Sustainable packaging has become a virtual business arm of the food and beverage industry. Since early 2020, major CPGs have made more than two dozen announcements on new types of packaging, set goals and forged partnerships to reduce their waste footprint, according to a review by Food Dive.
“They're not waiting for regulatory direction or legislative mandates, but they're actually getting out in front and trying to meet what the consumers need in terms of packaging, but also what's needed to help create a circular economy in a variety of states within the country,” according to John Hewitt, vice president of packaging sustainability for the Consumer Brands Association. “So it's an extremely exciting time.”
The term “circular economy” has been floated by stakeholders who wish to see plastic packaging be part of a cyclical value chain where all materials are reused, recycled or composted, and kept out of landfills and the environment. Manufacturers are taking different routes to meet this goal.
Some companies aim to eliminate their use of virgin plastic and make 100% of their packaging out of recycled plastic, paper or other more sustainable materials. Others have embraced refillable containers. And some see promise in biodegradable and compostable packaging.
Still, significant logistical issues remain to achieving a circular packaging economy, such as securing a better nationwide recycling system for plastics and having enough recycled material to meet demand. There's also an education piece: Many consumers are confused about how to dispose of sustainable packaging in a way that ensures it gets reused. Industry critics and CPGs both agree clearer policy would streamline this process, but environmental groups still say the burden lies on food and beverage manufacturers to take the lead.
Coca-Cola’s recycled plastic push
About 98% of the world's single-use food and beverage packaging is made from virgin plastic. Many manufacturers, from Keurig Dr Pepper to Mondelēz, have embraced goals to replace virgin plastic in packaging with recycled material.
Coca-Cola has been one of the more active players here. The soda giant, which has a goal of making 100% of its packaging recyclable, globally, by 2025, also aims to use at least 50% recycled material in its packaging by 2030.
One main path the company is taking to reach its goal is increasing its use of recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET) plastic. In February, the company announced it would begin using 100% rPET for its bottles. Coca-Cola planned to introduce the packaging in the first half of 2021 in some U.S. states for brands including Coca-Cola, Diet Coke, Sprite and Dasani, in a new 13.2-ounce bottle size and 20-ounce bottles. This is after already transitioning some of its brands to 30% rPET last year.
According to Bimal Lakhotia, the group director of packaging and equipment research, development and innovation for Coca-Cola North America, the company plans to roll out the 100% rPET bottles more broadly across the country in the near future.
Lakhotia said that while rPET technology is a good step, it must be implemented on a product by product basis. Coca-Cola decided to prove the packaging first on its carbonated soft drinks, since this would be the most demanding application, he said.
“Carbonated beverages … is a very tough package to have rPET. So all our energy and efforts were primarily focused on carbonated beverages,” Lakhotia said. “If we are successful with carbonated drinks, translating all we’ve learned to other products becomes relatively easy.”
As rPET technology is relatively new to the industry, some experts are not sure how or when it can be properly scaled as not enough PET plastic is getting collected to meet the demand. In an email to Food Dive, Coca-Cola spokesperson Bailey Rogers said that recycling infrastructure in the U.S. lags behind other countries, which has restricted the amount of rPET available to turn into packaging.
The National Association for PET Container Resources noted that while end-use consumption of rPET rose 10% in the U.S. and Canada in 2020, collection fell about 2.3% in the United States. Coca-Cola is working with local governments on setting recycling policy to ensure a supply of quality rPET, Rogers said.
Lakhotia said Coca-Cola is also aware that limiting itself to rPET technology could limit its investment into other packaging technologies. However, "There are a lot of proprietary technologies we are working on in North America," Lakhotia said. The company is testing a bottle prototype made of 100% plant-based plastic, and is also looking into other packaging materials such as improved aluminum and glass. And it is working on packaging innovations with asceptic packaging manufacturer Tetra Pak, he noted.
Beyond its investments in recycled material, Coca-Cola has also been pursuing reusable packaging. “Reusable” packaging, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, means any packaging that is designed to be refilled and used several times.
In Coca-Cola’s new sustainable packaging pledge, announced in February, the company said it would make 25% of its packaging materials reusable by 2030. As of 2020, approximately 16% of its total global packaging was reusable.
“We are seeing a lot of pilots, and pilots continue to grow, but we’re not seeing any permanent launches of reusable platforms. Nor are we seeing any goals outside of pilot-related goals from companies outside of Coca-Cola.”
Waste program coordinator, As You Sow
Coca-Cola announced the initiative in response to a shareholder proposal filed by the sustainability nonprofit As You Sow. It is a great step forward, according to Kelly McBee, waste program coordinator of As You Sow. But she said other companies should follow suit in setting audacious goals.
“[Coca-Cola] is the first company that has embraced reuse that fully, which is very exciting,” McBee said. She noted that PepsiCo, which has made its SodaStream sparkling water platform a part of its sustainable packaging strategy, has also made some steps here.
Other CPGs have also begun to test reusable packaging, including Häagen-Dazs, which partnered with TerraCycle's Loop reusable packaging program in 2019 on a reusable steel ice cream canister.
“We are seeing a lot of pilots, and pilots continue to grow, but we're not seeing any permanent launches of reusable platforms. Nor are we seeing any goals outside of pilot-related goals from companies outside of Coca-Cola,” McBee said. She added there is currently not enough data to assess the effectiveness and financial revenue of pilot programs and compare companies' performance.
Biodegradable, compostable options on the rise
In reducing the use of plastics overall, one area of focus for food and beverage manufacturers is biodegradable options, which have the potential to break down in a landfill within a short time — if they are placed in an area with high humidity and in soil with a large number of microorganisms. Compostable packaging, though similar, returns nutrients to the soil but can typically only be broken down using specific municipal composting infrastructure, according to the Sustainable Packaging Coalition.
Last year, PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay announced compostable packaging for its Off the Eaten Path chips brand. Consumers can mail the plant-based bags, derived from corn and sugarcane, to TerraCycle, which coordinates the composting.
Keurig Dr Pepper is also testing a fully compostable paper bottle later this year in partnership with German packaging manufacturer Papacks. The 100% plastic-free bottle will be tested with different beverages including water, juice and soda, and be curbside recyclable.
And startup Cove says it has created the first biodegradable single-use water bottle, made of a naturally-occurring polymer, which was still in a testing phase as of 2021.
However, some argue that compostable and biodegradable packaging are not ideal solutions right now.
Very few consumers wish to compost materials themselves, and only 2% have access to composting infrastructure, according to McBee. Some packaging, such as the Off the Eaten Path bags, can only be processed in industrial composting facilities.
While there is potential in compostable packaging in the future, it is structurally not able to be properly disposed of by most consumers, according to Annika Greve, the director of business development at Loop, which collects and cleans used recyclable packaging to be reused by product manufacturers. “Industrial composters generally don't like to take compostable packaging, so if the claim is that it's compostable, it's not necessarily true unless you are able to do so in your home, which is rare in this case,” Greve said.
According to Rafael Auras, a researcher at the School of Packaging at Michigan State University, compostable packaging does not amount to circularity because if materials are clean, they should be able to be composted, but if they are contaminated, they will likely end up in a landfill anyway, as compostable equipment is so rare. He said there has been misinformation over the years about what materials are best and what technology is needed to reduce waste in the packaging space, which is misleading to consumers who believe that materials are actually compostable.
However, he said, this is beginning to change, and the biggest CPGs do not rely on false claims of compostability.
“The companies are serious about moving forward in the subject. They know that they will be punished for taking shortcuts in this area,” Auras said.
Meanwhile, making plastic biodegradable can actually further aggravate environmental issues. Biodegradable plastics can release methane, a harmful greenhouse gas fueling climate change, and last for centuries in landfills, according to a review published by Yale University.
As You Sow’s McBee noted that nonrecyclable biodegradable packaging is not actually circular because there is not the proper infrastructure in place to make sure it actually breaks down. She considers this the equivalent of greenwashing.
“I think biodegradable packaging is really putting the cart before the horse,” McBee said. “Without coupling that with policy development and infrastructure development, I wouldn’t call it sustainable.”
However, perhaps the biggest issue in shifting toward a circular plastic economy isn’t finding the ideal substitute for virgin plastic, but resolving the significant number of policy roadblocks that stand in the way.
One of the biggest issues is the lack of a federal recycling program in the United States. Currently, there are various state and local waste management systems. Cities with more advanced infrastructure that can separate plastic from other materials will process recycled material better than others, Auras said.
This impedes progress because companies aim to tailor their packaging toward a model that can be universally adaptable, according to Auras. Regulation should dictate which materials companies can use that would be most effectively collected across a range of locales, he said. Auras believes, however, manufacturers would not be able to agree on the issue.
“There is a need for consistency that the states are trying to come together with some agreement to see how this type of regulation can actually be implemented on the state level,” Auras said.
One approach is to control the collection process. Last year, General Mills rolled out Nature Valley recyclable polyethylene packaging that consumers can drop off in participating stores. How2Recycle, an arm of environmental nonprofit the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, coordinates the collection of the wrappers by waste management companies to be recycled. Kelsey Roemhildt, a media spokesperson at General Mills, said the recycled packaging is repurposed into new materials like composite lumber.
“Less than 10% of Americans have access to industrial composting and over 90% of Americans are within 10 miles of a store drop-off recycling location,” Roemhildt said, adding that the wrappers “will have a meaningful impact on reducing waste and increasing recycling through packaging improvements and consumer education.”
Roemhildt said Nature Valley aims to hit 100% recyclable packaging by 2025 by expanding its wrapper to all Nature Valley products. The company is also working on a wrapper that can be recycled from home, as well as one made of paper.
“They're not waiting for regulatory direction or legislative mandates, but they're actually getting out in front and trying to meet what the consumers need in terms of packaging, but also what's needed to help create a circular economy in a variety of states within the country.”
Vice president of packaging sustainability, Consumer Brands Association
A path forward through policy
McBee with As You Sow said the biggest roadblock from a policy standpoint is not individual governments, but corporations not engaging in policies to improve the system. She said CPGs should be more hands-on in addressing the issue with governmental bodies to find the best solutions.
Both the Consumer Goods Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation have put out position statements and commitments, which companies are signing onto, to create a circular economy through packaging. In these commitments, CPGs are agreeing to reduce their total plastic volume and increase their reusable, recyclable and compostable packaging by 2025.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation believes that greater recycling efforts should fall on the back of corporations, as opposed to being a taxpayer-funded operation with some support from the industry. As You Sow agrees with this stance.
“Ultimately, if corporations were being more proactive in creating uniform policy around the country, it would be much simpler to comply,” McBee said.
One area where As You Sow believes companies hold greater sway is in increasing the availability of recycled packaging material. The group asks companies looking for guidance on the issue if they are willing to pay more for recycled content, which is a significant problem with adoption. Companies view recycled content as expensive to purchase, and by paying more, it would eat into their profit unless they raise prices, according to Harvard Business Review.
To make meaningful change, As You Sow believes companies should invest in the Recycling Partnership, a nonprofit that gives grants to municipalities to collect more material. Companies also should invest in the infrastructure communities need to process recycled material properly, she said.
“This is where we then try to steer the dialogue into companies supporting something like a national model, or even a state-level deposit program so that more supply can be collected,” McBee said.
A national model, according to McBee, would come in the form of a national extended producer responsibility (EPR) law for packaging, where packaging producers “assume financial responsibility for the cost of collecting and sorting packaging at the end of life.” Enacting this could involve fees for producers who use less-sustainable packaging, she said, while companies who purchase highly recyclable packaging would pay less per container sold.
CPG industry leaders see promise in the amount of progress that has already been made, according to Hewitt with CBA. According to the association's statistics, 80% of the top food and beverage companies have committed to improving their packaging to become more sustainable.
Hewitt said it can be challenging when consumers are confused about what their role should be in making sure packaging gets adequately disposed of. He said busy consumers would benefit from a more streamlined system from the federal government to create uniform standards of plastic circularity.
Legislative mandates for recycling have trailed behind the work the industry has done, he said. According to Hewitt, the industry’s commitments to sustainability thus far are driving the conversation of eco-friendly practices for consumers.
“We think the foundational element to helping ensure circularity is having uniform standards for not only what is recycled, but how things are recycled,” Hewitt said. “That really is a fundamental need moving forward.”
Correction: A previous version of this story included a sentence that incorrectly positioned the financial relationship between local waste management companies and local governments.