As COVID-19 continues, the scourge of plastic waste worsens. Bangkok reportedly used 60 percent more plastic in April than the year before, mostly due to disposable food containers. It could have been Boston.
The public outcry over our plastic crisis is putting more and more pressure on companies to reduce or eliminate their plastic footprint, and in response, Ocean Spray Cranberries, headquartered in Lakeville, has said that its packaging will be 100 percent recyclable, reusable, compostable, or biodegradable by 2025. Similar pledges by Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo, Kellogg’s, and numerous other corporate titans indicate their readiness to take responsibility for their packaging.
But will they? As a Frontline report last March made clear, over the years many big companies have set ambitious goals for recycling and creating more sustainable packaging, only to backslide or make no progress at all.
“With COVID, and more waste, more plastic, it has reached a boiling point,” said Scott Cassel, CEO and founder of the Product Stewardship Institute, a Boston-based nonprofit working to reduce packaging and other waste. For centuries, manufacturers have left consumers and municipalities downstream to deal with their packaging waste. “We can no longer continue on this path. We need producer responsibility,” said Cassel.
In September, Ocean Spray launched an interesting new partnership with TerraCycle, the New Jersey waste management company, which, fingers crossed, should keep Ocean Spray on track toward achieving its 2025 pledge.
Anyone purchasing Ocean Spray’s plastic pouches of Craisins dried cranberries can collect these wrappings in a box, and, after printing out a free UPS shipping label, send it to TerraCycle, where the plastic is cleaned, melted, and turned into new products for retailers, such as garden benches and picnic tables. For each shipment they send, participants in this free recycling program will earn points that add up to donations to a nonprofit or school of their choice.
For the environment, it’s a definite win. Flexible packaging, such as plastic food pouches, wraps, and bags, doesn’t belong in your recycling bin. “Most are blends of two or more resins and difficult to recycle,” noted Karl Schoettle, a consultant for the packaging/printing industries. “They usually end up in landfills, incineration, or processed into an aggregate material.”
TerraCycle’s R&D team has “developed innovative solutions that allow us to recycle typically unrecyclable items like flexible plastic packaging and divert it from the landfill,” said Sue Kauffman at TerraCycle.
Ocean Spray is also developing a program with TerraCycle’s subsidiary Loop that would convert their juice bottles into sturdy, reusable packaging that can be refilled and reused repeatedly, the hallmark of a circular economy.
“In this system,” said Eric Rosen, Loop publicist, “the customer is only purchasing the product. The company owns the package.”
Loop’s online stores carry 80 brands and 400 products, some made by large companies such as Unilever, Pantene, and Seventh Generation, others from local businesses. All Loop products pass standards for sustainability and health, examples being Hellman’s vegan mayonnaise and Tide’s plant-based detergent.
Say you order Häagen-Dazs ice cream from Loopstore.com. The package is delivered to your doorstep in a Loop tote, and when the container is empty, you put it back in the tote and send it to Loop (using a prepaid UPS label) for cleaning and sanitizing, whereupon it travels back to Häagen-Dazs for refilling. TerraCycle worked with the ice-cream maker to find a design sturdy enough for repeated uses, ending up with a handsome double-walled stainless-steel container that keeps ice cream frozen for hours. As for spent containers, TerraCycle removes them from circulation and recasts them into another product.
“One of the ideas behind Loop is to make it as easy for a consumer as possible, without having to change much of their behavior,” noted Rosen. “People are already used to dropping their recyclable container into their blue bin, and now, instead, you’re dropping it into your tote.” Ultimately, said Rosen, Loop, which TerraCycle started in 2019, will be available both online and in retail locations. It is already integrated into the websites of Walgreen and Kroger stores, and will begin an in-store presence in those stores in 2021. Loop is available in France and the UK, as well as in the United States, with launches planned for Canada, Japan, Australia, and Germany next year.
Since Loop’s strategy is relatively new and untested, it remains to be seen how its “milkman model” will fare, a throwback to the days when a milk delivery person left and picked up bottles at your front door. Then, too, the milk company sold the milk but owned the bottles and was responsible for keeping them clean.
“One problem with the milkman approach is the price of the driver, the fuel, and the truck,” noted Schoettle.
Meanwhile, Ocean Spray’s recycling team continues to work to make its packaging more sustainable. According to the company, more than 90 percent of all of its packaging, by weight, is recyclable. A redesign of its 25-pound dried cranberry boxes has led to reductions in forest fiber and plastic film packaging, and the company’s paper and cardboard comes from sustainable and recycled-content sources.
Noted Cassel, “Ideally, for all materials, we’re looking to recycle them back into the same products or better; or reuse them, or reduce them; or take the material and grind it into pellets for other products. We want to try to avoid downcycling, the disposing of a product after one or two cycles.”
Last August, Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico and Representative Alan Lowenthal of California, authors of the federal bill Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, which remains under review, shared their perspective in a letter to the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators.
“According to a recently released report by the Pew Center, a strategy focused solely on recycling would still result in 18 million metric tons of plastic flowing into the ocean each year by 2040. . . . A multi-pronged approach that focuses on limiting all aspects of plastic and packaging pollution and a transition to a truly circular economy is the only solution.”