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Turning Toward Guilt-Free Plastic Packaging

Amid stringent regulations, new solutions are emerging that focus on innovative materials and reuse and recycling initiatives
Marian Zboraj, Progressive Grocer
Turning Toward Guilt-Free Plastic Packaging
Coca-Cola is supporting a circular economy for plastic packaging by rolling out 100% recycled PET plastic bottles and transitioning green bottles to clear plastic to increase their likelihood of being remade into new beverage bottles.

Sustainability continues to be one of the highest priorities in the food packaging market. According to a new Freedonia Group consumer insights analysis, this is driven in part by consumer awareness of the amount of waste generated by household food consumption, with plastic packaging a major offender. Since plastic pollution is one of the biggest environmental threats of our times, it’s important that companies take the steps they can to reduce the amount of single-use plastic packaging used in their businesses. 

Toughest Reduction Laws in the Nation 

On June 30, California took nation-leading steps to cut plastic pollution and hold the plastics industry accountable for its waste. 

California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed SB 54, requiring all packaging in the state to be recyclable or compostable by 2032, cutting plastic packaging by 25% in 10 years and requiring 65% of all single-use plastic packaging to be recycled in the same timeframe. SB 54 is the most significant overhaul of California’s plastics and packaging recycling policy in history, and goes further than any other state in cutting plastics production at the source. 

The signed legislation requires all plastic packaging in 
California to be recycled at the following levels:

  • At least 30% on and after Jan. 1, 2028
  • At least 40% on and after Jan. 1, 2030
  • At least 65% on and after Jan. 1, 2032

Additionally, the legislation shifts the plastic pollution burden from consumers to the plastics industry by raising $5 billion from industry members over 10 years to assist efforts to cut plastic pollution and support disadvantaged communities hurt the most by the damaging effects of plastic waste.

Said Newsom at the time that he signed the legislation into law: “Our kids deserve a future free of plastic waste and all its dangerous impacts, everything from clogging our oceans to killing animals — contaminating the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat. No more. California won’t tolerate plastic waste that’s filling our waterways and making it harder to breathe. We’re holding polluters responsible and cutting plastics at the source.”

“California’s law is the largest embrace of extended producer responsibility yet,” notes Creighton “Chip” Magid, a partner at the international law firm Dorsey & Whitney. “It will be interesting to see whether this affects [Democratic Oregon] Sen. [Jeff] Merkley’s proposed legislation in Congress, which creates a federal EPR [Extended Producer Responsibility] program and would similarly take aim at extended polystyrene prepared food containers.

“Because California is such a large market, the effects of this act likely will extend well beyond the state’s borders,” adds Magid. “It would be challenging to have California-only packaging and different packaging for the rest of the country.”

Guilt-Free Plastic Packaging
Inline Plastics’ Safe-T-Chef polypropylene containers feature the company’s patented tear-strip technology while also maintaining the temperature of warm and hot prepared foods alike.

Technological Advancements

As the rest of the country braces for similar legislation, several suppliers are working to create more planet-friendly packaging options. 

Not only is Inline Plastics making sure that its plastic food containers are recyclable, the manufacturer is also ensuring that its packaging is tamper-proof while maintaining the temperature of warm and hot prepared foods alike.

Safe-T-Chef is the first polypropylene container with the company’s patented tear-strip technology. Polypropylene is safe for both microwave and dishwasher use. Consumers can additionally serve and eat foods directly from the container, without the need to transfer them to a plate.

The clear packaging is also preferred by the recycling industry for its ease of sorting and processing. 

[Read more: "Sustainability More Top of Mind Among Consumers"]

“Our commitment to innovative products that align with our sustainability initiatives carried over into the development of this new line,” says Tom Orkisz, chairman and CEO of Shelton, Conn.-based Inline Plastics. 

Inline’s portfolio consists of 12 options ranging in shape (rectangular, square and round) and capacity (from 12- to 35-ounce sizes). This combination offers a packaging solution for anything from individual- or family-size side dishes to entrées or even multicourse meals.

Meanwhile, Cruz Foam Inc., a circular materials startup company, recently revealed several significant developments in the company’s transition to commercialization, including the opening of a production facility and the addition of new investors: actor Leonardo DiCaprio plus fellow celeb Ashton Kutcher and talent manager Guy Oseary’s climate-focused investment group SoundWaves. DiCaprio and Kutcher have also signed on as advisors.

According to the company, Cruz Foam is an earth-friendly foam material used in protective packaging that matches the strength, flexibility and protective qualities of petroleum-based foams — commonly known as Styrofoam — but breaks down in soil and actually serves as a fertilizer by promoting healthy soil growth. Cruz Foam’s patented formula harnesses the power of naturally sourced biopolymers to be compostable. The company was selected from hundreds of candidates as a finalist in Rabobank’s Foodbytes 2021 program supporting startup companies innovating in food industry technology.

“We are excited to enter a new phase of growth with our new facility enabling the scaled production of Cruz Foam products, which are currently being utilized in a series of pilot programs,” says John Felts, CEO and co-founder of Santa Cruz, Calif.-based Cruz Foam. 

“The mission to eliminate single-use plastics in the ongoing battle for a cleaner and more sustainable environment makes me excited to join as an investor and advisor, and I look forward to what we’ll achieve together,” notes DiCaprio.

“We see huge potential in the adoption of Cruz Foam’s consumer packaging as the industry moves away from petroleum-based products and towards new biomaterial technologies,” adds Kutcher.

Traditionally considered a leader in pharma packaging, another materials science company, TekniPlex, recently reorganized to launch a distinct consumer products division that includes food and beverage solutions. 

Thanks to strategic acquisitions, the Wayne, Pa.-based company has significantly increased its ability to provide sustainable packaging solutions geared toward the perimeter section of food retail. In May, TekniPlex introduced 100% PET Processor Trays that offer premium product display while addressing common packaging challenges prevalent in the poultry industry, particularly higher-end products such as those labeled organic, non-GMO or sustainably sourced. 

TekniPlex Consumer Products is also expanding its product line to include foam polypropylene processor trays for various fresh food products — diversifying material offerings for this category. Foam polypropylene (recycling code 5) has many attractive benefits for the food industry, among them being durable, lightweight and heat-resistant, and is FDA approved for direct food contact. 

A winner in this year’s Agricultural Plastics Innovation Challenge, Enerra Corp. offers technology that addresses the need for new recycling processes. The San Bernardino, Calif.-based company operates a patented plastic reformation technology that converts difficult-to-recycle agricultural plastics into market-ready transportation fuels. This is accomplished without toxic catalysts or harmful emissions.

“Enerra Corp. is tackling a current challenge by finding a creative outlet for the recycling of agricultural plastics that would otherwise be destined for landfills,” notes Thomas Taggart, VP of operations at Watsonville-based California Giant Berry Farms. “They are providing an attractive alternative to costly fossil fuels.”

Enerra is currently moving into a field production pilot with strawberry producer Driscoll’s, also based in Watsonville, Calif., and will continue to explore pilot opportunities with other industry partners.

guilt-free plastic packaging
Actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Ashton Kutcher have both signed on as advisors for startup Cruz Foam, which creates compostable packaging that replaces Styrofoam to eliminate single-use plastics.

CPGs Up Their Eco-Commitment 

The CPG industry, formerly considered among the biggest offenders of plastic waste, is now stepping up its commitment to eco-conscious packaging. 

In July, PepsiCo Inc. revealed the closing of a new $1.25 billion 10-year green bond. The Purchase, N.Y.-based company will use an amount equivalent to the net proceeds from the offering to fund eligible green projects that will focus on its pep+ (PepsiCo Positive) agenda — the company’s strategic, end-to-end transformation that places sustainability and human capital at the center of how it will create growth and value.

Part of the funding will go toward circular-economy and virgin-plastic waste reduction. One of PepsiCo’s key pep+ goals is to strive to use 50% recycled plastic content in its packaging by 2030. The company is already one of the largest users of food-grade rPET (recycled PET plastic) in the world, and the new green bond will enable PepsiCo to continue its work to increase the use of more sustainable product packaging, including recycled, compostable and reusable materials. In addition, PepsiCo’s new green bond framework enables the company to direct funding to projects that strengthen recycling infrastructure and increase recycling rates in key markets.  

Meanwhile, PepsiCo competitor The Coca-Cola Co. revealed in July that two of its biggest brands in North America are taking major steps to support a circular economy for plastic packaging. Dasani is rolling out bottles made from 100% rPET plastic — excluding caps and labels — and Sprite is transitioning from green to clear plastic to increase the material’s likelihood of being remade into new beverage bottles. 

The changes help Atlanta-based Coca-Cola get closer to its pledge to remove the equivalent of 2 billion virgin-plastic bottles from production by 2027, compared with 2021 levels. Last fall, the company rolled out its first beverage bottle made from 100% plant-based plastic.

Anton Van Zyl, Coca-Cola’s director of sustainability for North America, tells Progressive Grocer that the company is focused on improving the circular economy through these kinds of changes, as well as through its on-package messaging that encourages consumers to recycle. 

End users are integral to the ultimate success of the circular economy, according to Van Zyl. “Specifically in the U.S., our best opportunity to make progress with refill/reuse is in our dispensed beverages, where we have seen success with consumers adopting the reuse behavior,” he says. “As we continue to grow this area, we are learning more about how consumers react to reusable packaging, and we are looking for opportunities to transition these learnings to other reusable formats like returnable and refillable bottles.”

guilt-free plastic packaging
Loblaw Cos.’ Shoppers Drug Mart recently introduced a new Quo Beauty collection that includes color cosmetics made with innovative packaging designed to reduce plastic waste.

Retailers’ Efforts Toward Sustainable Packaging 

In addition to choosing brands that truly listen to and meet consumer demand for sustainable options, some retailers are also taking an active role in promoting a circular economy.

Beginning this fall, Giant Food customers in the Washington, D.C., metro area will be able to purchase everyday food and household products in durable, reusable containers, thanks to a partnership with Loop, the circular reuse platform developed by Trenton, N.J.-based TerraCycle. 

“Giant is committed to taking sustainable actions that reduce plastic waste from our landfills and improve our environment,” said Diane Couchman, VP category management, non-perishables at Landover, Md.-based Giant Food, a brand of Ahold Delhaize USA, when the partnership launched in July. “We are excited to partner with Loop, a global leader in eliminating waste, to offer our customers a program that allows them to shop their favorite products and help our environment.”

Loop is the first-ever platform to partner with brands and retailers to offer consumers a way to go from single use to reuse with their purchases. Through the platform, customers can purchase their Loop-ready products in refillable, reusable containers found in branded displays in participating Giant stores. After consumers finish the products, they return the empty containers to a Loop Return Point at Giant. From there, the containers are sent to Loop to be sanitized, and then are returned to brands to be refilled and returned to the store for future purchase.

On the recycling front, Sam’s Club is collaborating with Texan by Nature (TxN) and Texans for Clean Water (TFCW) to launch a six-month pilot project to recycle PET thermoform plastics in El Paso. This project is a fundamental step in TxN and TFCW’s goal of reducing litter in waterways and roadways through community-driven recycling. The project will provide El Pasoans with cash incentives for PET thermoforms recycled at all four Sam’s Club locations in the city. PET thermoforms include clear fruit and produce containers, trays, tubs, cups, lids, and plastic egg cartons. Data and outcomes from the project will be shared with other retailers as a model for replication and an example of supply chain circularity.

“We’re excited to play a role in making recycling more accessible for the El Paso community,”  says Christopher Poulin, VP, regional general manager of operations at Bentonville, Ark.-based Sam’s Club. “This pilot aligns with our goals to become a regenerative company, and we’ll be exploring ways to use the recycled materials collected to make packaging for some of the products we sell.”

In North America alone, 1.6 billion pounds of PET thermoforms are discarded every year, with only about 10% being recovered. For this pilot project, consumers will use the MeCycle App to drop off their PET thermoforms and receive cash incentives that they can claim through Venmo or donate to a local El Paso charity. Vernon, Calif.-based Green Impact Plastics will recycle the thermoforms, and then the recycled materials will be used in new packaging by manufacturer D6, based in Portland, Ore. To help improve the circularity of its supply chain, Sam’s Club will also explore opportunities to use the recycled packaging for some of its own products.

“This pilot is focusing on PET thermoforms, but it could be translated to other materials,” says Maia Corbitt, president of Houston-based TFCW. 

Meanwhile, Shoppers Drug Mart Inc., an independent operating division of Brampton, Ontario-based Loblaw Cos. Ltd., is improving its plastic packaging with the launch of a new Quo Beauty collection called Big Planet, Big Love in July. Featuring close to 30 vegan and cruelty-free beauty products and accessories, the sustainable collection includes an assortment of color cosmetics that were developed in collaboration with Los Angeles-based global marketplace Oceanworks using renewable materials and reclaimed ocean-bound plastic.

“We are committed to finding innovative product and packaging solutions to support our sustainability goals,” says Kelly Jessop, VP, category management at Shoppers Drug Mart. “For example, we’re making it easier for Canadians to create more sustainable beauty routines with our Quo Beauty brand. Working with Oceanworks on select cosmetic products means that consumers can take an active role in reducing ocean plastic pollution with their beauty purchasing decisions.”

Packaging innovations include the use of Oceanworks reclaimed ocean-bound plastic in eye and face palettes (100%), facial mist bottles (76%), and lip/cheek products (37%-45%). Among the product innovations are reusable accessories such as swabs and cleansing pads, and the use of bio-sourced materials from renewable vegetal sources in the brand’s plant-based nail color range.

Loblaw is committed to ensuring that all control brand and in-store plastic packaging will be fully reusable or recyclable by 2025. 

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