The date is April 15th, 9PM. I’m tiredly skimming the Facebook Moms group page for weekend activities, then BAM!, a women in the group had posted an article called “Why you should Stop Feeding your Baby from Trendy Little Food Pouches.” The article villainized the use of disposable food pouches. The majority of them are non-recyclable and the article went on to describe how this plastic is just one more contributing factor to the gyre of plastic in the middle of the ocean. Are you serious? Do you mean to tell me that those small, innocent miracle pouches are bad for the environment? Amongst everything else I have to do, now I have to figure out a convenient replacement snack??!!!
Little seeds of guilt had begun to accumulate even prior to reading this article, and now I felt the link was calling me out, admonishing me for my bad behavior. A collection of used pouches had already begun to gather on the floor of my 2003 Prius; as well as doubts about the societal damage I was doing with these little lifesavers.
And I don’t use the term lifesavers lightly. These pouches are amazingly convenient for on the go activities. I’m not much of a cook, so preparing baby food purees has not been a great strength of mine. Before every outing, a local stop at the park, a weekend day trip with the family, an annoying day of house hunting and running errands, I make sure I’m armed with a few of these snacks in the diaper bag.
As an adult, I usually arm myself with snacks as well; a sliced apple or a repurposed plastic container with almonds, so I would offer the same consideration for my son. And he loves the pouches. He loves to eat in general, but when he sees the pouch, he reaches for it longingly and it is gone within 3 minutes. Unlike a fruit, like a banana or a clementine, both of which conveniently come in “nature’s wrapper” these pouches don’t expire, leak or squish, and can be consumed relatively mess free and quickly on the go. I don’t even have to wait for my son to chew or patiently coach him out of his food throwing habit, or diligently wipe sticky juice of his face, hands, myself or the seat cushions. I just pop the top and voila, instant proactive placation of a potentially very whiny baby.
Yet, the 3 minutes of happiness he gets from eating the pouch, plus the minutes I can save from preparing yet another snack, result in a pouch that will linger on the earth forever.
I’d love to follow-up with the woman who posted this article. Was it hypocritical of her to post it, setting a standard of pouchless perfection that is almost impossible to attain, or has she changed her behavior? I see nothing wrong with a sincere wakeup call to the demerits of the pouch. One woman commented that she would plan to change her behavior (I’m curious to follow-up and see if she actually did), one proclaimed glass jars as superior, and one empathically wrote “this is a tough one, they are just so convenient.” I agree with the last statement.
For myself and any other socially conscious caretakers out there, struggling to balance environmentalism with convenience, I decided to investigate further.
Each pouch is made of a food safe plastic layer, a metallic layer for freshness then topped with a decorative label. In an excellent article on the subject, Elizabeth Royte writes that they were a success when invented in 1962 because they are easy for manufacturers to fill, they offer large surfaces for printing and marketing, and are lightweight and therefore easier to transport. However, because they are multi-layered, they are very difficult to recycle and most municipalities don’t have the capability to do it.
The webpages of Plum Organics and Happy Family, take the time to explain that the pouches are not recyclable at this time, however Plum Organics has a recycling program designed just for the pouch caps which are recyclable. The Earth’s Best brand, Ella’s Kitchen and GoGo SqueeZ, were part of a special program to recycle the pouches through TerraCycle but when I visited the TerraCycle page, they said that ALL pouches could be recycled through their program. HMM, so what are they doing differently? The pouches appear to be made of the same exact materials, so how does it work?
TerraCycle is a company that specializes in hard to recycle products. They have a variety of partnerships and special programs in place to handle hard to recycle items like toothbrushes, candy bar wrappers, pens, pencils and markers. I contacted their customer service to find out how their process works, and found out that the layers are manually separated so that they can be recycled.
Up until September 2017, Terracycle had a partnership with Earth’s Best to fund the recycling of pouches of any brand that consumers mailed in AND give customers a nominal incentive to participate in the mail in program by donating $0.02 per pouch to the consumers charity of choice. Though a nominal amount, this seemed like a great idea for schools or large activity centers like a zoo to participate in. They could create a collection program and benefit from a small donation. Before I found out that the program had ended, I was very motivated to contact the zoo and help them set this up. Unfortunately, I was sad to see that the program ended on September 30, 2017, with no explanation. Despite this, Terracyle still has an option where consumers can collect their pouches and pay Terracycle between 7 and 14 cents per pouch to recycle them. Sounds too good to be true?
For customers to take advantage of this program, they need to collect 655 pouches for the smallest preordered box, then pay the fee of $88.75 for mailing and recycling. Though the price is manageable, the inconvenience of bringing each pouch home, even though they are intended as an on the go snack, and storing them until enough were collected seemed like a tall order. Though I’d be wiling to do this, I think my husband would have some objections to me storing the trash in our already miniscule kitchen. Additionally, I have not even close to using 100 pouches in the past 2 years so 655 seems unattainable. If a community such as the MOM’s Club, or a day-care center, wanted to collect the pouches, I’d be happy to participate and maybe even organize it.
I also called the City of Los Angeles, Department of Sanitation customer care line. Unfortunately, even when I requested to be transferred to a manager, no one that I spoke with could give me a clear answer as to if the City of Los Angeles recycles the pouches or not. I got the general response of “when in doubt leave it out” though my instincts tell me that this is not an environmental answer, but more related to the expense the department bears for having to deal with materials that were incorrectly disposed of. The government bureaucrats I spoke with DID NOT sound excited about recycling.
My conclusion is that it is chemically and mechanically feasible for the pouches to be recycled, but that most municipalities can’t fund the extra expense of separating the layers into the materials for recycling. The pouch LIDS however, are recyclable, at least in the City of Los Angeles. The reason these pouches litter the ocean therefore are systemic. The incentives are not there for them to be recycled, even though Terracycle can do so for as little as $.07 per pouch. I’d be willing to pay that, would you?
Until then, how can I manage my use of this life-saving polluter? Disposable products are in general bad for the environment. Disposable products that can’t be recycled are even worse. Disposable products made of plastic that will never degrade and will literally remain on the earth forever – yikes! How can I balance the convenience of these pouches with the desire to preserve the already plastic littered ocean for the next generation? Can I look at my whining child who is hungry for a pouch right now and have the discipline to say, we’ll be home from this park in 15 minutes and we can eat real food then.
With much thanks, the majority of my dilemma has resolved with the passing of time and the growth of my beautiful boy. With a full set of teeth, he is pretty happy eating the same apple slices and almonds that I would normally pack for myself anyway, and we are much less reliant on the convenience of the pouch. I feel a lot better with the new range of solid foods available to us, and can make efforts to avoid the pouch – such as packing a humus sandwich for longer trips. Yet, I will also cut myself some slack when exceptions need to be made. If I ever have another baby and the companies in charge of packaging haven’t found a solution by then, my volume of pouch consumption might increase. In that case, don’t be surprised if you come over and see a collection of pouches in the closet, waiting to be mailed in.
Please share your thoughts on this or other convenience vs. guilt “stuff” decisions in the comments below.