KANSAS CITY, MO. — Pet owners continue to prioritize sustainability in their pet food and treat purchasing decisions, including the environmental impact of their packaging. According to a report from Trivium Packaging and Boston Consulting Group, 74% of consumers surveyed reported they would be willing to pay more for sustainable packaging. In another survey by Rover.com, 35% of pet owners stated they have actively chosen to purchase more eco-friendly pet products.

According to the Pet Sustainability Coalition, roughly 300 million lbs of flexible pet food and treat packages are manufactured in the United States each year, of which almost all are produced through co-extrusion and laminating multiple layers of film plastics, making them nearly impossible to recycle. Because of this, an estimated 99% of pet food packages in the United States wind up in landfills rather than recycling streams.

Jeff Wooster, global sustainability director for Dow Packaging and Specialty Plastics, suggested the adoption of mono-materials, or 100% polyethylene (PE) materials, in place of multi-material structures is “perhaps the most straight-forward pathway” for companies to improve the sustainability of their packaging.

However, developing sustainable packaging for pet food and treat products presents unique challenges, some of which need not be considered by other CPG manufacturers.

"We’re serving multiple stakeholders – humans, pets and the environment," said Brian Seevers, Nestlé Purina PetCare.

“We’re serving multiple stakeholders – humans, pets and the environment,” said Brian Seevers, director of technical packaging at Nestlé Purina PetCare. “Our sustainable packaging solutions require that our brand elements are recognizable and functional for people, but it’s also important that we take into consideration the opinions of our pets.”

How can processors navigate this complex and constantly evolving space? Seevers and Wooster have a few ideas.


Balancing sustainability and performance

Companies looking to transition to more environmentally friendly packaging — whether it be more recyclable, compostable, or include post-consumer resins (PCR) — must consider more than just the package itself. Improving the end-of-life use of the package is key, but material trade-offs in the areas of processing and formulation, shelf life, energy usage, package functionality or transportation must be considered when making the switch.

One key differentiator between sustainable packaging for pet food and treats that separates it from eco-friendly packaging for other CPG products is an increased need for preservation, largely to maintain taste and odor throughout shelf life. At Purina, each packaging change is tested to determine if and how new materials affect smell, taste or texture — essentially any aspect of palatability that could deter the pet from consuming whatever the bag contains.

Dogs and cats are much more attuned to changes in taste and odor, Wooster shared, and this sensitivity makes product freshness integral when it comes to designing any package, including sustainable ones.

Sustainable dog food bag design by Dow

“This sensitivity then dictates the material selection when moving from a multi-material to a mono-material structure, which is done so it’s easier to recycle for the consumer,” Wooster said. “Facilitating this transition, however, is a delicate balance because we need to design a solution using different types of materials, such as plastomers or ionomers, but in a way that doesn’t impact palatability.”

Packaging material suppliers can offer expertise for brands looking to balance product integrity, shelf-life, package durability and processing efficiency.

For example, Dow learned that moving from multi-material laminates to all-PE packaging requires sealants that maximize the melting temperature difference between the inside and the outside of the film to maximize machinability. Wooster noted that Dow Affinity™ plastomers are a great fit in this context because of their low heat seal initiation temperatures (HSIT).

The company’s SURLYN™ ionomers are also commonly used as sealants with low HSIT and are especially useful in challenging applications where seal through contamination is needed to secure package integrity. The Association of Plastic Recyclers and the Sustainable Packaging Coalition recognizes films containing either Affinity plastomers or Surlyn ionomers as fully recyclable, Wooster added.

“To reach this optimal balance between minimized materials usage and maximized shelf life, we’re tapping a variety of technologies – from mono-material packaging structures and compatibilizers for high-barrier recyclable films to durable packaging for less damage and waste,” he said. “We also offer leading resins for use with PE orientation technologies, including MDO and BOPE, to enable thinner and stronger films.”

"Our goal is to maintain or improve performance where it’s most important and make tradeoffs on attributes that don’t affect functionality and overall performance," said Jeff Wooster, Dow Packaging and Specialty Plastics.

Sustainable material selections could also impact the general look and feel of a package, as well as the way packaging lines run during production. According to Wooster, packaging lines that convert film to bags may need to be modified or run slower to accommodate a package change, and brands may need to address changes in on-shelf packaging attributes to meet pet owners’ expectations.

“Our goal is to maintain or improve performance where it’s most important and make tradeoffs on attributes that don’t affect functionality and overall performance,” Wooster noted.


Improving recycling infrastructure

The ultimate goal of a sustainable package is to be recycled and reused into something new, or to create less of an environmental impact than it would if the package wound up in the landfill.

“Perhaps one of our biggest challenges and most important considerations is a material’s value in the supply chain,” Seevers noted. “As an advanced research and development team, we’re thinking beyond just the creation of recyclable packages, and evaluating the demand for that recycled material after pet owners dispose of their package. We ensure it’s not only capable of being recycled, but a valuable resource in the circular economy.”

In 2020, Pet Sustainability Coalition (PSC), Earth Animal and Pet Food Experts launched Flex Forward, a pilot return-to-retail recycling program for used flexible pet food bags. More than 5,000 lbs of packaging was recovered in-store through the program, then the companies moved to partner with NOVA Chemicals to identify ways to repurpose these plastic materials into new pet products, including dog beds, toys and other durable goods. This is just one example of how recycled plastics from pet food packages could be upcycled and revalued.

Implementing more sustainable packaging materials goes hand in hand with a need for advanced technology and an improved infrastructure for recycling. This could allow companies to source more recycled materials and enable consumers to recycle more than what is currently accepted.

“A big piece of the puzzle when it comes to sustainable packaging is achieving widespread implementation of infrastructure that can support the more complicated recyclability process that comes with flexible packaging,” Seevers said. “When solving for today, we must consider whether our innovations are functional within our current infrastructure, while anticipating and building for the future.”

As of now, certain polyethylene films and recyclable materials can’t be picked up through curbside recycling programs and may require drop-off at collection sites, according to Seevers. This could hinder pet owner engagement in the recycling process until infrastructure is improved. Collaboration is needed to improve the current system.

A partnership between TotalRecycle and J.P. Mascaro and Sons’ material recovery facility (MRF) was designed to recapture flexible plastic packaging for reuse.Through the Materials Recovery for the Future (MRFF) consortium, a partnership between TotalRecycle and J.P. Mascaro and Sons’ material recovery facility (MRF) was established to recapture flexible plastic packaging for reuse. (Photo courtesy of Nestlé Purina PetCare)

“In 2020, Purina’s participation in the Materials Recovery for the Future (MRFF) consortium of businesses and associations led to the first successful pilot project to recycle flexible plastic packaging in a large single-stream material recovery facility,” Seevers shared. “The only way for these practices to evolve and scale is to continue devising partnerships that focus on pooling expertise and resources to create solutions that allow all parts of the supply chain to move in sequence.”

“Most recently at Dow, we expanded our advanced recycling partnership with Fuenix Ecogy Group through the construction of a second plant in Weert, the Netherlands, which will have the capacity to process 20,000 tons of previously unrecyclable plastic waste into pyrolysis oil feedstock to produce new circular plastic,” Wooster added. “This marks a key step forward in meeting market demand for 100% recyclable solutions.”

Incorporating PCR into pet food and treat packaging is another opportunity for this industry, but one that presents another set of considerations for brands. These include material cleaning methods, PCR supply and infrastructure, and compatibility with available technology, Seevers said.

“Unlocking the supply chain for sustainable PCR, in addition to empowering consumers to close the loop on these products, provides a new avenue within sustainable packaging,” he added.


Empowering pet owner participation

Engaging consumers is another key step toward a more circular economy for pet food packaging. Seevers noted many consumers currently participate in what he called “wish recycling,” where items are thrown away with the hope of them ending up in the recycling stream. He said Purina’s job is to not only encourage consumers to recycle but educate them on “thoughtful recycling” that avoids contaminating the waste stream.

“Consumers are a critical piece of our collective success,” he said. “We have an opportunity as an industry to educate and empower consumers to help them realize their potential impact on achieving a sustainable future.”

There are still obstacles in play — such as product residue on packaging — that can impact the rate of success for pet food package recycling.

“That’s why clear labeling with instruction on how to recycle is so important, such as the How2Recycle label that can be printed on the packaging and offers clear instructions for US consumers on the recycling process,” Wooster added.

Sustainable pet treat bag by Dow

Moving forward, Purina is gearing up for a robust rollout of new-and-improved recyclable packaging across its portfolio. It will include roughly 1,000 products in total, including the company’s smaller pet food bags and treat packages. The brand will work with its suppliers to ensure the new materials are functional, effective and compliant with infrastructure as this space evolves.

“For brands to be part of the solution, there’s an opportunity to adjust our mindset from a linear ‘take-make-dispose’ system — where natural resources are extracted, transformed into products and eventually disposed of — and treat plastics as the valuable resource that they are to help create smarter solutions for today and tomorrow,” Wooster said.


Steps in the right direction

Achieving sustainability in the pet food packaging value chain will be a continuous, industry-wide effort demanding collaboration and accountability. Several flexible packaging suppliers have already shifted their focus to recyclable, compostable or PCR materials, and there is currently an ever-expanding range of options for pet food and treat processors to choose from.

At Purina, the company’s packaging sustainability strategy is three-fold. Goals include achieving 100% recyclable or reusable packaging by 2025, contributing to its parent company Nestlé’s goal of reducing virgin plastic use by one-third, and creating a minimum of 30% of its plastic packaging portfolio from post-consumer recycled content (PCR).

“We invest heavily in research and development of new sustainable packaging solutions, and we continue to modify our existing products and processes to improve our sustainability output,” Seevers explained.

The pet food company’s Fit For Purpose initiative also comes into play here, in which a sustainability team analyzes current packaging and identifies opportunities to reduce or eliminate certain materials such as metal, plastic and corrugate, Seevers added.

On the supplier side, Dow is focusing its sustainable packaging strategy on four main principles: designing for recyclability, mechanical recycling, advanced recycling, and bio-renewable feedstocks. The company has established a “Close the Loop” target, through which 100% of its packaging solutions will be reusable or recyclable by 2035.

Additionally, Dow recently announced plans to construct a net-zero carbon emissions ethylene and derivatives complex in Alberta, Canada, in an effort to accelerate its decarbonization efforts associated with packaging production.

“The investment will not only help drive progress against Dow’s carbon neutrality goal, but will help our customers lower the carbon footprint of their own products as well,” Wooster said.

Dow is also invested in industry-wide collaboration to better understand what consumers are looking for in a sustainable package. This includes thought leadership through the Pet Sustainability Coalition and a partnership with Mondi, which is also striving to offer a wider variety of sustainable pet food and treat packages.

The good news is, Purina and Dow are just two of many companies embarking on an environmentally friendly packaging journey.

In October, Royal Canin committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2025. One of the company’s four key action areas is to reduce waste and boost circularity, which will include efforts to expand recyclability, compostability and reusable packaging usage throughout its pet food portfolio. The company plans to introduce mono-material plastic packaging in 2022 and will also begin incorporating recycled content and fewer materials in its pet food packaging.

PetDine announced a six-point sustainability plan in July, in which three directly address more sustainable packaging goals. These include promoting the recyclability of product packaging on 75% of its clients’ products by 2023, sourcing all plastic jars with post-consumer recycled content by 2023, and using 95% recyclable packaging by 2021. The company shared it has already succeeded in reaching its 95% recyclable packaging goal.

Freshpet released its inaugural corporate sustainability report in August, which touched on packaging initiatives to reduce the company’s carbon footprint. This includes a partnership with TerraCycle to encourage consumer recycling of used pet food packages and reduce the amount of plastic that ends up in landfills.

Retailers are also jumping on board, as evidenced in the ongoing Flex Forward Program by PSC, Earth Animal and Pet Food Experts. Petco has transitioned to using 92% less plastic and 23% less cardboard to fulfill online orders, which saved an estimated 3.6 million lbs of cardboard and 30,000 lbs of plastic from landfills in 2020. The big-box pet retailer has also gotten rid of single-use plastic bags across its owned-brand supply chain, resulting in more than 3 million bags that would potentially become waste. 

"Consumers are a critical piece of our collective success," said Brian Seevers, Nestlé Purina PetCare.

Not all sustainable packaging solutions and strategies are the same, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach. It’s up to the industry to collaborate, define and implement strategies to achieve the greatest good for the planet and pets.

“Pet owners care deeply about their pets and giving them the opportunity to recycle their pet food packaging can help them feel good about protecting the environment too,” Wooster said.

Read more about packaging solutions and trends for pet food and treats.