5 QUESTIONS FOR is an interview series with cycling brands that are trying to step up their game when it comes to reducing environmental impact.The series does not set out to present perfect examples, nor does the series intend to favour specific brands. What we do hope to offer is an informative and honest account of the possible challenges, gains and pitfalls of their journey. And to inspire more cycling companies to become part of this shared responsibility. #003: John Fisher, founder Firepot
When did your company start addressing its environmental impact, and why?
"As a food manufacturer, our environmental choices have an impact on the ingredients we cook with, our drying methods, and the packaging we use.
We launched Firepot at the start of 2017 with the firm belief that all our fresh ingredients could be sourced from the local community in Dorset (UK) where we are located. We collect our meat in person each week from the local butcher; they only use British meat and they mince it on the premises. Our fresh vegetables are delivered daily from the village greengrocer and, when it comes to ingredients that are not available locally (rice, lentils etc.), we work with other food services with the same ethic as us when it comes to sourcing ingredients.
We also opted for a good range of vegan options. A growing number of people are choosing to make conscious environmental choices when it comes to the provenance of their food. That community includes those who have both plant-based diets and those who eat meat; two of the first four recipes we launched Firepot with back in 2017 are vegan, and they remain our best-selling meals. The expedition food market hasn’t yet caught up it seems, and the few vegan options there are have thus far been woefully lacking in protein."
"Our drying method is also different. All other expedition meal companies use ingredients which have been freeze-dried. This involves freezing food down to below -40C in a vacuum chamber, which is highly energy intensive - much more so than dehydration, which is a more gentle and energy-efficient method using warm air.
Our main packaging cannot be recycled because it is made up of a layer of aluminium sandwiched between two layers of plastic film. This combination makes the pouch resistant to moisture, air and light - all required to safely preserve the food inside - and allows you to pour in boiling water and eat directly from the pouch. We launched with this because there was no alternative at the time. After 18 months of research we finally launched a fully compostable option. The drawback is that it’s not waterproof, so we still offer our food in the standard waterproof (non-compostable) pouch for customers who feel their circumstances require a waterproof solution. Since we introduced it, we have seen around 20% uptake for our compostable pouches."
What particular impact within the lifespan of your products do you focus on, and why?
"We have spent a huge amount of time refining the technology behind the dehydration process. The driers use a lot of electricity, so this is one area where we felt we could really make a difference.
All commercially available dehydrators use heating elements and fans to blow warm air from the back of the machine across the racks of food and out of the front of the machine. There is no way of recycling this heat. After two years of designing and building test prototypes, we have now created and installed our own dehydrators, which we’ve been using since the summer. They were made by the steel manufacturer next door. We have now fitted each one with a heat exchange system so we can recycle up to 80% of the energy in the warm air that comes out of them. We have wired them up so that we can use computer monitoring to measure and reduce the energy used by each drier."
What are the biggest challenges you have faced so far?
"Packaging is probably the biggest challenge so far. There is not yet a defined and well-policed set of criteria for genuinely environmentally friendly packaging. Words like ‘recyclable’, ‘eco-friendly’, ‘compostable’ and ‘biodegradable’ are used across the industry but it is only when you really dig deep into the science that you find out that these terms are often misleading or mean very little. For example, ‘oxo-degradable’ pouches sound environmentally-friendly but in reality just break down into microplastics; there are companies selling compostable stickers without mentioning that the ink used to print the stickers is not itself compostable; and there is packaging labelled as ‘recyclable’ being used in countries which do not offer any recycling services for that material, etc. It is a minefield.
We have had to source the materials for our compostable packaging from Israel because there is no one in this country making it, and we haven't found any closer options thus far.
The materials are then made into pouches. We stamp them by hand using a water-based ink because there is no other viable compostable ink option for mass printing. End-to-end solutions for these things are far from being readily available. When we eventually managed to find a UK-based company to print compostable stickers, they arrived wrapped in plastic bubble-wrap. This is sadly very common so we are working with all our suppliers to reduce plastic packaging."
What are your ambitions for both short and long term?
"Our aim is to find a fully compostable pouch which is also waterproof; something that can be used in extreme environments without the risk of the food perishing. There are not many businesses who have a need for both a waterproof and heat-proof compostable pouch, so we may need to wait a while until the packaging industry sees the benefit in creating such a product."
What do you expect of your customers on this journey?
"We hope that our customers will adapt and see the behavioural compromises that come with doing so as being worthwhile. Anyone travelling in the Arctic, rowing an ocean, or trekking through the rainforest can take food packaged in environmentally-friendly compostable pouches, it just requires a bit more planning. You need to be more careful about protecting these pouches than you would with the waterproof ones, but this new level of care is something which we will all need to apply to the food supply chain if we are to reduce our reliance on the convenient but costly plastics we rely on today."
For more information: www.firepotfood.com Photo credits: Firepot