Scientific American explains, researchers have noted associations between exposure to the phthalates found in plastics with reproductive abnormalities in newborns.

Pouring hot water into plastic containers causes the containers to leach BPA, a known endocrine disruptor, at faster rates than they ordinarily would, according to the CDC. (If you’re still sticking plastic containers in the microwave, please stop—this means you, mom!)

Harmful to the Environment

We human beings produce 300 million metric tons of plastic annually. Half of this, or 150 million metric tons, are for disposable products—meaning, they’re meant to be disposed of within a year of being produced. This would include the plastic pouch that your typical backpacking meal comes in. And that pouch is not recyclable—only about 6% of those 150 million products can be and are recycled. The rest end up in landfills, incinerators, or the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where they leach petrochemicals and get into the food supply and bloodstreams of fish, aquatic mammals, and birds.

What does this have to do with backpacking food?

Well I wanted to see if I could get a feel for how much waste one of my own backcountry trips might generate.

Let’s imagine that I’m going on a three-day trip. And for each of those days, I pack, say, four pouches of traditionally packaged backpacking food. So that means my long weekend is going to require about 12 pouches of food, give or take.

I did some independent investigating, and by my calculations, the average pouch for a backpacking meal weighs about 2 ounces. Multiply that by 12, and my weekend has generated 24 ounces or 1.5 lbs of non-recyclable waste.

Which may not seem like a lot. Especially if I don’t go backpacking often. (Which these days, I don’t—entrepreneurship is a grind, y’all.)

But let’s zoom out a bit. This New York Times article describes a newer backpacking food company on the market as producing 45,000 pouches of trail food in July of 2016 alone. That’s 4218 pounds of non-recyclable, petroleum-based, plastic packaging, that will 100% end up in a landfill, or swirling around in the ocean.

So you can see how this left us at TrailFork feeling a bit ambivalent about using those same packages for our own product. We don’t want to serve you hot trail food laced with BPA and other endocrine disruptors/carcinogens thanks to our packaging, and we also don’t want the TrailFork logo washing up on coastlines or languishing in a landfill.

Here’s how I feel about climate change and the general degradation of the wilderness and landscapes that I’m totally dependent upon: terrified. But also: helpless. Rising oceans and the prevalence of petrochemicals seem like threats that are totally beyond my control. But trying to reduce the amount of plastic I use makes me feel like I have a modicum of power in a situation in which I otherwise feel pretty useless.

That said, we also want our product to be convenient enough to use—what’s the use of promoting sustainable solutions if no one wants to use them??

If TrailFork can empower our customers to feel like they can cook in the outdoors without a plastic pouch, I feel we will have succeeded. That means it’s on us, though, to help make it easier for adventurers to make this choice: i.e. we need to make the case that convenience and environmental sensitivity can go hand-in-hand. So next week I’ll be sharing backcountry cooking tips—no cooking in pouch required. Tips? Questions? Vehement disagreements? I hope you’ll share in the comments.

Lillian Hoodes1 Comment