From the staggering levels of plastics in rivers and oceans to the millions of tons of garbage that wind up in landfills, to the continuing surge of air, water, and soil-borne pollutants, the environmental impact of our industrialized lives is getting harder to escape.
Healthcare—with its reliance on single-use disposables—is one of the world’s biggest polluters. And the natural products and dietary supplements industries—despite their “clean, green, and healthy” values—do contribute to the deluge of trash and pollution.
Fortunately, eco-conscious shoppers are seeking items that do less harm, and companies in the natural products sector are responding in kind. Among the brands leading the charge toward ecological sustainability are several practitioner-focused supplement companies, including:
- Klaire Labs: The Reno-based company has embraced a “Source to Patient” model across its complete line of over 350 products. “Every aspect of how the original raw materials are sourced, harvested and processed must be rigorously monitored,” said Nigel Pollard, CEO of Soho Floridis International (SFI), Klaire’s parent company. “There’s a lot of upstream scrutiny. We use organic as much as possible.” SFI is also innovating in its formulations to eliminate as many excipients (fillers, binding agents, flow enhancers, colors, etc) as possible. For example, SFI’s KeenMind product for cognitive support, went from 8 excipients to just 2. The company also tries to maximize dose per capsule across all its products. More intelligent formulation means more efficient use of raw materials.
- Blackmores: The best-selling supplement brand in Australia, and parent of the Bioceuticals practitioner line, adopted a “closed loop” packaging process in 2014 that has cut more than 60 tons of cardboard and plastic from the company’s waste stream, and diverted 69% of its onsite waste from landfills to recovery systems. Blackmores has a dedicated sustainability team responsible for cutting carbon emissions, minimizing water waste, and improving supply chain sustainability. Oh, and let’s not forget the bees. The company hosts a hive of stingless bees that pollinate extensive wildflower gardens at Blackmores’ main headquarters. Blackmores' ecological efforts are serious and far-reaching. They're detailed in the company's annual Sustainability Report.
- Nordic Naturals, a leading fish oil brand in both the consumer and practitioner channels obtains its oils only from non-endangered wild fish (Arctic cod, anchovies, sardines) from sustainably managed fisheries. Nordic avoids farmed fish owing to the negative impact of aquaculture on marine environments. The company’s main facility in Tromso, Norway runs on biofuels extracted from leftover fish fat byproducts of fish oil production. Its US headquarters in Watsonville, CA, is LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) certified, and has reduced water use by 50% since 2011. All of Nordic’s bottles and packages are 100% recyclable.
- Metagenics also has a company-wide environmental commitment that includes a LEED certified building; a Zero Water Footprint (all water used at it’s Gig Harbor facility is treated and purified before being returned to the Puget Sound; and an extensive recycling program that eliminates 38 tons of waste per year, including 19 tons of cardboard. In 2014, Metagenics won the Washington State Recycling Association’s “Recycler of the Year” award. The company uses recyclable glass bottles and recycled paper packaging as much as possible. “We do everything we can to empower sustainability,” says CEO Brent Eck.
Making a successful switch from traditional plastic containers to recyclable or biodegradable ones can be tricky, and requires several key considerations.
The Packaging Paradox
Supplement containers must protect and maintain the freshness and integrity of products that often contain easily degradable compounds. Shielding from UV light, moisture, and microorganisms is essential. From manufacture to delivery, the products must also withstand many changes in environment.
Generally, supplements are packaged in plastic or, ideally, glass bottles, canisters, and jars -- along with cotton balls and desiccants, outer boxes, labels, tamper-evident seals, and package inserts. Products requiring precise dosing come with dispensing devices like droppers, syringes, or dosage cups, all used briefly before being discarded. While some items may contain recycled or recyclable components, many will wind up in the Pacific gyre.
As of 2015, more than 6.9 billion tons of plastic have been generated. Only 9% is recycled.--National Geographic, June 2018
Design and market appeal also play into packaging decisions. On shelves jammed with products, companies want theirs to stand out. For example, gummy supplements -- a fast-growing delivery form – often come in transparent polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles so people –especially kids—can see the bright colors. Fortunately, PET is the most widely recycled plastic in the world.
There’s also the issue of single-serving, travel-friendly, or blister-packed supplements. They’re popular, but extremely wasteful. In most cases, single-serve packages and blister packs cannot be recycled.
Then there’s the matter of online shopping. As reported by the Nutrition Business Journal, data from Slice Intelligence show that online vitamin sales are growing faster than any other e-commerce sector; 77% of all online supplement purchases are now made through Amazon alone. All that online commerce means increased amounts of cardboard and plastic packing material, as well as more fuel consumption.
Recycled vs Compostable
New eco packaging innovations are emerging, but there’s lack of consensus about which are truly earth-friendly. Experts debate the merits of recyclable versus biodegradable products. Typically, production of brand new materials -- even eco-conscious, compostable ones -- requires greater energy input than the recycling of existing products. A remarkable variety of certified compostable bioplastics do exist, opinions differ on which are best.
Supplements are packaged in plastic or, ideally, glass bottles, canisters, and jars -- along with cotton balls and desiccants, outer boxes, labels, tamper-evident seals, and package inserts. Products requiring precise dosing come with dispensing devices like droppers, syringes, or dosage cups, all used briefly before being discarded. While some items may contain recycled or recyclable components, many will wind up in the Pacific gyre.
Bottles and boxes incorporating post-consumer recycled (PCR) components like plastic resins or paper are popular. Some plastic manufacturers also produce proprietary organic or biodegradable additives that enhance biodegradation of packaging made from materials like PET, nitrile, rubber, or latex.
More companies are now utilizing plant-based packaging. Paper, molded fibers, sugarcane pulp, and bioplastics like polylactic acid (PLA), polybutylene succinate (PBS), polybutyrate adipate terephthalate (PBAT), and polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA), usually made from corn, potato, or cellulose, are just a handful of the new compostable options.
But it’s not like these materials dissolve overnight. Biodegradation varies significantly, ranging from two to ten years, depending on package size, thickness, weight, and the type of resins used.
Oregon-based Highland Laboratories, a private label contract manufacturer, was the first supplement company to package its products in plant-based containers. Today, all of the company's supplements come in corn-based, petroleum-free PLA bottles. "These bottles use 68 % less fossil fuel than petroleum-based bottles and are the world's first greenhouse gas-neutral polymer," Highland claims.
While PLA works well for tablets, capsules, or powders, it is not a great option for liquids. Sensitive to heat, PLA can melt if exposed to direct sunlight or left in a hot vehicle for long periods. Some also worry that PLA and other green plastics or plastic additives risk contaminating the recycling stream. Unlike the more established PET, there are fewer buyers interested in recycled PLA materials.
Rainbow Light Nutritional Systems uses recycled PET (rPET) made entirely from PCR content for all of its supplement bottles. Use of rPET requires less energy and water, and generates fewer greenhouse gases than virgin plastics. It also keeps valuable reusable materials out of landfills.
In 2016, Rainbow Light launched its "Path to EcoGuard" environmental health campaign, a global effort to "activate solutions to the consumer packaging crisis and the dire toll plastics are taking on the oceans." The campaign included the launch of a microsite providing free sourcing information on its trademarked EcoGuard 100% recycled bottles, aiming "to help other conscious companies evaluate sustainable packaging options."
Rainbow Light claims its EcoGuard program eliminates approximately 10 million plastic bottles from the waste stream every year.
But even the most eco-friendly packaging is only eco-friendly if people dispose of it properly. Many labels carry messages like "100% PCR, please recycle," but there is no guarantee that users will actually do so. The reality is many communities do not have appropriate recycling or composting facilities.
Optimists expect better collection efforts and recycling capacities to emerge as demand for eco-friendly products increases. But this will require a concerted, worldwide effort.
In its June 2018 issue, National Geographic reported that globally, less than a fifth of all plastic gets recycled globally. In the US, that figure is less than 10%.
China's recent decision to stop accepting plastic waste from other countries is contributing to a plastic pile-up around the globe, forcing countries like the US—a major plastics disposing nation-- to urgently address the management of what’s arguably one of the most dangerous materials on the planet.