Plant based packaging – is it the future for plant based food?

Plant based packaging

What is plant based packaging and is it sustainable?

Plant based packaging is packaging made from natural sources, mainly starch from plants.

In this article we will discuss the various options available to us for packaging our products including plant based bio plastic, glass, paper and conventional plastics.

There is a huge amount of information for us to consider in deciding what packaging we use and it is, together with shipping, the greatest challenge we face as a food producer.

Our food is plant based and completely natural. So it’s only natural that we want our packaging to be as well. But is that actually the best option for us at the moment ?

Does it offer the best protection or shelf life?

And to what extent does it depend on our customers and how they choose (with the facilities available to them) to best dispose of the packaging at the end of its life?

What we look for in our packaging

Choosing the right packaging is absolutely essential in order to:

  • delay spoilage and food waste;
  • protect our food products from damage in transit; and
  • provide the consumer with better information, choice and value.

Sourpress is a living fermented food

Sourpress stays at its best for longer in an anaerobic environment (ie. free of oxygen). Once it is opened it is exposed to air and, like many other foods such as bread, fruit and salad, it will naturally start to slowly deteriorate.

In our tests, without vacuum sealing, it will last around two to four weeks in our fridges before mould starts to appear.

But if it sits in transit or in a shop display cabinet, fluctuations in temperature and humidity may cause it to deteriorate more quickly, particularly in the summer months.

Inevitably this spoilage leads to waste. And in order to calculate the true cost to the planet of that waste, we need to look not only at the item itself being thrown away, but the separate ingredients that are wasted. Where do they come from? How are they made? How are they transported?

Transport is the biggest source of air and noise pollution in the UK so we need to be conscious of that as a factor when weighing our options on packaging.

The longer we can protect a product from spoilage, the less waste. More cheeses can be sent less frequently to replenish stock both in shops and in customer’s homes.

If a parcel is being sent out to a regular customer, we want to be able to fill that box with cheeses that will not go off before the customer wants to eat them. This is more economical for the customer and makes best use of the box itself, the protective fillers inside (paper and wood wool) and the transport.

Being able to extend shelf life through suitable packaging means that people living at the furthest ends of the country can still choose to have our food sent to them in an economical way. Done well, it can be less harmful to the planet than us sending cheeses to multiple shops for individuals to then have to drive to.

We have to be realistic. Not everyone can walk or cycle to their local shop. Not all shops want to stock vegan products in any great quantity either and so this means people seeking specific vegan products may be more likely to travel further to buy them.

So, in order to offer value and choice and minimise impact on the planet, we need packaging that protects our food from spoilage and waste, extends shelf life and is light to transport.

Our objectives when testing packaging

We have tried and tested many types of food grade packaging including plant based packaging also known as bio based plastic, compostable plastic and biodegradable plastic.

Our objectives are:

  • first and foremost avoiding food waste and spoilage for the reasons above; and
  • choosing lightweight packaging with the least impact on the planet’s resources.

The first objective is relatively easy. We know we need to remove oxygen to prevent spoilage. Choosing the packaging to achieve both objectives is not so straightforward.

Cheese wax (single use packaging)

Pros

  • Looks appealing;
  • Allows our fermented sourpress vegan cheeses to breathe and slowly mature.

Cons

  • Petroleum based;
  • Contains chemical dyes;
  • Doesn’t always form a tight enough seal to prevent spoilage;
  • Time consuming to apply;
  • Expensive;
  • Quite heavy (and therefore expensive) to transport;
  • Cannot be recycled.

Cheese paper (single use packaging)

Pros

  • Looks appealing;
  • Allows the sourpress to breathe;
  • Lightweight;
  • Quick and easy to use and reuse.

Cons

  • Uses wax/chemical coating;
  • Doesn’t prevent spoilage from airborne yeasts and moulds. Guaranteed shelf life maximum 1 week;
  • Expensive;
  • Cannot be composted;
  • Cannot be recycled due to the coating and can contaminate recycling if not disposed of correctly.

Glass (reusable and recyclable packaging)

Pros

  • Widely recycled;
  • Natural;
  • Seals pretty well but not as well as vacuum bags and shelf life is shorter.

Cons

  • Heavy to transport;
  • Expensive to transport ( because of weight);
  • Expensive to buy (largely due to cost of shipping, again because of weight);
  • Shelf life up to 2 weeks;
  • Only suitable for softer and smaller cheeses.

Biodegradable vacuum bags (plant based packaging)

Pros

  • creates fairly tight seal and offers shelf life of around 3 weeks minimum;
  • lightweight.

Cons

  • Blurs line between non degradable bio based plastic and compostable bio based plastic causing confusion;
  • Breaks down into tiny particles that have the potential to cause harm to marine environments and humans;
  • Cannot be composted at home or in “green waste” household bin;
  • Must be sent to specialised industrial composting centre;
  • Cannot be recycled and can contaminate recycling if not disposed of correctly.

Compostable vacuum bag (plant based packaging)

Pros

  • Can be composted at home – but note it may take up to 12 months to break down;
  • Creates reasonably tight seal – but inconsistently;
  • Lightweight.

Cons

  • Bursts easily therefore lots of wasted bags;
  • Seals fail frequently leading to spoilage and food waste;
  • Very expensive compared to recyclable vacuum bags;
  • Cannot usually be composted in “green waste” household bin – check with your local authority;
  • Usually must be sent to specialised industrial composting centre;
  • Cannot be recycled and can contaminate recycling if not disposed of correctly.

Recyclable vacuum bags (recyclable plastic)

Pros

  • Better seal than compostable bags therefore a lot less spoilage and less waste;
  • Lightweight to transport;

Cons

  • Cannot be composted at home or in “green waste” household bin;
  • Cannot be placed in home recycling;
  • Must be recycled at carrier bag recycling centre (usually found at supermarkets and recycling centres);
  • May just be discarded rather than recycled.

Biodegradeable plant based packaging- confused messaging and “greenwashing”.

It’s easy to be misled by some of the packaging on “biodegradable” or “compostable” packaging. And as a result there is extensive debate in industry about biodegradable v compostable v recyclable and which is better for the environment.

Is it really better to create new compostable bio based plastic packaging over and over – or should we just recycle more?

Is glass better than plastic or the other way around?

You will be able to find research and findings favouring all arguments. It depends on so many factors, right through the chain – from how it is made to where it ends up. It can also depend to an extent, on who is funding the research and the writing of the article.

There does however seem to be some consensus that the term “biodegradable” can be a bit misleading on packaging.

Most “biodegradable” packaging (at the time of writing in January 2021) will only break down in specialised industrial composting facilities – of which there are currently very few in the UK at the moment.

So, unfortunately, putting your biodegradable plastic cup or bag into normal recycling is liable to contaminate the lot and result in it all going off to landfill/polluting the sea/harming marine life.

This is of course the opposite of the intentions of both the retailer and the consumer. To be fair the manufacturers say that it is only their existence that will bring about change and that will ultimately force local authorities to invest in more industrial compostable facilities.

But what harm will it do along the way? And in there is still the question, is it worth it? Is it better to keep making new biodegradable plastic or to improve existing recycling facilities?

Compromise

What we at Herbie’s want, is just to be able to package our products in a way that keeps them safe from damage in transit, reduces spoilage and leaves the least impact on the planet.

All we can do is try and find the best compromise available to us now. We look forward to improvements in home recycling/composting options in the future.

Our packaging

Single use vacuum bags are by far the cheapest option. They are designed for use with our vacuum packing machines and create a perfect seal every time. They offer the best shelf life results.

They also end up in landfill after one use because like anything bearing the number 7 recycling mark, they are not recyclable.

They are therefore a complete no go for us.

Our Presses are now packed exclusively in compostable vacuum bags. The shelf life is not as good as with single use or recyclable plastic, but we have adapted our packaging processes and can now achieve up to 2 months shelf life with compostables – longer if you freeze your Press on receipt.

The reason compostable bags won’t last any longer is simply because whilst the lactic acid in fermented foods is great for preserving it, it

Compostable bags cannot be recycled and if you do put them into your recycling (whether at home or at a recycling centre) you may contaminate the rest of the load.

You can compost the bags at home in your compost bin or put them in your green bin – but only if your local authority will permit this. The bags do comply with EN13432 and are certified by OK Compost but you still need to check with your local authority as presently some will only accept green potato starch based compost bags, including Coop carrier bags, and organic waste. In that case your only option really is to compost them yourself or put them in the bin where they will go off to landfill. They will not break down without access to air and warmth so you can expect the bags to remain intact for a long time and even the manufacturer will not put a timescale on that.

Specialised industrial composting facilities are required to handle even compostable bags at household waste recycling sites – so make sure you know what your local authority does with its green waste before throwing your compostables in the green waste bin.



We will continue to use glass for our butter alternatives and chutney.

We will never use single use plastic.

What does the future hold for plant based packaging?

Whilst for now, we think that recyclable vacuum bags (4 – LDPE (Low-Density Polyethylene) are more likely the best option overall, given current access to recycling opportunities available in UK supermarkets versus access to industrial composting, we are optimistic that in the near future, access to industrial composting will be more widespread, giving us and consumers more choice.

What we don’t have information on at the moment is how much energy industrial composting on a large scale will use versus improved access to plastic recycling. We can hope but we cannot say for certain that plant based packaging will be the Holy Grail.

And let’s not overlook the fact that the major source of bio based plastic in Europe is starch imported from as far away as Nigeria, Thailand and Ghana.

In the meantime we will continue to offer both types of packaging until further notice (on advance orders only).

Great tasting food for everyone

At Herbie's we make simple food using wholefood ingredients, minimal processing and sustainable packaging.

So, whether you're plant-based, vegan, seagan or flexi, or all eating together, we're set on making great tasting food for you to enjoy.

All of our products are made with plants. We don't use any animal products whatsoever.

We use fermentation to develop natural flavours and produce foods that not only taste amazing but, eaten regularly, can also improve your gut health and enhance your wellbeing.

Great tasting, vegan friendly food.

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Next batches will be ready
8th March 2022