The United States generates almost 80 million tons of packaging waste each year, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. When landfilled or incinerated, this waste pollutes the environment and poses health risks (PDF) to humans and wildlife. Packaging is also the main source of the plastic pollution that is clogging the ocean and expected to exceed the weight of all fish by 2050 at current rates. The food industry is largely responsible for this growing packaging problem.
About half of the packaging waste in the United States comes from food and beverage products. Studies suggest that large food corporations such as Nestlé and Unilever generate most of the plastic waste.
Recognizing this issue, and under pressure from consumers, several of these corporations recently have pledged to reduce the environmental impact of their packaging. Many smaller companies in the food and beverage and industry are doing the same, and some have been on the forefront of packaging innovations for years. Food Tank highlights 16 food and beverage companies to exhibit the industry’s various approaches to sustainable packaging.
Alter Eco set out a decade ago to find sustainable alternatives to the non-recyclable flexible plastic used for its chocolate truffle wrappers and stand-up pouch packaging. After several years of research and development, Alter Eco released the first laminated stand-up pouch made of plant-based compostable materials for their quinoa products. For the truffles, Alter Eco partners with Natureflex to make a compostable wrapper made of eucalyptus and birch trees with microscopic aluminum layers that maintain freshness. The packaging will compost industrial facilities and will biodegrade in the ocean. Alter Eco also uses non-toxic ink on all their packaging. For chocolate bar packaging, Alter Eco uses Forest Steward Council (FSC) certified paperboard that comes from sustainably managed forests.
BOSS Food’s vegan superfood bars use compostable wrappers made by TIPA. TIPA’s propriety bio-based blend has all the properties of normal plastic but is certified for industrial and home composting. TIPA conducts shelf-life tests with each brand it works with to ensure the same shelf life as conventional packaging.
Reusable bottles are the most sustainable way to haul around water. But when that’s not an option, Boxed Water is Better offers a more environmentally friendly alternative to plastic bottles. The 100 percent recyclable box is 75 percent paper. The cap is made of plastic, and the rest is aluminum lining. The packaging is free of BPAs and phthalates. The paper comes from well-managed forests, and Boxed Water is Better uses some of its profits for planting trees in areas affected by deforestation and fires. The boxes flatten for shipping to regional filling locations, reducing the companies carbon footprint by using one truck for every 26 trucks needed for shipping plastic bottles.
Some companies would like to use more sustainable packaging but feel the nature of their product makes it difficult or impossible with available options. Recycling facilities can’t accept the flexible plastic pouches Buddy Fruits uses for its small-batch fresh fruit purees. Sustainability is an important part of its brand, but the highly perishable product needs to be as airtight as possible. While searching for a more sustainable and equally secure alternative, BuddyFruits has partnered with TerraCycle. Terracycle collects and recycles hard to recycle products and makes new materials and products. Buddy Fruits customers can request an envelope from TerraCycle to ship-in their empty pouches. Many other food and beverage companies, such as White Leaf Provisions, partner with TerraCycle for the same reasons as Buddy Fruits.
Celestial Tea does not use strings, staples or individual wrappers for its tea bags. The company says these practices prevent 3.5 million pounds of landfill material a year. Celestial’s tea bags are compostable, and its outer boxes are made with 100 percent recycled paperboard.
Several companies sell coffee in bags that claim to be compostable but are not actually certified for composting. These bags use non-compostable plastic parts to keep them airtight. Fully compostable bags without these parts are also available, but they can’t keep the coffee fresh for as long. A couple years ago, Elevate Packaging released the first coffee bag with compostable zippers and valves. Now Don Maslow Coffee is one of the first to sell products in these certified compostable bags.
Instant meals are convenient in today’s busy society, but they use lots of packaging. GF Harvest offers sustainable to-go option with its GoPack oatmeal bowls. The recyclable bowls are made from the IntegraFlex collapsible cup, with a rigid outer carton and an inner liner. The packaging comes flat to save space. When the customer is ready to eat, they prop up the outer layer into a bowl and add hot water. GoPacks come with a wrapped paper spoon that is partially made from FSC certified paper and is recyclable wherever coffee cups are recyclable.
This sustainability-focused yerba mate company is constantly seeking to reduce its packaging’s environmental impact. It has been a difficult ongoing process — it identifies packaging as the largest contributor to its overall GHG emissions. Almost all of Guyaki’s packaging is recyclable bottles and cans, and it sells loose leaf yerba mate in compostable Natureflex bags. It recently reduced its annual packaging use by 44,000 pounds by eliminating the overwrap and tea string from its single-use mate bags. A large portion of its cans are made of half previously recycled aluminum and use 95 percent less energy than conventional aluminum cans.
Honest Tea has Cradle to Cradle certification on its glass bottles. The certification indicates high marks in several sustainable indicators: use of reused materials, water stewardship, material safety and use of renewable energy. Honest Tea is also in the process of rolling out new Tetra Pak packaging for its line of kids juices. Tetra Pak is 75 percent FSC certified carton, and the rest is a mixture of plastic polymers and aluminum. Numerous studies (automatic PDF download) have found that the life-cycle GHG emissions of Tetra Pak is generally the lowest of packaging types. But not all recycling programs accept mixed material cartons such as Tetra Pak, and some that do end up sending the cartons to the dump or incinerator.
After a year of development and testing, Loving the Wild recently released a compostable tray for its line of ready-to-cook sustainable seafood meals. The tray is certified compostable and made from plant-based plastic. Loving the Wild will come out with a microwaveable version later this year.
Loving Earth’s chocolate bar and superfood bar packaging is made with Econic, a compostable film derived from FSC certified wood pulp and non-GMO corn. Its chocolate boxes and line of boxed cereals are made of 100 percent recycled wood fibers. The inner bag of the cereal boxes is made from Econic. All of Loving Earth’s products use non-toxic vegetable-based printing ink to prevent contamination of water supplies and compost piles. Loving Earth also has taken a sustainable packaging approach to almost all of its wide range of other products.
Mindful Inc packages its organic tea lines in Tetra Pak with a plant-based cap. Tetra Pak offers this cap as an option to companies using its technology. The cap is made of plastic derived from sugar cane, and its production process has a smaller GHG footprint than conventional plastic caps.
No Evil Foods’ vegetarian meat alternatives come in compostable packaging made by Kraftpak and are printed with plant-based ink. Previously, No Evil Foods used butcher paper with a non-biodegradable sticker, making it difficult to compost the butcher paper. Kraftpak is a biodegradable unbleached carton board that seals with water-soluble adhesives. The packaging unfolds like origami to mimic the unfolding of butcher paper. Kraftpak is also certified for recycling.
“Eco-responsible packaging” is part of Numi’s environmentally and socially conscious business model. Its efforts include opting for biodegradable non-GMO filter-paper tea bags instead of nylon bags, using boxes made of 85 percent recycled paper products and using soy-based inks. Numi is working with 30 other companies to develop the first home-compostable, plant-based, non-GMO material overwrap for tea bags. Also, Numi sells gift boxes made of bamboo, a more sustainablealternative to slower growing trees. In its last annual sustainability audit, Numi calculated its packaging choices conserved 5,000 trees, 659,000 pounds of GHG emissions, 4 million gallons of water and 317,000 pounds of waste.
The six-pack rings on this brewery’s beers are 100 percent biodegradable and edible. Saltwater is one of a handful of breweries using Eco Six Pack Rings technology. Saltwater makes the rings from barley and wheat ribbons left over from brewing. The rings compost within a few days. On open land and in the ocean, the rings decompose in a few weeks. The rings are not recommended for consumption, but animals can safely eat them. But if left to decompose in an open area, the rings potentially can entrap marine life and other animals.
For 25 years, Strauss Family Creamery has packaged organic milk in reusable glass bottles made with up to 30 percent recycled glass. Customers can rinse their bottles and return them to the store where purchased to get back a $2 deposit. Strauss then takes the bottles back to its facilities to reuse the bottles an average of five times before recycling them. The company has an 80 percent return rate on bottles, keeping about 500,000 pounds of milk containers and plastic out of landfills each year.