It is increasingly apparent that recycling is an imperfect solution for plastic waste. Recycling facilities lack sufficient sorting capability, many waste processors can’t actually compost theoretically compostable plastics, and manufacturing economics favor the use of newly made plastic. Thus, great quantities of plastic go to landfills or incineration, or worse into the environment as trash. Microplastics become widespread environmental contaminants and they can even be found in a mother’s milk. There is no single solution for these problems, but a variety of potential innovations are being pursued.
There is an interesting example of innovation around reusable containers that has been developed by a startup company called Cabinet Health. They are seeking to address the plastic waste associated with health related products including over-the-counter and prescription medicines and dietary supplements. These products are normally sold or delivered in single use plastic bottles. It is estimated that more than 190 billion single use plastic bottles of over-the-counter remedies were sold last year. Less than 3% of those bottles get recycled and the rest typically end up in landfills.
Cabinet Health’s approach is to supply consumers with attractive, reusable, stackable containers and then give them the option to refill them with their own health care products delivered in pouches made with wood pulp rather than plastic. These pouches are certified as compostable and so a consumer that has a backyard worm bin or compost pile could keep them out of the landfill. Some municipal waste processors could successfully compost them with other forms of green waste. To give consumers an additional option for the pouches, Cabinet Health is partnering with a company called Pela Earth which has an innovative product to deal with many sorts of organic waste at the consumer level. Pela markets the Lomi Processor, which is a counter-top unit that can take mixed food related organic waste such as fruit and vegetable trimmings and overnight turn it into a greatly reduced volume of dry, nutrient-rich mulching material. This can then be used in anything from a garden to potted ornamental plants.
Cabinet Health’s wood pulp-based pouches meet FDA safety standards. They can handle moisture and heat, and they don’t leak. They are lighter than the typical plastic packaging which is an advantage since many pharmaceutical products are now delivered by mail. The pouches are cost competitive with plastic options and are designed to be aesthetically pleasing. The company has used much of its income to date to refine their wood pulp-based packaging manufacturing process.
The company was founded in 2018 and is B-corporation certified. Co-founder Achal Patel is a member of a family with three generations of involvement in the pharmaceutical business. His co-founder Russell Gong’s previous experience involved working with both the state and federal level legislative offices and then consulting with small companies. One of their main motivations had to do with the health issues associated with microplastics.
“Our vision is to eliminate single-use plastic from the medicine industry entirely — one medicine cabinet at a time. People shouldn’t ever choose between the health of their family, and the health of the environment, ” Gong said.
At this stage the company is distributing containers and offering on-line sales of their own batch-tested medicines. Cabinet Health has proven its concept with investors and consumers, generating an average of 110% growth year-over-year with its over-the-counter offerings, which include cold and flu, allergy, digestion, pain, sleep and stress. Their strategy is to continue building their own brand in order to demonstrate the level of consumer interest in this approach. They will then pursue partnerships with retailers and health companies who want to start offering the pouch packaging. They are hoping to soon start working with brick and mortar stores and later with insurance providers that do their own pharmaceutical distribution for their members.
For consumers, this approach not only gives them the chance to reduce their personal volume of plastic waste, it could help them reduce the clutter of little bottles in their medicine cabinet or countertop.