"Eco-friendly" packaging is beginning to pay off for brand marketers. Cost savings today stem chiefly from three areas: source reduction (using less material to begin with), recycling efforts and the growing use of packaging with postconsumer recycled, or PCR, content.
This ultimately results in different packaging on store shelves. Some changes have been obvious; others are more subtle.
In a speech at Green Packaging '94, a conference held in June in Washington, Jim Scott, director of packaging development at Nabisco Biscuit Co., East Hanover, N.J., pointed out that growth in packaging waste is increasing at only a quarter of the rate at which the population is growing. If this ratio holds up long-term, the future for the packaging of fast-moving consumer goods and the waste produced is clearly optimistic. Perhaps the most popular change has been lightweighting, either through downgauging the existing package or by changing to a lighter material. Beer bottles, for example, are 20% lighter today compared to 1986. At Nabisco, downgauging coextruded film by 10% has eliminated 300,000 pounds of packaging waste per year, according to Scott.
Later this year, Procter & Gamble, Cincinnati, plans a national rollout of lightweighted 32-ounce and 48-ounce polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, bottles for Crisco oils. The bottles, made by Continental PET Technologies, Florence, Ky., are said to weigh 30% less than their predecessors and are 45% lighter than the average oil bottle.
The weight savings is the result of a revolutionary blowing process and faceted design, both patented, which impart strength. Design parameters also take into account extensive consumer research that indicates a desire for a container that would be easier to handle, pour and store.
Material savings are estimated at 2.5 million pounds of PET per year and 1.3 million pounds of corrugated secondary packaging due to the container's squarer and more cube efficient base. Bottles feature polypropylene closures with completely removable, tamper-evident bands and spot-glued paper labels to simplify recycling. At Keebler Co., Elmhurst, Ill., source reduction efforts have definitely added up. In the past four years, Keebler has eliminated millions of pounds of waste. This was accomplished by reducing the length of its salted snack packaging by a half-inch, changing to lighter corrugated shippers, eliminating case dividers and downgauging Zesta saltine film from 80-gauge to 70-gauge.
Yet, source reduction is only part of the picture. Recycling has been embraced enthusiastically by consumers as something positive they can do for the environment. As a result, the number of curbside programs has expanded to more than 6,000 around the country.
As recycling has grown, people have begun to realize that markets are needed for the material being collected. This has fueled demand for making new packaging from recycled material, creating a "closed-loop" system.
While many glass, metal and fiber-based packages have a long history of recycled content and the technology is quite well developed, plastic packaging with PCR content is less common, but catching up.
Some household cleaners already use bottles made of 100%-recycled plastic. Others use a lower percentage in either a blended or multilayer virgin-recycled structure.
Even recycled polypropylene, which has lagged behind PET and high-density polyethylene, is coming into use. A 25% PCR polypropylene resin, Refax RE256, from Himont U.S.A., Wilmington, Del., is being used for a 32-ounce unpigmented, handled household cleaner bottle due to debut in September. Although Himont would not reveal the product, it is believed to be Murphy's Oil Soap.
Use of recycled-content plastics for food-contact applications has proceeded more slowly due to contamination concerns.
However, this is changing as a result of technology improvements and fears that the exemptions given to foods and drugs by most recycled-content mandates are temporary. Pricing is improving, too. Recycled resins are carrying less of a premium compared to virgin and recycled PET prices are actually lower, says Don Hacker, national sales manager at Wellman Extrusion, Ripon, Wis., a producer of RPET and PET sheeting.
On the technology front, the Food & Drug Administration has issued several letters of non objection for recycled-content food packaging and more are pending. They include 12 from Wellman Extrusion for thermoformed or fabricated RPET packaging for various food and cosmetic applications.
For RPET, letters have been received for depolymerization/repolymerization processes, which chemically break down the resin and rebuild the constituent parts. The repolymerized material currently is blended with virgin for soft-drink and salad dressing bottles.
However, RPET also is derived from a more conventional and less expensive process. Bottles are granulated into flake, cleaned, melted and re-extruded into pellets.
Several companies have been issued letters of nonobjection for 100% RPET containers for produce items such as berries or mushrooms, which are washed before consumption.
For more critical applications, multilayer virgin-recycled-virgin structures have been cleared. The most recent commercial debut is a hot-fillable multilayer bottle with 25% RPET that Veryfine Products, Westford, Mass., is using for blended fruit juices, flavored iced teas and lemonades.
Veryfine launched the bottle in the spring with all-virgin materials, but now has begun to use PCR resin for the center layer. The bottle, developed by Continental PET Technologies, consists of PET/ethylene vinyl alcohol.
PET isn't the only resin being recycled into food containers. Dolco Packaging Corp., Sherman Oaks, Calif., has received an FDA letter of nonobjection to thermoform fruit and vegetable containers, food-service clamshells, and poultry and meat trays from recycled polystyrene food-service containers. Already commercial are mushroom tills (containers) and school lunch trays. The latter are collected, cleaned and recycled in a closed-loop process, reports Dolco President Larry Rembold.
Recycled polystyrene has been used for several years in egg cartons and in three-layer virgin-recycled-virgin structures like the Recoup sheet used by Lin-Pac Plastics, Wilson, N.C., to thermoform sandwich clamshells for Hardee's.