At its second-annual UnPacked event, held virtually from Feb. 22 to 24, the Pet Sustainability Coalition (PSC) shared the final results of Flex Foward, its return-to-retail pet food bag recycling program launched in the fall of 2020. The goal of Flex Forward is to reduce landfill waste and promote the use of sustainable packaging solutions by pet food and treat manufacturers.

The Flex Forward program was first announced in February 2020, but the launch was delayed to August due to COVID-19 complications. The program was supported by Earth Animal, a natural pet care and nutrition company that provided financial support, and Pet Food Experts, a pet industry distributor that served as the key partner in collecting used pet food packages from participating retailers throughout the program.

“At the current moment, in North America specifically, 99% of pet food and treat bags are not recyclable,” said Melissa Bauer, director of sustainability at PSC. “PSC estimates that is over 300 million lbs of packaging going into landfills today, which represents over $1 billion of the pet food proportion of the US flexible packaging market annually. This is a huge problem.”

Through Flex Forward, pet owners were invited to bring their used bags back to participating retail locations, dropping them off in a branded collection bin in store. Used pet food bags were collected from 127 participating retailers in the Pacific Northwest from August 2020 to February 2021. Originally, PSC set a goal of collecting 5,000 lbs of used pet food packages over this five-month period. The program exceeded that goal, collecting 8,356 lbs of packaging.

“Just to give you an idea of what that looks like that's over 83,000 individual bags of food and treats, and took over 26 different Gaylords [bulk bins] that were required to store the collected materials,” Bauer said.

According to PSC, 46% of total eligible stores in the region participated in the Flex Forward pilot program. An average of 2.3 lbs of used pet food bags were collected from each store during each week of the program. At least 44,565 individual pet food and treat bags were collected through the program, including more than 400 different kinds of packages from between 50 and 75 different brands. According to PSC, nearly 96% of participating retailers surveyed after the program said they felt confident that the Flex Forward program added value to their business.

Pet Pros was awarded for collecting the most used pet food packages among all other participating multi-store retail chainsPet Pros, a pet specialty retailer that collected the most used packaging than any other participating multi-store retail chain, according to PSC. (Source: Pet Pros)

What’s next for Flex Forward? PSC has partnered with recycling and end-of-life partners to find the most sustainable use for the packages collected through the program. The organization hopes to release a report detailing the results of this end-of-life testing in early 2022.

Bauer shared PSC has been working with several partners to assess chemical and mechanical recycling applications for the used packaging. Mechanical recycling, seen as a more traditional recycling method, is used to process used plastic into secondary raw materials without significantly altering the materials’ chemical structures. Chemical recycling, an emerging and more advanced recycling method, involves several different technologies, according to PSC, and aims to convert plastic waste into chemicals such as monomers that can be used as raw materials in chemical processes.

Bauer shared both recycling methods were successful for its Flex Forward purpose. However, the vast variety of bag types and sizes did create challenges for mechanical recycling, and chemical recycling tends to be more expensive and currently lacks the scale to provide waste solutions for the entire pet industry, PSC shared.

“Something that people were really concerned about at the beginning of the pilot was contamination, but I was really surprised to learn that contamination was low,” Bauer said. “…It was estimated that we had an under 5% contamination rate.”

In mid-February, PSC completed feasibility testing through sustainability consulting firm Circular Matters, which included a full report of different recycling methods, financial modeling and environmental impact monitoring, Bauer said. Part of the feasibility testing included supplier feedback, which aimed to determine the state of recyclable packaging in today’s pet food and treat market.

“One hundred percent of all of the packaging suppliers that we talked to currently offer recycle-ready packaging, which means that these technologies for established recycling streams are on the market and in use, available for the pet industry today,” Bauer said. “Those packaging suppliers estimate that 70% to 80% of all pet food and treat [packaging] in North America will be eligible for store takeback recycling programs by the year 2030.”

Used pet food bags in a Gaylord box collected through the Flex Forward pilot programMore than 400 different kinds of pet food and treat packages from at least 50 different brands were collected through the Flex Forward pilot program. (Source: Pet Food Experts)

Packaging material suppliers are mobilizing the effort to provide more sustainable options to the pet food and treat industry and, paired with retailer engagement and pet owner participation, the extrapolation of this Flex Forward pilot to nationwide markets could have a notable impact on reducing the industry’s plastic waste.

“The possible impact of such an expansion of Flex Forward is astounding,” Bauer said. “Even at current store takeback recycling rates, this program could collect over 400 lbs of packaging or 3,200 bags from independent retailers annually, and even more at large pet retailers. There's a strong possibility that collection would greatly outpace current collection rates. If so, those numbers could be even higher, which would lead to 4.5 million lbs of pet food and treat packaging annually from participation from independent and specialty pet retail.”

However, this is not a silver bullet solution. PSC is also advocating for longer-term pathways toward packaging sustainability, including moving the industry from multilaminate materials and toward mono-materials, which are more easily recycled, as well as toward compostable options and refillable solutions.

“Shifting the pet industry toward a single type of material would allow packaging to be widely accepted both through Flex Forward pilot recycling streams as well as existing store drop-off programs that exist outside of pet,” Bauer said. “This will also increase the value of collected materials and drive financial markets.”

PSC is continuing to expand Flex Forward by working with partners to evaluate costs and map out next steps. The organization is researching possible uses for plastic pellets created through mechanical recycling, including upcycled durable pet products, accessories and toys. Alongside its Flex Forward program, PSC will continue building on its sustainable packaging toolkit, which includes a supplier checklist, research on the environmental impact of multilaminate packaging, life cycle assessment of existing and emerging solutions, and advocating for more widespread use of recyclable, refillable and compostable solutions.

Stay tuned to hear more about recyclable, refillable and compostable packaging options available for the pet food and treat industry, as covered during Pet Sustainability Coalition’s UnPacked22 virtual event.

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