Making The Switch To Plastic-Free Packaging

Jul 20, 2021

This blog best relates to the cosmetic, retail & food industry; and those looking for inspiration on making a switch to plastic-free packaging solutions.

Hi! We are Judith & Justin Sweeney, Co-founders of the oil-based cosmetics company, Bubbles & Balms. We make a complete line of daily care products for homes with multiple sensitivities. These include things like soap, shampoo, conditioner, moisturizers, skin salves, deodorants and lip balms. We are a values-driven company, and since September of 2020, all of our products except for one have achieved zero-waste, meaning all packaging is easily recyclable, compostable, and will biodegrade if it ends up anywhere in our environment.

Where We Started: Making the switch to Zero-Waste felt like an unattainable goal in 2018 when we began our search for sustainable packaging. We were aware of this massive plastic packaging problem, and glass packaging wasn’t accepted at our local recycling facility or across much of our country. We learned about a paper board packaging that was lined with compostable liners, but it would increase packaging cost by an astronomical figure as supply was minimal. Luckily, the demand for zero-waste packaging has continued to grow since 2018, as we’re seeing it become more of an expectation from the consumer, so suppliers are filling that demand with exciting new options all the time!

Why We Said No To Plastic: ”Once you know better, you do better.” We had been using paper bags from day one. We started reusing packing material from our ingredient suppliers to package our own shipments. We gave leftover packaging material to local boutiques. We used manufacturing processes that allowed for the least amount of waste. But it didn’t feel like enough. We dove into documentaries, blogs, and community clean-ups; becoming more active in our environmental passions as we went. And when our daughter was born in 2018, we just had this feeling that we had to exhaust every effort to make sure our company was contributing to a world she would want to inherit.

Why We Said No To Glass: Many people asked and continue to ask, “well what about glass?”. Glass has perfect circularity in a perfect system…but our recycling system simply isn’t perfect. Canada’s recycling infrastructure is underdeveloped, and many jurisdictions struggle to offer a glass recycling service as smelters and secondary markets for glass cullet are often logistically out of reach. Glass is also very heavy to ship, and bulky to store. We did try a refillery model with some products, but were nowhere near the 100% zero-waste target of our goals. And when glass becomes linear, ending in a landfill after a single use, it becomes a carbon liability, not a cure. We realized we couldn’t control where our packaging ended up, but we could control what packaging we used. So we opted for a thick, paper-board, soy ink printed, Food Grade, compostable jar & tubes.

How We Sourced Our Solution: We started with our Canadian supplier network, searching for the golden ticket of sustainable solutions. Once we exhausted onshore options, we took a deep breath and started researching international sourcing. As we had only been dealing with North American suppliers, this was a learning curve, but we were able to create a relationship with a values-aligned manufacturer that could supply the zero-waste solution we needed for the varied landscape of recycling services offered across Canada. We started researching on Alibaba.com, and then acquired a sourcing agent to take over once we had the specs we were looking for. 

Confirming It Was The Right Fit: We knew we wanted to make the switch, and wanted to confirm that this was what our community wanted as well. We consulted with them first over social media polls and commentary and then a smaller group over phone calls.

We connected with two other agencies in the process of transitioning to zero-waste compostable packaging. One was our local recycling authority. This was where we were able to learn about the materials accepted, the sorting process, where human error can take place, and what challenges the Canadian recycling system is facing today.

We also connected with the local climate adaptation group. They helped us understand more of the impact that various waste management strategies have on our climate, and the impact of plastics within our environment.

How Difficult Was The Shift: There were a lot of moving parts to the shift that would be overwhelming if they hadn’t happened slowly over a couple years. We needed to:

  • Complete research on available options
  • Test appropriate solutions
  • Ensure food grade certification of the solution
  • Learn about international sourcing
  • Find a values-aligned manufacturer (wanted a firm that focused exclusively on sustainable solutions)
  • Reduce our catalogue to make the variety of packaging economical
  • Alter formulations to remove water content
  • Scale up our minimum order quantities and storage
  • Adjust to new lead times
  • Source labels to match compostability of package
  • Communicate the storage and maintenance of packaging to our community

We were lucky in that we were building our business model as we were making these changes so it was baked into the decision-making we were already having to do. We were also small enough to make these changes in a reasonable timeline as the operational changes were much more limited than a large and well-established manufacturer.

The Benefits Of Becoming A Plastic-Free Company: One of the best benefits is feeling truly in alignment with our values…and not in a far off sense, but in the here and now and what we’re doing each day. We’ve also noticed the following:

  • Refined Processes: Every time we need to address an aspect of our operations, we look for areas where we can remove waste, remove plastic, and improve quality;
    • Sourcing
    • Production
    • Labelling
    • Business Administration
    • Order Fulfillment
  • Cost Savings: Bulk purchasing has been a great way to save $ and decrease our packaging cost. We had gone from bringing in 500 of each packaging size to ordering 5000 of each packaging size to ensure we could keep the price difference to the community at the bare minimum. Maintaining our accessibility was really important to us.
  • Customer Growth: Showcasing our values leads us to more like-minded customers. We’ve connected on a deeper level because we are transparent and communicate our reasons for switching, and the benefits THEY will gain by shopping with a company who has their future in mind.
  • Collaborations: Since making the switch, we have been featured in multiple articles and broadcasts and this has led to invaluable business connections with other like-minded, well established entrepreneurs. It’s opened the doors to mentorships with skilled veterans of the business world who see our want to do-better and are helping us amplify it.
  • Team pride: Our team went from liking what they do to loving what they do! They’re so excited to talk and share how hard we’ve all worked to create an effective plastic-free option and really engage in customer education.

Hiccups We Met Along The Way: Some of the things we learned along the way that we would do differently:

  • Product Fit Testing: We tested our products for compatibility with the new packaging but failed to recognize staining on the kraft tests that became evident on the powdered white final paperboard. We ended up with minor staining on the first production run which required a repackage of about ⅓ of the inventory. We overcame this by using a small bead of vegetable wax to line the base of the jars. No more staining!
  • Formulation Tweaks: To further prevent staining, we increased the wax content of some of our thinner salves and creams. We also lowered the temperature of our stove top so that we didn’t destroy the inner lining of the packaging when pouring melted product directly into the tubes. We also increased the antioxidant % to stabilize shelf life as the jars are not a perfectly air tight seal like a plastic jar.
  • Consumer Education: We traded durability for sustainability. The paperboard packaging can’t get wet, which can be tricky in a bathroom setting. The tubes (deodorant & lip balms) are also a push-up, instead of a twist, so this also came with a few questions. We had to work a little harder at simplifying and elaborating on our “How to Use” and “How to Store”, but our customers caught on quickly and more companies releasing similar products is adding to the education.
  • Disposing of Remaining Goods: We had two things we needed to liquidate: inventory that was still in plastic packaging and remaining unused plastic packaging. We communicated with our community about the transition. We placed all of our existing plastic-packaged products into Mystery Bags and sold them at a large discount. It was a huge hit and made sure no remaining product went to waste. We then reached out to other makers in the area to see if they could use the remaining packaging to ensure it wasn’t simply placed in the recycling bin without ever being used. We found a local craft mom who was delighted and took all of our remaining bottles and jars.

Going plastic-free was a catalyst in our business and we encourage others to make the switch. It is an advantage as an early adopter that is becoming more of an expected standard from a growing segment of consumers who want their packaged goods to be less of a burden to the environment. And at the end of the day, it has made us leaner and more profitable. It was a win-win-win for us, and we think it can be for others as well! Reach out to info@bubblesandbalms.ca anytime if we can help you get started.

Take good care,

Judith & Justin, Co-founders of Bubbles & Balms 

A Bubbles & Balms box sits on a countertop beside bars of soap
Support companies like Bubbles & Balms to enjoy naturally-sourced cosmetics with no plastic packaging

Follow us on social for more stories, news and updates:

Facebook: www.facebook.com/gaiaproject

Instagram: @thegaiaproject_

Twitter: @gaiaproject

LinkedIn: @TheGaiaProject

  • I have been working on climate change for over 35 years; I believe that The Gaia Project has a piece of the puzzle that will help us solve it!

    George Dashner

    Past Chair of The Board of Directors

  • Education is a key component of our sponsorship priorities and this program (Trash Tracker) was a perfect fit.

    Kate Shannon

    Communications and Community Relations at Canaport LNG

  • I am humbled to be a member of the Gaia Board of Directors. It gives me an opportunity to give back to an organization that has given me and my students so many amazing opportunities and experiences. They have had a profound impact on me as an educator.

    Carolyn Barnhart

    Science Lead at Fredericton High School and Director at The Gaia Project

  • Climate change comes off as a complex subject to most, but The Gaia Project makes it approachable for students. When students feel empowered to take action, amazing progress can be made!

    Tanya Legacy

    Teacher at Moncton High School