Environmental Analysis Paralysis

The Graduate Plastics Quote

“I’m going to say one word to you. Plastics. There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it.” Boy, how prescient The Graduate was on this issue. 40 years later plastics are everywhere and are starting to pose a serious threat to marine life. We take reducing our use of plastics seriously but after a couple of months of work on our packaging, we have come to the conclusion that we will not be able to ban the use of plastics completely from our production process.

Simply put: without plastics we don't have a product. The whole industrial production process is built around the assumption that plastics are available at all stages from initial samples to final products. Plastics are everywhere. Our focus has been on removing plastics from the consumer-facing end products. Even if suppliers deliver us products in plastic packaging, we try to find ways to deliver our products to end consumers without those plastics. After all, plastics that never see the hands of consumers can't accidentally end up in the environment.

We have succeeded in doing exactly that for all of our accessories (brushes, finger files, finger tape, massage rings) and one of our chalk products (chalk balls). Turns out that paper is a good solution for packaging those items. We're having a whole lot more trouble with our skincare products. The whole cosmetic industry seems to be built around plastics being readily available. Plastics have some serious advantages in this industry where cleanliness, packaging stability, and ease of production are important. Switching to non-plastic packaging seems only to be feasible at production volumes that are hard to achieve for a small startup company like us.

For our skincare products, we aim to package everything in recycled aluminium packaging. For some items like the beeswax-based hand balm, this turns out to be fairly easy. For our cream-based products, there are some issues with minimum order volumes for aluminium tubes but we think we can overcome those for our fist product (Chalk Cream).

The main issue we are still facing for the tubes is the closing cap. Traditional plastic alternatives like bamboo and sugarcane don't seem to work here because of the tolerances and malleability required for producing an end-cap. Biodegradable or compostable plastics are available but they have their own issues with regard to toxicity and degradation outside of an industrial composting plant or landfill. Sadly, plastic use in industry is a complex issue that does not seem to have a fully satisfying solution at the moment.

Turns out it's impossible to be completely sustainable as a manufacturer. That has been the biggest lesson for us. A sobering one. We can't treat sustainability as an end-goal but instead need to treat it as an ongoing process. As an environmentally-conscious producer, it is easy to fall into a kind of environmental analysis-paralysis trap. At this point I think we need to accept that we won't be perfect but being in the market with an alternative to chalk powder does more good for the climbing community than fretting over the perfect packaging.

We're going to order our first large batches in the next couple of weeks and while we can't claim to be completely sustainable, we're pretty proud of the progress we made so far. We're not going to fall for environmental analysis paralysis.

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