KANSAS CITY, MO. — What does sustainable packaging look like today? How can the pet industry come together to address the need for packaging that is better for the environment, without compromising on quality? How can companies evaluate the environmental impact of their packaging material choices and change for the better?

Pet Sustainability Coalition (PSC) covered all this and more at its virtual UnPacked21 conference held Feb. 23 and 24. The event drew more than 400 attendees.

The event touched every aspect of the packaging supply chain, from resin and biofilm producers to finished goods manufacturers to retailer partners. Members of the entire value chain joined the conversation to share thought leadership, unique experiences and methods for collaboration and collective action. Interactive polls, forums, networking opportunities and a virtual exhibition hall allowed attendees to connect and engage on a more personal level.

The main themes that surfaced during UnPacked21 were education, collaboration and action. It was made clear that in order to create a more circular economy for pet food and treat packaging, stakeholders and consumers alike must be informed, must identify opportunities to work together, and must leverage those opportunities to create unified change in the overall packaging industry.

“Two days can only go so far to inspire the change that this industry needs,” said Caitlyn Dudas, executive director of PSC in her closing remarks on Feb. 24. “To truly change an industry, we need to identify action. Action that we’re going to take, and that we’re going to hold ourselves and each other accountable to.”

In sum, Dudas highlighted 10 actions accumulated throughout the panels, discussions and presentations that made up UnPacked21, which included:

  1. Increase your recycled content, no matter what type of packaging you have
  2. Minimize the size of your packaging
  3. Reimagine the opportunities that e-commerce might bring to eliminate packaging when possible
  4. Standardize labeling, most notably considering the “how-to-recycle” label
  5. Move forward with the LCA to truly understand the environmental impact of packaging choices
  6. Celebrate and sing achievements to inspire others
  7. Make a 2025 commitment and share it externally so there is even more pressure to uphold that commitment
  8. Join a collaborative effort
  9. Download PSC tools so you know what your options are for evaluation and action
  10. Join the Pet Sustainability Coalition to participate and to contribute to shifting the pet industry



Shannon Moore, lead packaging engineer, global innovation and nutrition with Kellogg Company, presented the keynote address on the morning of Feb. 24, in which she discussed how the company went about creating a recyclable package for its Bear Naked granola products.

“When we talk about designing for recyclability, it really was a collaboration not just externally but internally,” Moore said. “…Our mission was to develop a more sustainable package without compromising on our great-tasting food and the premium look and feel for the packaging on the shelf.”

One challenge was striking a balance between packaging attributes that were key to the Bear Naked brand, such as the window aspect to see the product inside, and making it fully recyclable and able to perform efficiently during packaging.

Another undertaking was considering Bear Naked’s consumer preferences, their knowledge of recycling and preferences, and potential challenges they could solve through education.

“This was a habit change [for consumers], and we had consumers that were aware, but we needed to do education around what’s changing and how that works,” Moore said. “Today, that continues to be something that’s key when it comes to really getting consumers to understand what you’re trying to do, and also driving clear messaging of what you’re supposed to do with the package when you’re done using it.”

The company used its own education tools on social media, as well as some consumer-created education materials, to help customers adjust to this change.


The sustainable packaging landscape

The worlds of plastics and recycling are complex. Anita Schwartz and Julie Sinistore, both senior project managers with WSP, took a deep dive into different types of plastics, their end-of-life options, and considerations companies can make to make those streams more environmentally friendly.

"Generally, this is a very complicated space, and it's very important to understand what all these different terms mean and what the actual end-of-life of a particular material will be," Sinistore said.

Comparison of biobased, biodegradable and compostable plastic materials

According to Schwartz, trends are indicating a forward trajectory in terms of our ability “to recycle more and recycle better.” These include investments to infrastructure, reduced contamination or “making sure the right material goes into the right bin,” and government legislation.

“The European Union has been really leading the charge in terms of legislation, and some of the initiatives that they have driven are around virgin plastic taxes,” Schwartz said. “So if a manufacturer chooses to use a virgin-based material, there is an associated tax with that. They are also requiring a certain percentage of post-consumer recycled content in packaging and their goals are 25% by 2025 and 30% post-consumer content by 2030.”

Widespread consumer responsibility campaigns around package recycling are also a trend, and manufacturers can contribute to these to ensure pet owners understand end-of-life solutions and the options available for material recovery. This was seen as a key area of improvement for producers of finished goods.

“By making sure that your material palette is truly recoverable in a large portion of the country, and then to be able to communicate that effectively to your consumer, that’s really going to have the best outcome in terms of recovery, as well as true recyclability,” said Anita Schwartz, WSP.

“I think that our recycling rates are low because there is a sort of miscommunication between what is recyclable and what we want to be recyclable,” Schwartz said. “By making sure that your material palette is truly recoverable in a large portion of the country, and then to be able to communicate that effectively to your consumer, that’s really going to have the best outcome in terms of recovery, as well as true recyclability.”


Collaboration, collaboration, collaboration

Melissa Bauer, director of sustainability for PSC, shared that approximately 300 million lbs of plastic packaging wind up in landfills today. To effectively tackle the challenge of reducing this number, collaboration across the entire value chain is key.

Brianna Sheppard, representing the US Plastics Pact, Adam Gendell, associate director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, Alyssa Harding of One Step Closer, and Ali Blandina, director of circular ventures at The Recycling Partnership, joined in a panel on just that – leveraging collaboration to drive collective action.

“The plastic waste challenge is really too big and too important to address alone,” Sheppard said. “We need all of the stakeholders at the table and we need everyone working together in a way that’s strategic and in a way where we’re really coordinating our efforts and not duplicating them.”

Harding added, “If we think about packaging, it’s an entire system that’s been optimized for pricing and efficiency, and has never accounted for the true cost of the national resource use… The negative externalities are being pushed to consumers, to people and the planet… We now have a pretty daunting solution that we have to contribute to, and it’s going to take collaboration to get us there.”


Turning competitors into collaborators

The topic of collaboration continued with a presentation from Kate Daly, managing director of the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners, on packaging circularity. Daly defined the circular economy as “the most significant restructuring of global commerce since the industrial revolution.”

“It’s an overhaul of how products are designed, manufactured, sold, refurbished and recycled to make new products,” she said. “And it’s a framework for global corporations and startups alike to reduce costs, increase efficiency and protect the environment we share.”

Daly discussed innovation, investment and across-the-board collaboration as necessary components in the circular economy solution. Like all sustainability challenges, she said there is no silver bullet, but instead a combination of different solutions are needed to achieve positive impact.

“There’s no silver bullet, there’s no one solution. An array of different solutions are needed,” said Kate Daly, Closed Loop Partners.

“There are so many other pieces of the puzzle,” she said. “First is industry consensus on solutions that need to be scaled and that align with recovery systems. We also need to together identify a path forward that addresses the regulatory environments, availability of municipal funding and infrastructure development that could align with recovery systems, whether that’s recycling or composting.

“It’s critical that we identify and implement those incentives [that address key barriers along the value chain] to make whole everyone along the value chain so that it’s economically viable,” she continued.


Closing the loop

Nancy Conley, technical services specialist with NOVA Chemicals, co-presented with Dawn MacDonald, research and development manager with Emmerson packaging, on how establishing partnerships can help pet food packaging advance the circular economy.

“Making recyclable packaging is a first step, but we need to be able to show that we can recycle the package and put it into another use,” Conley said.

NOVA Chemicals and Emmerson Packaging worked together to develop a polyethylene-based recyclable packaging solution. The process demanded attention to several factors, including the environmental impacts of the package itself, but also the product weight, processability and other factors that posed challenges in the development of this circular packaging solution.  

Conley and MacDonald shared some goals that many CPG and retail businesses have committed to by 2025 or 2030 to reduce the environmental impact of their packaging. Of these, the average goal was achieving 25% post-consumer recycled (PCR) content in the company’s plastic packaging by 2025. This data was gathered by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

It also found that the total demand for recycled content by brands, retailers and packaging manufacturers in 2025 is projected to exceed 5 million metric tons, representing an increase of more than 3.6 million metric tonnes from 2018 expectations and 10 times the current global average of recycled content use in packaging in 2019.

This trend indicates companies are stepping up and setting a higher bar for packaging sustainability.

Conley and MacDonald identified six areas of opportunity for advancing circularity: engaging the entire value chain; engaging consumers; improving access to recycling; improving collection and sortation capabilities; improving recycling capabilities; and focusing on the economics of sustainable packaging and end markets.

“We see recycle-ready is going to continue to have a strong market share and that’s because we’re able to produce a package without compromises, so it may as well be recyclable,” MacDonald said of what we have to look forward to. “…We’re also seeing some cases where we can start incorporating other materials, like starches, into the polyethylene blends, and why that is exciting is because it’s displacing some of the fossil fuels.”


Understanding the lifecycle of packaging materials

Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) is a valuable tool for identifying and assessing different packaging options in terms of their carbon footprint, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and water use.

Conducting an LCA can help brands and packaging producers optimize material selections and development and use findings to differentiate their product from others in the marketplace, manage consumer perception of a brand, streamline the design and development process, remain compliant with shifting retailer, supplier and municipal compliance standards for packaging, and calculate key performance metrics to share in-house, as well as with investors and stakeholders.

For companies beginning their sustainable packaging journeys, an LCA can help establish a baseline, gather and share data, and figure out the first steps, shared Jonathan Allen, procurement manager for WellPet.

Sarah Zerhusen of Trayak shared several benefits and tips to help companies use LCAs to their advantage.

“Don’t focus on one indicator and consider evaluating your entire packaging system, including distribution and supply chain transportation,” she suggested. “Identify areas of maximum sustainability gains.”

In a panel on LCAs, Michael Cody, head of digital marketing and sustainability at Earth Animal, reiterated the importance of considering not only material inputs, but also the production, transportation and end-of-life impacts of different packaging options in order to determine what’s best for brands individually, and what’s best for the planet.

"Every packaging design will have environmental trade-offs to consider," said Sarah Zerhusen, Trayak. "Make decisions about these trade-offs that align with your company goals.”

“There’s no golden material choice,” Zerhusen said. “In some circumstances, plastic may be the best choice. In others, maybe it’s aluminum. Every packaging design will have environmental trade-offs to consider. Make decisions about these trade-offs that align with your company goals.”

Overall, the greatest environmental impact of packaging comes from the materials, considering raw material extraction and the processes behind creating plastic and paper materials, Zerhusen shared. She said companies can reduce material by making the product lighter, adjusting the size of the package, or changing the format or material altogether, depending on the product at hand.

For some brands, offering a larger package could result in reduced environmental impact. Earth Animal discovered this in its own LCA conducted through PSC. During the panel, Adam Kay, sales and technical director at Tyler Packaging, pointed out that the shift toward e-commerce is providing an opportunity for larger bag sizes, but market trends still point to smaller packages.

“E-commerce is growing, so it gives much more opportunity for brands to deliver direct-to-door in larger pack formats, but we still see the biggest growth in the market is in small packs — exponential compared to big formats,” Kay said.


The State of Recycling post-COVID

Overall, the state of recycling and the development of more sustainable packaging are evolving rapidly, shared Kate Bailey, an expert on recycling and zero waste with EcoCycle. She presented on “Solutions for Flexible Packaging and the State of Recycling in a COVID-19 World.”

One of the more dramatic shifts Bailey has seen has been extended producer responsibility, or EPR. This includes producers embedding the cost of recycling into their product prices, as well as adjusting packaging materials and choices to become more recyclable. These adjustments can also save costs for manufacturers.

Consumer programs are also shifting, and Bailey said the industry will need to continue to innovate and reimagine these programs to include several options, such as reuse initiatives, refill at home, return-to-retail, refill on-the-go, and return on-the-go programs.

Also on the topic of package recycling, Kurt Duska, president of Engineered Plastics, recently sorted through the program’s first collection of 1,600 lbs of recycled pet food and treat packaging collected in stores. Engineered Plastics is the recycler working with PSC on its return-to-retail Flex Forward program.

One of his observations was that he did not realize how many different types of packaging are used in the industry currently. He estimated there was 300 to 400 different types of bags within that one collection alone.

Some challenges of recycling collection include metals embedded in plastic packaging materials, which trigger metal detectors at the collection site and cause them not to be reclaimed into plastic pellets. Additionally, low-density polyethylene is unable to be recycled, and anything that is tear-able (i.e. uses paper) cannot be reclaimed into plastic pellets for repurposing.

Duska said the greatest challenge is determining what materials a packages is made of. He shared that 99% of packaging today includes three to five layers of materials sandwiched together, which makes it essentially worthless for recycling.

He went on to explain that packaging collection must be profitable for it to be self-sustainable.

If he had a magic wand, Duska said he would wave it to change several key aspects of the way we currently package products. These include: designing packaging with recyclability in mind; using mono-material, low-density polyethylene; standardizing recyclability across entire industries; eliminating metal, closures and other features that prevent recyclability; and making recyclability more efficient and profitable for recycling companies by making sure they are clean and the materials they are made of are fully recyclable.

Company sustainable packaging ratings


A glimmer of hope

Along with sharing information and connecting potential collaborators, one of the key purposes of UnPacked21 was to inspire positive action for the future of pet food and treat packaging. There are many recent developments and projects underway to improve the sustainability of CPG packaging, but the industry must continue to unify around this common goal to achieve the most impactful results.

Glen Treliving of Thanh Phu Packaging, Brian Steinwagner, executive vice president of business development with Morris Packaging, and Bill Barlow, sustainable innovations manager at Printpack, joined on a panel to discuss sustainable packaging advancements in the pet industry, and where we go from here.

Morris Packaging, for example, has so far used 135 million water bottles and 5 million lbs of other recycled material in the development of its packaging products, which it can produce with 30% and 50% PCR materials. Printpack also offers packaging with 30% or 50% PCR materials.

Barlow said because of the further processing that happens to plastics when they are recycled and melted to create pellets, the maximum PCR plastic content for packaging is 50% to maintain quality standards. Chemically recycled materials can be incorporated at up to 90% of the package. Due to higher costs, their availability is lower, but the quality is higher, Barlow added.

Thanh Phu uses only polyester, low-density polyethylene materials in its packaging solutions. This creates a fully recyclable package and results in no scraps during production.

One downside of mono-materials — which are the most recyclable — is the cost factor, Steinwagner said. This is because the run rates are slower in production. On the bright side, however, Morris Packaging plans to announce a new technology to make mono-material packaging more cost competitive for form/fill/seal systems.

As infrastructure improves and brands facilitate ways to make packaging more sustainable and recyclable, it’s important to consider the consumer. Standardizing the recycling label and providing clear instructions on how to best recycle a pet food or treat package are key here.

Barlow shared that the How2Recycle label is currently the most successful recycling label and serves an integral role in true packaging circularity. Treliving added that the industry must embrace and move forward with an easily and universally understood symbol to make sure all recyclable materials wind up in recycling streams. The industry must unify in this task to mitigate “wish-cycling” — a term Dudas used to refer to consumers that place materials in recycling bins hoping that they’ll be able to be recycled downstream — and to achieve the goal of recycling the 300 million lbs of plastic waste that wind up in landfills each year.

Read more about pet food and treat industry events.