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Our Journey to Leave Plastic Behind

Plastic has been one of the biggest impact human-made products of the last century. It is strong, durable, versatile and can be made in a variety of different shapes and sizes. However, like anything, the dose can also be the poison. We have been widely increasing our reliance on plastic for far too long, now we’re literally drowning in it.

Here at Tui Balms we’ve been actively seeking a more environmentally suitable alternative to contain our natural products for nearly a decade. More recently, we’ve also had our customers query why our products remain in polypropylene plastic containers.

We have journeyed a complex territory to consider supply source, material properties, user safety, cost, manufacturing process, practicality of use and re-use, recycling or disposal options.

After years of an odyssey researching and experimenting with various packaging materials and options (see detailed account of this below), we came across a company who designed an ingenious compostable cardboard container for us. It is made from 100% recycled cardboard, printed with vegetable ink, and can be burned in your fireplace or composted in your compost at home.

At the end of 2020, we released our original Bee Balm and best-selling Baby Balm in a 85g retail size in these new pots as a 1-year pilot, aiming to transition most of our products out of plastic containers over the next 2 years.

We have become aware that this new packaging is not perfect: We notice that the new pots are more prone to being marked during the production process and are doing our best to minimize that. In terms of practicality, cardboard cannot compete with the sturdiness of plastic inside a bag when on the go. Some clever babies have been finding it a bit too easy to get into the cardboard tubs spreading Balms a bit more widely around home than desired. Oops! The new pots are also significantly more costly.

On the upside, we have received a lot of encouraging feedback: Customers have been loving being able to buy quality Balms without plastic! We do think we are on the right track.

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Watch a 2-min video about our new pots

Below you will find an account of our ongoing journey along a windy road of pros & cons towards a systemically more ecological solution, which also takes related factors into account. Welcome to a hopefully interesting read.

Bioplastics

It was back in 2014, when we started seriously researching our alternatives: One of our first calls was to Pharmapac, the Auckland manufacturer of our plastic pots. We asked if they could make containers for our Balms using plastic polymers from a renewable resource, like sugarcane or corn. This we thought would be an easy switch for us, as we could keep the same sized and shaped containers, use the same labels and our customers could continue to easily recognize our products on the shelf.

However, changing polymers is a little trickier than we thought: Sugarcane and corn-made polymers are softer and more difficult to mould into the container and lids we were asking for. Pharmapac declined to go on this innovative journey with us.

We also asked if they could use a percentage of already recycled plastic to help reduce the carbon footprint of each container. Again they declined to experiment with what they called ‘low grade plastic’ and mix it with the ‘virgin’ plastic they were used to using.

So after a few years of enquiry and trials with NZ manufacturers to make plastic containers from renewable resources, we decided that plastic containers wasn’t the best way forward, regardless of what they are made from.

Tin & Aluminium

Next came an exploration into metal pots which are light and strong, like plastic. Also, according to research, consumers are more likely to recycle metal than plastic. While trialing a variety of tins, we learnt that most ‘tin’ containers are not actually made from pure tin, but rather aluminium or tin-coated steel.

The containers that best suited our needs were mostly made from aluminium. Aluminium is quite an amazing material, light, strong and can be recycled again and again without losing much of its original integrity. However, we were aware of the potential of aluminium to leech into product. After some research into this we discovered that it’s highly unlikely that this would happen due to the nature and pH of our products. Nevertheless we decided to look for an alternative rather than risk losing some of our customers due to them being concerned about any safety risk.

We returned to explore the original “tin” containers, which are made from steel and tin-coated. Though these would be heavier and have additional footprint in transit, we pursued this option for a safe, strong and recyclable container.

We have since discovered that all tin plated containers need to have some kind of epoxy resin coated on the inside to stop the tin leeching into the product inside. The most common epoxy resin is BPA – familiar to us from tinned food containers advertising “BPA free”. With an eye on BPA-free we researched into alternative epoxy resins that coated the tin plated steel. Unfortunately, we weren’t convinced that the other resins wouldn’t leech into our lovely balms.

We began to wondering if we would ever find a suitable alternative.

Bamboo

We stumbled onto 100% bamboo containers, which looked beautiful and would decompose in the soil. However, after more research we had questions about the glue that holds them together and its biodegradability. Also, the availability of different sizes didn’t suit our needs, there was as supply issue with the amount of containers we needed each year and the price difference was significant. We didn’t think our customers would be happy paying an extra $3-4 for the container. Tui Balms prides itself as being an affordable natural product, so we continued our search.

Glass

Glass containers were always a fallback option, as glass is one of the most inert substances available and it is easy to recycle within New Zealand. We also had experience with glass with our original Tui Bee Balm from the 1980’s being in glass containers.

However, glass is fragile and a lot heavier than the alternatives and, of course, a greater weight equals a bigger carbon footprint. ‘Back in the day’ sometimes the container would break, usually in transit.

Most glass containers for skincare products these days come in a cardboard box as well. This got us thinking that instead of having our product in glass within cardboard maybe we could eliminate the glass altogether and just have a cardboard container? So this has been what we have been focusing on exploring and developing until now.

Cardboard

Firstly, we approached all New Zealand based cardboard tube manufacturers to create new packaging for NZ natural skincare with us. None of them were willing, unfortunately, so we needed to start making contacts offshore.

We had some big questions from the very beginning about the suitability of cardboard for our oil-based products. We saw other oil-based products on the market, but these were mainly lip balms or deodorant sticks with a much higher wax content than our Balms. After much practical research and experimentation and numerous unsatisfactory solutions, we considered giving up on cardboard being able to contain our products on the shelf for 3 years without the container becoming completely oil saturated.

In 2019, we came across a company in china who were willing to listen closely to our needs. They designed an ingenious compostable cardboard container that now has its own patent. It is made from 100% recycled cardboard, printed with vegetable ink, and can be burned in your fireplace or composted in your compost at home. And this has become the packaging we are currently piloting on the Bee & Baby Balm 85g pots.

We continue to research the “best possible”, systemically environmentally friendly solutions for our range and engage with others’ grappling with similar challenges. We will keep evolving as we learn more.

We invite you into this journey of learning along with us. Your feedback and input as the end user is essential! You are welcome to email us your thoughts.

Later this year we intend to release a cardboard refill pot for our practitioner sized 500g pots. Next year, we want to move the smallest pots for “on-the-go” back into glass.

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