By Pat Pape
Today€™s consumer is moving away from the "use-it-today-and-trash-it-tomorrow" mindset and placing greater emphasis on eco-friendly issues. A recent Yahoo! online survey found that 77 percent of consumers describe themselves as "green," meaning they live lives that focus on the health of the environment. This growing attitude is requiring the $200-billion-plus packaging industry to rethink the way it produces materials that contain, protect, transport and showcase consumer products.
Walmart leads the global retail industry in "greening" the shopping experience with an extensive sustainability program that includes everything from stocking locally grown produce to utilizing renewable energy. The company has also set a self-imposed goal to cut packaging in its supply chain by five percent by 2013, and it has asked manufacturers to help.
Three years ago, Walmart introduced a packaging scorecard that allows the company€™s 60,000 suppliers to measure the environmental health of their product packaging based on specific metrics. By knowing their own score, manufacturers can compare themselves to the average score for their industry, and many are taking steps to make their packaging more earth friendly. And they are discovering that what is good for the earth can be good for their bottom line, as well.
In May, Pepsi introduced its lightest 500mL bottle for its flavored, non-carbonated beverages, such as Aquafina flavored waters, Lipton Iced Teas and Tropicana juice drinks. The bottle provides the same product shelf life but contains 20 percent less plastic than the old bottle. That change eliminates an estimated 13 million pounds of waste from the environment annually, according to the company.
A cross-functional team of experts from within and outside PepsiCo spent a year working on the project, and more than 30 designs went through consumer testing before the company finalized the new bottle. Company officials say this dedication is nothing new. "The amount of aluminum used to make our soft drink cans has been reduced 10 percent since 1993, which saves about 75 million pounds of aluminum a year," said Denise Lefebvre, director, packaging and equipment development, at Pepsi-Cola North America Beverages."The amount of plastic used to make our two-liter soft drink bottles has been reduced by 39 percent since 1980."
"By reducing packaging, not only do suppliers use less material, but they can also reduce shipping costs, because more products will now fit in their trucks," said Kory Lundberg, Walmart spokesperson.
Kraft Foods recently revamped the plastic bottle for its 50-plus flavors of salad dressing. The new container is sleeker and more ergonomic and features fresh graphics. It also uses 19 percent less plastic, saving more than three million pounds of plastic annually and increasing shipping efficiencies, the company said. The earth-friendlier bottle has received industry accolades, including a DuPont sustainable packaging award, and changes to the product package, along with related publicity, have allowed Kraft to reintroduce its salad dressing line to consumers.
"We€™ve also converted our traditional glass packaging for Miracle Whip to a recyclable plastic jar," said Richard Buino, Kraft spokesperson. "The new 'wide-mouth€™ jar lets consumers easily scrape every last bit of Miracle Whip out of the jar, and the switch to plastic means fewer trucks on the road since six more pallets of product fit on each truckload. By transporting product on fewer trucks, we€™ve been able to decrease fuel consumption by 87,000 gallons annually."
In the paper department, the Charmin Mega Roll six-pack contains the same amount of toilet paper as a regular Charmin 24-roll pack. By selling twice as many Mega Roll packs, Procter & Gamble can ship 100 percent more units on a truck, while eliminating 89.5 million cardboard roll cores and 360,087 pounds of exterior plastic wrapping.
The new concentrated version of Tide laundry detergent, dubbed 2X Ultra Tide, provides the same number of washes but with 22 to 43 percent less packaging, and Hamburger Helper has reformulated its noodles so that they nestle better in the box, allowing General Mills to pack them in a smaller container. Smaller boxes mean more products can be displayed on a shelf, leaving retailers with extra shelf space.
The most controversial green package to be introduced in recent months is the square milk jug, which is touted as a more eco-friendly version of the traditional gallon jug. With a flat top and sides and rounded edges, the jug holds the same amount of milk but takes up less space on a delivery truck and in the dairy case. In fact, Sam€™s Club, a division of Walmart, can ship 400 more gallons on a truck, a 9 percent increase, and can store 224 gallons of milk in its coolers in a space that once held only 80.
One of the jug€™s biggest environmental contributions: It can be transported without the plastic crates required for moving old-style jugs. The reusable crates that help stack old-style jugs must be transported back to the manufacturer and sanitized after each delivery. The new flat-top design, however, cuts consumption of both water and fuel. On the flip side, consumers have not been quick to adapt to the new jugs, which make milk pouring awkward and sometimes messy.
"It€™s about learning how to pour milk differently," explained Lundberg. To win over consumers, Sam€™s Club locations have conducted in-store demonstrations on proper pouring techniques and lured audiences by serving complimentary cookies with the freshly poured milk.
According to a recent report from Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Americans used approximately 14.4 billion hot paper cups in 2005. If placed end-to-end, that number of cups would circle the world 55 times. Other take-out packaging, most of it made from petroleum-based products, is crowding landfills and littering highways around the country.
When York, Pennsylvania-based Rutter€™s Farm Stores began looking at ways to build a more eco-friendly store, Jerry Weiner, vice president of foodservice, began investigating the use of green packaging for takeout items, such as sandwiches and baked goods.
During his research, Weiner was impressed by the imaginative solutions on the market, including drinking straws and disposable food containers created from sugar cane residue, bamboo, rice or cornstarch. One of his favorite discoveries was Spudware, a line of knives, forks and spoons that look and feel like plastic but are made from a biodegradable potato starch combined with soy oil. "Those things are remarkable," he said.
Weiner had hoped to locate a green substitute for plastic sandwich containers, but "we didn€™t find one that suited us and allowed the sandwich to maintain a 30-hour shelf life," he said. "There is a lot on the market now, but much of it is in the very early stages. That makes it expensive, and often the features you need aren€™t available yet."
Rutter€™s eventually replaced some of the stores€™ traditional take-out packaging with a paper sandwich wrap, brown unbleached paper napkins and a natural brown paper sack for carry-out orders, a change that eliminated the consumption of some foil and bleached-white paper products. "These were not gigantic initiatives, but they are environmentally friendly," Weiner said. "More people are creating a demand [for green products], and eventually science will catch up."
Rutter€™s Farm Stores may be in the forefront of a trend that could one day become law. Already, Portland, Oregon, and Oakland and San Francisco in California, plus several Canadian cities, have outlawed the use of polystyrene (more commonly called Styrofoam), forcing food establishments to use alternative packaging. As public demand for greener packaging and less waste increases, other municipalities are likely to follow suit.
At first glance, Styrofoam is the perfect material for foodservice products. It€™s easy to handle, easy to print on and it won€™t burn the fingers of a coffee drinker. However, the material is not biodegradable. Styrofoam cups and containers from the last 50 years will be around €" in some form €" for centuries to come.
According to some estimates, approximately 500 billion plastic shopping bags are used worldwide each year €" that€™s about one million per minute €" and only 2 percent make it into the recycling system. In response, some retailers, such as Whole Foods Markets, have eliminated all plastic bags at the checkout counter.
Walmart will keep its plastic shopping bags, but in September, the company announced the worldwide goal of reducing the use of plastic bags by an average of 33 percent per store by 2013. That achievement would eliminate plastic waste equal to approximately nine billion bags a year. (See this month€™s green column, "Bag It.")
In order to meet that ambitious target, the mega-retailer has reduced the actual size of its plastic bags, has trained associates to pack the bags more efficiently and encourages shoppers to adopt reusable shopping totes. Walmart now sells reusable totes made from recycled plastic bottles for $1 each and totes created from recycled post-industrial plastic for 50 cents.
Switching from disposable to reusable bags requires a major change in consumer shopping habits, a change that many busy shoppers will find difficult to adopt despite their best intentions. Some experts suggest that moving shoppers away from plastic to reusable bags would be easier if retailers charged for each plastic bag used, with figures ranging from 5 to 15 cents as the suggested per-bag price. In 2001, Ireland imposed the equivalent of a 15-cent tax on each plastic shopping bag and soon saw a 90 percent drop in disposable bag use.
Technomic, a food-focused research/consulting firm in Chicago, reports that approximately one-third of consumers surveyed said they are willing to pay extra for "green" packaging. However, with the current economic conditions and new focus on frugality, some soothsayers predict consumers will be more price-conscious than environmentally friendly in the months ahead.
No matter what happens, major manufacturers will continue to tout their commitment to providing green packaging that is easier for consumers to recycle, and retailers can expect to see more and different materials coming into their stores.
"Our retailers are equally interested in educating and offering their consumers more sustainable options without sacrificing the right value proposition," said Lefebvre of Pepsi-Cola North America Beverages. "Our efforts have allowed a win/win for retailers and consumers."
Pat Pape worked in the convenience store industry for more than 20 years before becoming a full-time writer. She is also a contributing writer to NACS Magazine.