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Why does Huel Ready-to-drink use plastic?

The purpose of this article is to openly discuss our most recent product and why we chose plastic over any other material. The bottle is 100% recyclable, but we have received many valid concerns from our amazing Hueler community about our decision-making process and we feel that you deserve to understand exactly why we chose to use plastic in the packaging of our Ready-to-drink Huel.

Although there is a negative element to using plastic, there’s also a huge positive here about bringing more people on our journey to get more people eating less meat. If we can take two steps forwards but one step back, we are still going in the right direction.

Contents

 

Our mission and packaging philosophy

Our mission is to make nutritionally complete, convenient, affordable food, with minimal impact on animals and the environment.

  • Nutritionally complete - all products contain the full spectrum of macro- and micronutrients, including 26 essential vitamins and minerals so that at 2000 cals you would consume at least 100% of the recommended values.
  • Convenient - minimal preparation and planning, efficient delivery.
  • Affordable - all products are far more cost-effective than their competitors and a much better alternative to the convenience food most eat during the busy working week.
  • Minimal impact - wherever possible we will consider all environment factors to make the most environmentally friendly option. This predominantly manifests itself as Huel being entirely vegan and thus uses zero animal products.

Problems in the current food system – we eat too much meat and waste too much food

In industrial countries we consume 88kg of meat per person on average and this is set to rise further and further. The livestock sector generates more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transport sector. It is also a major source of land and water degradation. 

Roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year – approximately 1.3 billion tonnes – gets lost or wasted.

If plant-based diets are more sustainable, how do we get the general population to eat less meat?

Our Ready-to-drink (RTD) version of Huel is an instant nutritionally complete meal. Currently our main product is our Powder, where you add three scoops to water, shake and go. However, this process is alienating to many.

Currently we estimate that less than 1% of the UK have tried Huel.

Our RTD bridges this gap and opens up complete nutrition to a wider audience to benefit from. An audience that, by using Huel more, can reduce their impact on the environment further compared to consuming other, non-plant-based, non-dried food products.

How Huel is environmentally friendly

There are many environmental considerations that have to be taken into account, and we work hard to consider all we can. This comes down to two main factors.

  • Huel is plant based - and it has been regularly found that consuming a plant-based diet is the “single biggest way” that we can reduce our impact on the environment. By being 100% vegan Huel can help those that aren’t vegan to make more plant-based choices in their diet and thus reduce our impact on a larger scale.

If we all do a little we can make a big difference.

  • With Huel there is zero food waste - Huel products all have a long shelf life, and our RTD is no different.

Huel RTD can last for 7 months at ambient temperature. This will greatly reduce food waste when compared to the foods that many consume on a daily basis. By reducing food waste this is reducing the amount of fresh food that needs to be grown to fill the void of this food waste, thus reducing carbon emissions and water usage.

The biggest environmental challenge facing our planet is climate change

Plastic packaging is just one piece of the puzzle, and it’s important we take everything into account, not just plastic usage. By reducing carbon emissions, land usage, water usage, acidification and eutrophication, we could help tackle the problem of climate change. If we focus too much on plastic usage, and we don’t address energy efficiency or reducing our carbon footprint, then we will be in trouble.

What we’re trying to do at Huel is make plant-based options more accessible for everyone. If everyone had one plant-based meal a day, we could have a massive impact, and choosing Huel can help with that considerably.

The extensive requirements for Huel RTD

To create an RTD, the packaging needed to hit a lot of criteria:

  • Be filled using an aseptic (sterilised) process
  • Not degrade over a short time so as to preserve the product inside
  • Be airtight to avoid rancidity*
  • Be able to be used by a factory on their production line
  • Have the ability to be widely disposed of in almost every country in the world

*Rancidity is where some fats oxidise when exposed to air, light or bacterial action and not only results in an undesirable change in flavour but can negatively impact cardiovascular health.

The materials we considered

There was a huge variety of packaging options considered. We spent months making the decision and tried to work with well over 100 suppliers. Some of these options are listed below with their pros and cons:

Aluminium can

  • There is only one factory in the world that could aseptically fill aluminium, but they do not have the equipment to produce Huel. Otherwise, widely recycled indefinitely.

Cardboard bottle

  • Cardboard bottles are new technology but they cannot handle some stages of production that require heat.

Tetra Pak

  • Able to be aseptically filled because the cardboard is surrounded by plastic. Not widely recyclable though; many recycle centres around the world do not accept Tetra Pak. A material is only as recyclable as the availability of places to recycle it.

Bioplastic

  • Bioplastic is plastic derived from biological substances rather than petroleum. However, there is not an abundance of it, and it is still very much in an innovative stage and not suitable for protecting the micronutrients in Huel. We are monitoring this concept closely.

Recycled plastic

  • Again, there is a massive shortage of it; many factories simply don’t have access to more recycled plastic.

 

The bottle is plastic, yes. However, it is 100% recyclable.

We have chosen this particular bottle as it allows us to give the product a longer shelf life, thus decreasing waste. Without using plastic, we would not be able to use aseptic processing, which is vital in ensuring that food is packaged into sterilised containers and reduces contact with unwanted bacteria.

The reality of the restrictions we had

We were extremely limited by what manufacturers could offer us. If a factory could technically produce Huel RTD, they then were not able to accommodate us on their factory line. We spent months speaking to over 100 suppliers, but there are very few factories that produce a product like Huel. Compromises had to be made by both sides so that we could start producing a product that ultimately has far less impact than the other foods people are eating for convenience. As we have already said, without using plastic, we would not be able to use aseptic processing, which is vital in ensuring that food is packaged into sterilised containers and reduces contact with unwanted bacteria. Factories would not allow this to happen as they insist on the use of aseptic processing for a product like Huel RTD.

Why we couldn’t use aluminium cans

Our product is aseptically filled to give it a long shelf life and therefore reduce food wastage. As mentioned above, there is only one factory in the world that could aseptically fill aluminium, but they do not have the equipment to produce Huel. There are a limited number of manufacturers even capable of making a product like Huel.

Why we didn’t use Tetra Pak

Tetra Pak isn’t widely recyclable; currently only 25% of Tetra Pak drinking cartons are recycled. As we pointed out earlier, a material is only as recyclable as the availability of places to recycle it. There’s no point putting a product in the recycling and hoping for the best.

Why we couldn’t use 100% recycled plastic

In reality there isn’t enough available to provide a 100% recycled plastic bottle. There are a few reasons for this:

  1. Not all plastic is recycled.For example, 13 billion bottles are used in the UK each year. Only 7.5 billion are recycled, so we’re facing a shortage from the beginning.
  2. We are a food product so require food-grade polyethylene terephthalate (PET). This is harder to produce than normal recycled PET, so the quantity available is low.
  3. The focus on plastic means every single plastic provider is very suddenly sourcing it, limiting the supply for us. We are still a small fish in a big pond.
  • We need to use food-grade recycled plastic (rPET).
    • The infrastructure for food-grade rPET is not there. The largest UK food-grade rPET manufacturer can produce 84,000 tonnes of it, and they are exceedingly rare. It would require 165,100 tonnes to produce 13 billion bottles – if all bottles weigh 12.7g. But they don’t and ours weigh 32g each. Therefore a more accurate estimate of the amount of recycled plastic the UK needs is 200,000+ tonnes, and the UK is only able to produce at most 50% of the required amount.
    • rPET is not always made exactly the same. If you use rPET from two sources, you have to validate that these blends of plastic will work together and not cause quality/safety issues. This takes a long time.
    • If we didn’t use food-grade plastic, then there is a high risk that plastic components would break down and leach into the product.

    Why our lid is recyclable

    The majority of black plastic packaging is coloured using carbon black pigments which do not enable the pack to be sorted by the optical sorting systems being used widely in plastics recycling. However, this is generally in reference to the plastic used in food trays for ready meals. The lid to Huel RTD is made from PET and is fully recyclable.

    Creating the most viable product

    There are a huge number of competitor products out there whose heart is not in the right place. If we had waited for cardboard or other packaging solutions to be invented or made usable by our factories, then we would have been even further behind in this competitive market – this project already took well over 2 years to complete. If we can release a product that is pretty damn good – super nutritious, highly convenient and affordable in packaging that is 100% recyclable – then we can own the market share, be one of the biggest producers of a nutritionally complete RTD and then continue to strive for better as we always have. Our heart is in the right place. Others’ are not, but we pledge to strive to continue to work on this.

    This is v1.0 and it’s already 100% recyclable. Imagine what we can do with v2.0.

    The good news

    • Our plastic bottle is 100% recyclable.
    • Although some black plastic is not recyclable, the black lid on the Huel RTD bottle is recyclable.
    • It’s delivered in a cardboard box, not individually shrink-wrapped plastic crates which many manufacturers put us under pressure to use.
    • Vegan-friendly ink is used for printing.

      Remember the packaging is just one element of sustainability

      Environmental impact comes down to so, so much more than just packaging. Since Blue Planet earlier in 2018, the world has mobilised in the fight against plastic waste and the effect it has on the ocean in particular. Seeing the nation and governments and brands take such a strong stance on the environment is a huge win and needs to be celebrated. However, is it in detriment to the other factors of sustainability?

      As pointed out earlier, it’s important we take everything into account, not just plastic usage: carbon emissions, land usage, water usage, acidification and eutrophication. It’s been regularly shown that eating a vegan diet is the “single biggest way” to reduce your environmental impact on earth. It’s also been shown that by removing meat products and dairy products, particularly beef, from your diet, you can reduce your carbon footprint by 75% and it would reduce global farmland usage by 75% if everyone did the same.

      In fact, the impact of the lowest-impact animal products typically exceeds those of the highest-impact vegetable substitutes. For example, this means that using any plant milk, from any corner of the earth, is better than cow’s milk in terms of environmental impact.

      As we highlighted earlier, at Huel we want everyone to have access to a range of plant-based options, and RTD is an important one of these. We could really help drive positive change if we all had one plant-based meal a day. With Huel, this is easier to achieve. There is no point focusing purely on plastic and neglecting carbon emissions from vehicles and wastage from spoiled food.

      Sometimes we make a controversial decision because we believe it is the most ethical and sustainable decision

      If we made changes to our RTD bottle or used another material to contain the product, the decision would be made purely because plastic usage is a popular topic now and so we could put a marketing spin on it. However, ultimately it would be made for the wrong reasons, and that isn’t what we do at Huel. We make considered choices.

      Take our pouch, for instance. This is not currently recyclable, but we could make it recyclable and biodegradable tomorrow. However, we don’t because the total impact would be greater. Biodegradable pouches are weak and can’t currently hold 1.7kg of Huel. This means that more would break in transit and thus result in spoiled food and increased carbon emissions from transport to send a replacement if it reached a Hueler in this condition. We could do a ‘recyclable’ pouch. The problem then is the infrastructure; yes, it could be ‘recycled’, but if not many places recycle it, then what’s the point? It’s an empty gesture which has marketing spin all over it.

      We hope to switch RTD customers to Powder, which is even more sustainable

      We are not intending to stop selling our Huel Powder. Huel Powder is more nutritious and better for the environment as well as being more cost-effective per meal. We expect that when people are at home they will continue to use Huel Powder, but when they are on the go, an RTD is a better solution. RTD is a gateway to a new audience that would never consider adding powder to water, shaking and drinking but might consider drinking something off the shelf for breakfast or lunch.

      Consider the alternatives for those people. A staggering 89% of people in the UK skip one meal a day and many rely on convenience food options. RTD needs to be compared against the things that people may choose in a rush or on the go. Think packaged sandwiches, crisps or a drink in a standard plastic bottle or coffee cup. Not only would RTD be considerably healthier than most of these options, it is likely to be better for the environment too. We estimate our current penetration in the UK market as less than 1%. An RTD will open this up to a wider range of people and thus increase the number of people using Powder too.

      We struggled with this decision for a long time

      From the outside looking in, it could be easy to think that all our decisions were made with total disregard for the environment, that packaging wasn’t given a second’s consideration. As you can see from the above, this simply was not the case.

      This is just v1.0; we will improve the bottle over time

      We will get better over time. v1.0 RTD is already 100% recyclable, but that doesn’t mean we’re done. We will continue to push forwards, particularly with the packaging of our product. Look at the first Apple computer that was released and the latest computer now – in terms of innovation there is no comparison. Our heart is in the right place, and we are strongly focused on our mission. So it’s better if we lead the category rather than a conglomerate creating their own.

      Our pledge – to be using 65% recycled or bioplastic within 2 years

      We aim to be using a minimum combination of 65% rPET and bio-PET by the end of 2020, so long as we can source enough recycled material. This is a journey that we will work closely with our suppliers on and need them to come with us too. As soon as biodegradable material is ready, we will make the switch.

      To put that in perspective, Innocent Drinks – a company many would say is very ethically minded – are 20 years old and use 50% recycled plastic and 15% bioplastic. We will be also able to reach that level within 2 years of launch. Many other brands don’t do anything.

      So we pledge to be using 65% recycled or bioplastic within 2 years.

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