Founder Letter - PLASTIC! Fill it to the top! - April 19, 2024

Dear Friends,

As Earth Day approaches, I thought I would share some thoughts on the environmental aspects of what we do here at Treeline. I have always felt that, while making vegan products is in and of itself a very positive thing for the planet, working towards a cruelty-free world doesn’t give anyone a free pass when it comes to the environment. Vegan cheeses definitely should not be any worse for the environment than their dairy counterparts.

But I have to admit that the business of making vegan cheese presents some serious environmental challenges. One of them is sourcing raw materials. That will be the subject of a future letter.

Today I want to talk about the biggest environmental challenge of all….PLASTIC!

There are a lot of things I love about running a vegan cheese company. But plastic is not one of them. It’s ruining our oceans and open spaces and it’s hurting animals. Manufacturing plastic is polluting the atmosphere and exacerbating climate change. 

If I had my way, I would eliminate plastic entirely. But at the present time, there seems to be no viable alternative to the stuff. We live in an economy in which people want everything to be available in perfect condition, everywhere and all the time. This means products have to be cold shipped over long distances, so they arrive fresh year-round, without preservatives.

We are always looking for alternatives to plastic, but until we find one that works, we need to do our best to limit the harm. There are some simple ways of doing that.

A few weeks ago, I went off to Wegmans in Greenwich Village to see if our new Ricotta and Sour Cream were on the shelf yet. While I was there, I noticed that there were several dairy and vegan products in tubs alongside ours. But ours looked the smallest. You may have noticed this too.

So I decided to dig a bit deeper. I took some samples back to our facility and ran some tests to see what was going on. 

The results made me feel disappointed with the status quo, yet optimistic that a few small, low-cost steps can make a big difference. What disappointed me was that all the vegan and non-vegan cheese tubs I bought (besides ours) had a lot of empty space, formed by plastic, and not taken up by cheese. The amount of empty space ranged from 15% to an astonishing 50%! This adds up to A LOT of unnecessary plastic.

You can see in this photo - remember that the tubs are much wider at the top than the bottom, so an extra inch at the top accounts for more plastic than you might think.

I am happy to say that Treeline had the least empty space, at about 6%. Ironically a leading dairy brand, that makes no claim to be environmentally responsible, was the next best, with about 15% empty plastic. Sadly, the vegan brands were by far the worst.

I am absolutely not telling you to go out and buy dairy cheese because of this, but I do think we all can and should do better.

Does reducing the empty space in vegan cheese tubs really make a difference?

The answer to that is a resounding YES!

Think of it this way:  Filling the tub only half full, means that for every two cups you make and fill with cheese, there’s almost one extra cup that serves no useful purpose. Vegan companies produce millions and millions of cups every year and the numbers are only going up as the demand for vegan products increases. So all that extra, empty plastic really adds up. 

Despite all this, here’s why I feel optimistic.  All we have to do is fill the cups up to the top!  If we must use plastic, let’s at least use as little of it as possible. Treeline has been doing that for years.

But why isn’t everyone doing it? 

More empty space means products look bigger on the shelf, so some people will think they are getting more cheese for their money. That might seem like a good idea to the corporate money men. But it’s a terrible idea for the environment. I believe that our customers know that an ounce of cheese is an ounce of cheese, no matter how big a container it comes in. 

As you might know, I did not have any background in the food business when I started Treeline.  The thought of making Treeline containers look bigger than they needed to be never even occurred to me. I just assumed that customers wanted to buy cheese, not plastic, and not empty space. So I applied some basic engineering principles - work out how much cheese you want in each package, design a cup that it will fit into, and fill the cup to the top. 

With that simple solution,Treeline avoided wasting a lot of plastic. So while we are not yet able to eliminate plastic, dramatic reductions are very easily achieved.

But isn’t all that plastic recycled?

Sadly, most plastic packaging for cheese - vegan and dairy - IS NOT RECYCLED. The little arrow symbols on the bottom of the tubs tell you what could be done with it, not where it actually ends up.

All those tubs I bought at Wegmans were made of number 5 recycling code plastic. Even though technically, it is recyclable, in the US, very little number 5 plastic is actually recycled. It either goes into landfills or into the environment.

Treeline uses number 1 recycling code plastic for its cream cheese, ricotta, sour cream, and dips. This is the only plastic that is commonly recycled in the US. And every part of our cream cheese, sour cream, ricotta and dips packages is made of number one plastic. We are working with our supplier to switch our other products to it.  

Again, a simple solution - just choosing the right plastic - can go a long way to reducing the amount of plastic waste in the environment.

What about compostable plastic?

We have not been able to find compostable plastic that can keep our product fresh.  Anyway, at the present time, most compostable plastic never  gets composted. It languishes in landfills and in the environment for years, along with the non-compostable trash.

The bottom line?

I hope one day to send you a letter announcing that we have finally rid our company of the scourge of plastic. But in the meantime, you can rest assured that: 1. Treeline is not using more plastic than we need to. And 2. We use plastic that you can actually recycle.  That seemed like the right thing to do when we started out. It now seems more important than ever.

Michael Schwarz
Founder and CEO

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