Reyna Bryan, founder of RCD Packaging, talks about sustainability like fans gush over hometown sports teams. She calls out potato starch, sugar cane, cassava, and hemp like they are sitting on the bench waiting to save Mother Earth. “We have some projects we’re working on,” she says, adding, “Cellulose, in general ….”

For her, the game is just getting started.

GreenSeed talked with Reyna about the hard reality around sustainability. Are consumers inspiring CPG brands to invest in packaging alternatives? Is widespread planet-friendly packaging even possible? Can flexible plastic packaging make us proud?

Reyna looks like a model with flowing blonde hair and talks like a revolutionist intent on changing the world. She is an idea architect. She creates solutions. And she doodles. Her squiggles are a kaleidoscope of vivid green circles and gears on her website homepage and in slide decks (she spoke at Google X and judges sustainable packaging for National Products Expo West).

An edited version of our conversation follows.

Your website says you create “planet-friendly” packaging. What does that mean?
We make high-barrier compostable and bio-based flexible film packaging for food products. Think granola bars, chip bags, and stand-up pouches. Instead of using conventional materials, we use wood cellulose and specialty bio-polymers to achieve the same functionality as standard packaging…but our packaging is designed to compost. It has taken a lot of work to get these packaging materials to where they are today, and partners like GreenSeed are helping us bring new solutions to market, faster.

 

My company is a sustainable packaging supply and innovation company. First and foremost, we help brands evolve their supply chains by connecting them with the right sustainable packaging technologies that are commercially available today. We are also developing new technologies (films, coatings, etc.) to further improve the functionality of these bio-materials so that brands will have more choices. Our goal is to design packaging like an orange peel to an orange – using materials inspired by nature to protect the product, but become food for the natural system after use.

I see myself as a chef. I put the recipe together (based on the technical and aesthetic needs of the brand) and make sure it is qualified throughout production and distribution. I do a lot of the heavy lifting for the brands because we want it to be as easy as possible for them to switch into sustainable solutions.

Why take on the battle of plastic sustainability?
As we collectively become more aware of the damaging effects of unmanaged single- use plastics, people are desperately looking for a new way. Our survival depends on it.

Unless we become mindful of materials and design our products and systems to fit in circular material streams – mindless consumption of single-use plastics will be our downfall.

If we are smart enough to put a man on the moon, we can certainly figure out zero waste packaging. Sustainable packaging technologies are just getting off the ground, but to quickly innovate, it takes collective focus and drive. Take the evolution of computers, for instance. Sustainable packaging technology today is at its infancy, like when computers were the size of a room. With focus and drive we now have a smart phone in everyone’s pocket. If we work together as an industry and push forward sustainable packaging technologies, we could make zero waste packaging the norm.

To me, packaging is the microcosm to the macrocosm. If we are successful in transforming the packaging supply chain, we can create the domino effect of the new normal – zero waste and circular economy.

Is there consensus behind this movement?
In the last three years, the interest level has grown exponentially. Brands are beginning to ask more questions and engage with suppliers to find solutions. They are feeling the pressure from their customers, and no brand likes the idea of people finding their packaging washing ashore on a plastic encrusted beach.

The more these brands push for solutions, the faster we will see new innovations come to the surface. My approach has been to provide guidance to brands to help them be better buyers and ask the right questions. I work as a technical advisor to a very cool industry group, OSC2 (One Step Closer2). Together we’ve been building a foundation of knowledge and using our collective interest to stimulate innovation in the right direction.

What are the challenges?
The main challenge has been the catch-22 conundrum of high costs for new technologies, and slow development of sustainable packaging options for brands.  New materials are costly to develop, and until they are produced at scale, they will have a higher price point than conventional materials. Cost has been a barrier for some time, and when brands are unwilling to pay higher prices, it sends a signal to their suppliers not to scale up new materials nor provide new options. 

This dynamic has stifled innovation. While the compostable and bio-based packaging materials available today are great for many applications, there is more work that needs to be done. More development is required to get these plant-based technologies to fit products that have high-moisture content, or require high-performance packaging conditions, such as high heat/pressure such as retort. Luckily, the tide is turning. People are starting to realize the real environmental and social costs of conventional single-use plastic and they are beginning to reassess their economics and actively seek new options.

What does “where we need to be” look like?
First and foremost, we need to stop putting a fire hose of different material into the system. Right now we are flooding the system with tens of thousands of different varieties of plastics and composites, the vast majority of which have no value on a secondary market (recycled materials market). This is not smart. We humans can do better.

In an ideal world, trash bin would be replaced by compost bins (for organic materials) and recycle bins (for technical materials). All our single-use packaging would be fully compostable (materials that provide food for natural systems) or truly recyclable (materials that have high value on a secondary market).

How important are supply chain partnerships in all this?
Having good partners is the key to success. Within the last few years, I have started to find my tribe: partners across the industry that align in values and integrity. GreenSeed is definitely one of them.

I heard David (Gray) speak at a conference and was so impressed by how he creates a culture of collaboration and builds up each person in his company.

It is refreshing to work with a company that has community and good-will at its core.  This year we started working with GreenSeed to bring sustainable packaging solutions to the market, faster.

Industry dynamics are such that, without these early stage partnerships, we would not have accomplished the innovations we have today. Here in the US, we do not have policies supporting sustainable packaging or material innovation and our market drivers are slow to encourage innovation because of the cost structures, mis-information and siloed nature of the CPG industry. To move things forward, we had to get creative and create alliances with people and companies that believe in the future. We are working with GreenSeed to qualify some of our compostable materials on their equipment to make sure these films run well on standard heat-sealable form fill platforms. We feel grateful to work with them. When it comes to sustainability, their leadership has the foresight to try new materials, and help their brands prepare for the future.

Is there really a revolution around sustainable packaging or just a lot of talk?
It’s happening; 100% it’s happening. We are starting to see more brands come to the table so I know we’re on the right path.

What’s your vision?
I have a vision for a zero waste world, and I am on a mission to make sustainable packaging the norm within my lifetime.

When I graduated from college, there was no opportunity to work in sustainable packaging. I am building RCD to map out a new way and to provide opportunities for people that want to align their work with their hearts. To me, that is success.

 

Reyna, how do people connect with you?
You can connect with me on Instagram @rainchilddesign or at [email protected]