Organic salmon firm banks on new packaging being a catch

A Skye-based organic salmon producer is preparing to launch a newly created plastic-free, compostable packaging solution in what has been described as a ‘financial gamble’.

It comes as Organic Sea Harvest, which has two sites in Skye and Lochalsh, continues its drive to become the world leader in organic salmon production – something CEO, Ove Thu, said must include sustainable packaging.

This would be no mean feat, with Ove telling Packaging Scotland of the challenges associated with creating sustainable packaging that is also aesthetically in keeping with a premium product such as organic salmon.

“You have to make some compromises,” he explained. “We think with the technology today we have made the best compromise and also have a good starting point to work forward and find even better solutions with.”

The expertise of Donald Beaton, packaging technologist at Invergordon-based Celnor Eco Packaging, has been called upon for the creation of the solution. Although a ‘heavy investment’ was made by Organic Sea Harvest into the packaging, both firms are keen for other brands to utilise it – with Donald willing to reveal plant esters, vegetable oils and carbonite calcium as ingredients in his creation.

Donald’s role came on the back of a recommendation by Hugh Drever, of Villa Seafood (partner of Organic Sea Harvest), who described him as someone who ‘knows everything about packaging’.

The pair’s working relationship spans 20 years, following Donald’s time in the packaging department of Aquascot, which was, and still is, the supplier of organic cod and salmon to Waitrose.

“I’ve looked at all different options (in reducing plastic) throughout my entire career – removing double, triple, quadruple layers of plastic to turn it into something that could possibly be recycled in the future,” Donald told Packaging Scotland. “I then realised that no matter how hard I work on this, it’s not going to happen. That hasn’t changed in the last 20 years; we’re still talking about recycling and in those 20 years recycling has increased, but it is not keeping up with production.”

Acknowledging that plastic is ‘great’ but ‘problematic’ due to recycling infrastructure levels, Donald set about developing compostable bio-material packaging that avoids the use of plastic. Given carte blanche by Organic Sea Harvest to develop its new packs, Donald not only created a solution that is plastic-free and compostable, but also boasts reduced carbon – a topic which is perhaps pertinent in others areas, but not so much in packaging yet.

“CO2 is still one of these strange things in that they reckon if you can recycle it you don’t need to worry about it,” Donald said. “But I think people will catch on eventually that the products aren’t getting recycled – so we can reuse as much as humanly possible, but in food contact it’s not really possible (to reuse); there’s not much that comes into contact with food that can get recycled without going through a chemical process, which is high in CO2 and doesn’t deliver a very good product.”

The packaging uses high levels of carbonite calcium, a material found in eggshells, which renews itself ‘constantly’.

Donald added that most of the materials used in the solution are grown in a year and all sourced from the EU, making for a short cycle. This, he explained, not only doesn’t add to the CO2 but actually puts it in the ground via the growing process.

Although there is an ever-growing demand for plastic-free packaging, one customer rejected the packaging due to its use of food products – arguing that food products should be reserved for eating purposes only.

“In Europe we’re not short of food,” Donald said, when asked if this is a valid criticism. “Our farmers in Europe are getting paid to not grow stuff – so why not use the materials we can use in Europe to process this packaging?

“So that’s basically where we’re coming from. It’s GMO-free; it’s nano-plastic free; heavy metals are well below the standard; it’s compostable; it seals well; it runs on machines well; the packaging contains 45% of the CO2 that a normal plastic would contain and that percentage has been gathered out of the atmosphere. It’s all good – it does its job well.”

Despite the confidence in the product, Ove admits that it is a financial risk proceeding with it.

The move comes not long after calls in the Scottish salmon industry for firms to work as one to find sustainable packaging solutions. Ove, however, said that there is no time to wait – citing the advice of a late friend who always believed that a decision should be made, trusted and acted upon.

“We already spent a lot of time, money and effort on this risk. We’ve decided, for ourselves, this is the product that we want to put our money into,” he added.

“As Donald said, we’re 100% sure of the packaging itself. We’ve done all the testing and everything we need to put it out there, but it is a big cost in particular at the beginning when we don’t have much scale.

“Donald has to go to Sweden to produce the film and trucking it to the UK is difficult and expensive. Financially we’re putting a lot of risk into this but we do believe it’s the way forward – that’s us following our mission of being the leading organic salmon farmer.”

Ove continued by saying that the success of the packaging hinges on how consumers take to it, with there being no product development test with large retailers.

“We have made the decision to make this investment in this product, so we will do what we think is right and then we put the product out,” Ove continued.

The verdict will come in due course after Ove revealed that Donald has made the first product which, at the time of interview, was on its way to Scotland. Watch this space!