It all started with a comment…

It all started with a comment back in 2018: Like many companies, VMI regularly engaged in customer questionnaires seeking feedback on product and service and like any company there will be the occasional negative comment mixed into the positives.

The directors then have a choice: either act on it or, if it’s too hard/inconvenient, ignore it.

Here’s the comment, reprinted with permission of its author Brodie Lea, a self-employed video producer.

Brodie Lea’s comment back in 2018 catalysed VMI’s entire sustainability strategy

What would you do? More importantly, what did we do?

On this occasion Brodie’s criticism struck a chord. Like all rental companies at the time, VMI had always wrapped inventory for hire in plastic to protect it on delivery and to show that filters and cables had been checked. Could we do this differently?

We went back to our plastics supplier and asked for an alternative. They had plastic tubing which incorporated an EPI additive which made it biodegradable and the images on their site looked fabulous – result!

The original marketing image which persuaded VMI to initially use EPI additive plastic tubing.

This seemed a really easy fix, so we did it. We printed ‘100% biodegradable’ on our new packaging and started using them.

Original VMI plastic tubing with EPI additive to make them bio-degradable

“After a while I became curious,” explains Barry Bassett, VMI Managing Director. “I wondered how biodegradable it really was, so, decided to recreate the manufacturer’s test for myself.

I put a 30cm x 30cm plastic square of the new EPI plastic alongside a square of the original plastic and left it there to see what happened…  We all guessed how long it would take to disappear and we waited.

“Sure enough, in a short time the new plastic started to look quite dishevelled.

But 16 full months passed by and it just didn’t disappear.”

EPI plastic tubing compost bio test

Thinking perhaps it needed compost bacteria to help eat away at it, Bassett buried the new plastic in his compost heap at home.

“Eleven months later I unearthed it but incredibly it hadn’t become noticeably thinner. In fact, measuring it with a micrometre, the plastic sheet was just 5% thinner and I estimated that at that rate it would take 20 years to fully decompose.  It was enormously disappointing.”

The plastics manufacturer explained that its product would decompose much quicker in a commercial composting environment where the temperature would be consistently higher than was achieved in a domestic compost heap but that presented a problem.  Continuing to market the packaging as ‘100% biodegradable’ without further information that it would only do so if kept at a particular temperature, seemed disingenuous.

11 months in my compost heap and disappointingly, the EPI additive plastic was just 5% thinner.

So was there another solution?

Further investigation revealed that using tubing made from potato starch, whilst more expensive, would DEFINITELY break down quickly.  

Applying this to his home experiment, Bassett was able to see for himself that the bags made from potato starch virtually disappeared after just three months in a compost heap – a considerable improvement.  “We were really happy with this,” Bassett said.

After just 3-months in the same compost heap, the potato starch material all but disappeared.

But since this material was much more expensive and would break down quickly, how much could we order before it became unusable?  Order too much and the product could simply wither away before being of use – more information was clearly required. 

Bassett again approached the supplier to ask how long it would last in storage but on this, they were non-committal.  They suggested that 6-months may be OK but this would depend on a host of factors including temperature, humidity, quantity of light…  Too hot and the product would quite simply pass its ‘use by date’. 

But how long it could be stored?

There was simply no guarantee on shelf-life, so another test was required.

This time a large potato starch bag was pinned to the wall of the stockroom, Bassett’s office and the warehouse and we waited… 

A full year later all of these were in perfect condition proving that in a non humid environment it would last.  VMI has made a large order of potato starch bags to seal filters and high-value cables, which are clearly labelled 100% biodegradable and 100% potato starch, which will come into use in October 2022.

One year of storage in an office confirms that potato-starch tubing has an adequate shelf-life.

It is little actions like these that we can all take that can make a difference to climate action

Barry Bassett

These are small steps but as the adage says ‘great oaks from little acorns grow’.

“It is little actions like these that we can all take that can make a difference to climate action,” Bassett urges. “As part of the Camera Rental Company Sustainability Group which now involves the majority of UK rental companies our goal is to share everything that we have learned and to collaborate openly in order to build a more sustainable industry and rest assured, in the next quarterly meeting, everyone will be brought up to date with what we have learned about potato starch bags.”

100% biodegradable made with 100% potato starch will come into use in late October 2022.

It was Brodie’s thoughtful comment that pricked VMI’s conscience and kickstarted its quest for sustainability, culminating in being crowned West London Business Company of the Year 2022 and Hero of Net Zero at the COP26 summit.

Bassett adds, “It is also a poignant reminder, to ourselves as much as to others, that the decision to act on a perceived criticism by a client – who only wanted the industry to do better – is a choice we can all make no matter how uncomfortable or inconvenient it may seem at the time.”

No Comments

Leave a Reply

VMI are proud sponsors of: