- Nature Valley Crunchy granola bars will have fully recyclable plastic wrappers starting this spring, a first for the category. The new wrappers are a step toward the General Mills brand's goal of having 100% recyclable packaging by 2025.
- The wrappers are made with an advanced processing technology that uses unique polyethylene polymers. General Mills is not patenting the wrapper and "is welcoming other food brands to apply the technology to their product portfolios," according to a press release.
- Single-use plastics, like the kind commonly used to wrap snacks, are an increasing environmental problem, especially because most cannot be recycled. In 2018, discarded packaging made up 82.2 million tons of waste — 28.1% of all waste that year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In that year, 14.5 million tons of plastic packaging was made, and 10 million tons ended up in landfills.
A recyclable snack wrapper could be a game changer for sustainability. And if this one truly is effective, it could help General Mills and several other CPGs meet their environmental commitments.
"As the creator and share leader of the [granola] bar category, we feel a responsibility to continue innovating and encouraging future solutions that could make recycling wrappers even easier,” Brian Higgins, General Mills grain snacks business unit director said in a written statement.
These wrappers can be recycled by dropping them off at How2Recycle centers in grocery stores nationwide. The plastic itself can be turned into synthetic lumber and decking equipment, according to General Mills. And there's adequate notice to consumers that they can recycle the wrappers: Messaging on the box and on each individual wrapper explains that the packaging can be recycled at grocery store drop-offs.
The wrappers themselves have a slightly different look and feel than the single-use ones they are replacing, but nothing that consumers are likely to notice. These are not like the compostable packaging PepsiCo debuted for its SunChips snacks in 2010, which was changed after consumers complained it was too noisy. According to General Mills, the new wrappers still provide the necessary barrier to preserve the product's freshness and do not impact its shelf life.
While the recyclable wrappers can do the same job as their predecessors, General Mills still faces some challenges to truly making a difference with the new packaging. A recyclable wrapper is useless if it isn't actually recycled. According to statistics from the Hartman Group’s Sustainability 2019 report cited by General Mills, 70% people in the U.S. want to decrease plastic waste but don’t know how.
According to How2Recycle, which is a membership group that provides standardized instructions for package recycling, only about 10% of packages with its symbols can be recycled by bringing them into a store. Individual retailers put up store drop off recycling centers. In 2017, How2Recycle said more than 225 million pounds of material were recycled through store drop off, and a report on plastic recycling done for the American Chemistry Council says the How2Recycle label has helped people become aware of plastic recycling. General Mills noted more than 90% of people in the United States are within 10 miles of a store drop-off recycling location.
While 225 million pounds of recycled plastic waste in a year through How2Recycle is commendable, it's a drop in the bucket compared to the total annual waste that comes from plastic packaging. As Nature Valley — and ostensibly other snack brands — begin rolling out these new recyclable wrappers, it's incumbent on them to also promote and educate consumers on how to recycle them. As a major player in the granola bar space, Nature Valley already has the megaphone to start this initiative. The brand said it's working with nongovernmental organizations The Recycling Partnership and the Wrap Recycling Action Program, and it has created a multichannel educational campaign.
If it can successfully promote the new packaging and how to recycle it, General Mills is likely to reap the benefits — both in terms of its sustainability reports and in sales. According to a study done during the pandemic by Schorr Packaging, 58% of consumers said they were likely or very likely to purchase food products in packaging that clearly states it is reusable or recyclable. In a separate study, Kearney found the number of consumers who take the environment into consideration when buying food has been on the rise, especially during the pandemic. Last April, 83% of consumers said they felt that way, up from 71% in 2019.