A slight majority of consumers — 54 percent — claim to have familiarity with the term “sustainability.” However, of those who do, many are unable to appropriately define the term, according to a study by The Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash. Although they might not be able to identify popular corporate terms such as lifecycle assessment, considered design and packaging size reduction, the same percentage of consumers simply want to hear that a company represents principles and values that they agree with.

After they’ve made their purchases, The Hartman Group found that 77 percent of people try to abide by the “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra. In fact, the survey found that packaging initiatives are one of the few areas of common ground between consumers and manufacturers. Despite the lack of knowledge in some areas of sustainability, many consumers equate smaller packages with a smaller footprint, the “Gnomenclature on Sustainability” report showed. In addition, the typical consumer indicated that recycling as well as thinking about packaging and its impacts are elements of daily practices that require few sacrifices of time or energy, The Hartman Group reported.

When it comes to labeling a package’s eco-friendliness, the Natural Marketing Institute (NMI), Harleysville, Pa., found that about half of U.S. consumers feel that too many green seals and certifications exist. The majority of respondents indicated that they are more likely to buy products with green seals, but an average of one-third or fewer consumers recognize and understand specific seals. To avoid “green seal clutter,” the NMI says that three-fifths of U.S. consumers are looking for a universal seal that crosses industries. The most widely recognized and globally understood “green” logo is the green triangle recycle logo, the market research firm notes.

Easing the effort

Although consumers recognize and comprehend the meaning of the recycle logo, of the 5,350 pounds of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles produced in 2010, only 1,557 pounds were recovered for recycling, according to National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR) data cited by Lori Carson, commercial operations director for Phoenix Technologies Inc., Bowling Green, Ohio. This correlates to a 29.1 percent recycling rate for PET containers in 2010, NAPCOR data shows.

To put the statistic in perspective, the Can Manufacturers Institute (CMI), Washington, D.C., reports that approximately 58 percent of aluminum beverage cans are recycled each year in the United States. CMI data shows that glass is recycled 31 percent of the time and aseptic cartons have a 6.5 percent recycling rate.

With a goal to increase access to carton recycling, aseptic carton manufacturer Tetra Pak partnered with fellow carton companies to establish the Carton Council of North America in 2009. Through the council’s efforts, carton recycling access has doubled to more than 42 million households across 40 states that have the ability to recycle cartons, explains Elisabeth Comere, director of environmental and government affairs for Tetra Pak Inc. USA, Vernon Hills, Ill. So far in 2012, nearly 3 million households have been added to the program, Comere notes.

“Due to the council’s initiatives, post-consumer cartons are now accepted in residential collection and recycling programs in cities like Dallas, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Memphis, Denver, San Diego and Los Angeles,” she says. “And there’s room to grow.”

Once collected, cartons are usually shredded and put into a re-pulper in order to extract fiber that is often used for tissue, toweling product, de-inked pulp and green building products such as wallboard, Comere explains.

In June, the Glass Packaging Institute (GPI), Washington, D.C., noted the benefits of glass packaging during a U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Environment and Economy session. Lynn Bragg, president of the GPI, testified in support of draft legislation that would provide manufacturers with information needed to help increase the availability of recycled materials, preserve high-paying jobs, enhance global competition and increase energy efficiency.

“All glass containers are 100 percent and endlessly recyclable,” Bragg said in an excerpt provided by the GPI. “A top priority for [the] GPI and its members is to divert and recycle glass containers currently in the municipal solid waste stream rather than commit those valuable materials to perpetual, wasteful loss in landfills.”

The GPI and other packaging-based industries and companies have established goals to increase their use of recycled materials in the manufacturing process. However, success in achieving these goals largely depends on the strength of existing information on recovery programs and an understanding of where the materials that are collected through the programs end up, the GPI notes. A gap exists between what is thought to be recycled and what is actually reaching manufacturers, the institute says, and the legislation derived from the congressional discussion is expected to provide new information about how successful the recycling streams currently used in the United States are in reclaiming recyclable material.

According to NAPCOR data, the 29 percent recycling rate for PET is at its highest rate since 1996. Phoenix Technologies’ Carson notes that the popularity of single-serve packages, which are often consumed on-the-go, has affected the recycling rate. She suggests that recycling could increase by providing consumers with more options for recycling in venues, such as stadiums, airports and parks as well as residential and business buildings, including shopping malls, office complexes, high-rise condominiums and apartments.

“The bottom line is putting more methods in place [that] make it easy for the consumer to dispose of the container and for the bottle value chain to get the material back for next-generation use,” Carson explains.

Additional options include container deposits and extended producer responsibility, which shifts the onus to the brand-owner to reclaim the containers it has put into the distribution channel, she says. Consumers also should be educated about how important it is to recover materials, Carson notes.

This spring, the CMI hosted its second annual Great American Can Roundup, which encouraged students to collect cans as a fundraising initiative. Students from more than 790 schools from all 50 states recycled more than 4.5 million aluminum beverage cans and raised $100,591 for school activities and local charities nationwide, the CMI reported. The institute estimates that once a can is placed in a recycling bin, it is able to be back on a store shelf in as few as 60 days. In addition, CMI data shows that 75 percent of all aluminum ever produced is still in use.

Reusable and renewable

As a manufacturer of recycled PET (rPET), Phoenix Technologies has more than a decade of experience with the variables, including colors, products, materials, additives and labeling adhesives, that are part of collecting rPET, Carson says. With the extent of material mix, she notes that achieving consistent and high-quality rPET is difficult. An additional rPET manufacturing challenge is the demand from China, she says.

“Because of China’s willingness to pay a premium, approximately half of the PET that is collected in the United States is sent there,” Carson says. “If additional PET is diverted to China and/or if domestic demands increase, that sets up an even greater supply challenge.”

Tetra Pak’s Comere notes that the value of recycled commodities in the global market is among the key elements the packaging industry must constantly assess during development and design of packaging. Additional concerns include security of material supply as well as increased demand and cost of base materials, water and energy, she says.

In addition to its use of as much as 75 percent bio-based inputs for its cartons, Tetra Pak recently deployed a polyethylene (PE) cap derived from sugar cane. The use of PE made from a renewable raw material is an important step toward Tetra Pak’s goal of achieving 100 percent renewable packaging, Comere says.

Many corporations are looking to renewable resources for packaging sources. Building on the launch of its PlantBottle packaging, The Coca-Cola Co., Atlanta, continues to invest in plant-based PET technology. In April 2011, The Coca-Cola Co. rolled out single-serving Dasani bottled water and Odwalla juice smoothies in its PlantBottle packaging, a high-density polyethylene (HDPE) made from up to 100 percent plant-based materials. PlantBottles used for its bottled water brands, such as Dasani in the United States, are made with as much as 30 percent plant-based materials, according to The Coca-Cola Co.

Since the nationwide launch of the PlantBottle, The Coca-Cola Co. has announced several partnerships to accelerate the development of 100 percent plant-based bottles. In December, the company signed agreements with three leading biotechnology companies that specialize in identifying and scaling plant-based alternatives to materials traditionally made from fossil fuels and other non-renewable resources. Its partners include Madison, Wis.-based Virent, Inglewood, Colo.-based Gevo and Amsterdam-based Avantium. The partnerships were formed after The Coca-Cola Co. conducted an in-depth two-year analysis of different technologies from more than 30 companies, explained Rick Frazier, vice president of commercial product supply during the company’s December announcement. Virent, Gevo and Avantium will follow their own routes to make bio-based materials while staying in line with The Coca-Cola Co. and industry recycling requirements, it noted.

The company continued the partnerships in June by joining forces with Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford Motor Co., Pittsburgh-based The H.J. Heinz Co., Beaverton, Ore.-based Nike Inc. and Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble to form the Plant PET Technology Collaborative (PTC). The collaborative is a strategic working group focused on accelerating the development and use of 100 percent plant-based PET materials and fiber in their products. PTC was formed to support new technologies in an effort to evolve the current material that is partially made from plants to a solution made entirely from plants.

Making use of another innovative source, San Francisco-based Method, manufacturer of plant-based, non-toxic cleaning products, partnered with Envision Plastics, Reidsville, N.C., to create a recycling process that makes use of post-consumer recycled plastic sourced from the Pacific Ocean, reported Beverage Industry sister publication BrandPackaging in its April issue. The technology has yet to be commercialized for its cleaning products, one reason being the challenge of collecting the plastic that washes up on certain Hawaiian beaches and transporting it to the Chino, Calif., facility where Envision Plastics recycles the resin. Since last fall, Method has been focused on collecting enough usable ocean plastic to create a significant supply in order to turn it into bottles, which the company projects to happen this fall.

“Our ultimate goal is to raise awareness that the real solution to plastic pollution lies in reusing and recycling the plastic that’s already on the planet,” said Adam Lowry, Method co-founder and “chief greenskeeper,” in the BrandPackaging article.

Upcycling waste

With a business plan that began by selling an organic fertilizer made from worm poop, or vermicompost, in empty carbonated soft drink bottles, Trenton, N.J.-based TerraCycle Inc. is a green company that has been linked to the beverage industry since its impetus in 2003. Albe Zakes, global vice president of media relations, explains that the company’s fertilizer was one of the first non-uniform packaged products sold at nationwide chains such as The Home Depot, Walmart and Target.

In 2007, TerraCycle shifted its main business model to its Brigade model, which offers free sign-up and shipping for individuals, families or organizations that collect a variety of approved used goods and return them to TerraCycle to be upcycled, or repurposed, into new things, Zakes says. In return for the collection, TerraCycle donates around $0.02 for each unit of waste, such as a drink pouch, potato chip bag or highlighter, to a school, nonprofit organization or charity.

The Brigade program began with a partnership with Bethesda, Md.-based Honest Tea to collect the flexible pouches used for its Honest Kids line of beverages. The program grew from 100 schools in the first 48 hours to 500 schools in its first four months, Zakes says. The following year, Northfield, Ill.-based Kraft Foods Inc. brand Capri Sun joined as a co-sponsor of the drink pouch program, which was integral to the re-use of the brand’s pouches and the expansion of the program, Zakes says.

“With their funding, we’ve been able to grow,” he explains. “Today, the program has grown from those 500 original schools to almost 60,000 locations nationwide, including an estimated 35,000 schools. We estimate something like one-third of all U.S. public elementary schools are in the program.”

In April 2010, TerraCycle launched a program with Solo Cup Co. to collect plastic cups at arenas, stadiums and additional venues. Despite a program’s sponsors, Zakes notes that TerraCycle will accept any type of material within the segment. For example, it will accept any No. 6 plastic cup, not just Solo-branded cups. The on-premise partnership represents an important expansion for the program.

“We’re hoping to go from individual schools, community groups or families collecting on their own and sending in to us to [creating] massive collection points at areas where things are being consumed. Sports stadiums or concert venues are an obvious choice for something like Solo cups,” Zakes explains.

TerraCycle will invest in recycling any kind of waste stream and has developed proprietary processes for certain brands of single-serve coffee capsules, cigarette butts and even used chewing gum, Zakes says. In addition to post-consumer waste, the company also collects pre-consumer waste, such as roll-stock of labels or pouches. The pre-consumer waste is often upcycled into backpacks, tote bags and lunch boxes that are available for sale on its website, while the post-consumer waste is recycled, he explains. The company has created proprietary processes in which it can pelletize materials and offers various grades of plastic to other companies for use in their manufacturing processes.

“The goal there is we’re turning all of this waste material that otherwise would have ended up in a landfill into plastic pellets and then we can help much larger manufacturers than TerraCycle get off of virgin plastic and start getting into recycled plastics,” Zakes explains. “We have countless reports that show that our plastic has a 40 to 60 percent lower carbon footprint. We also know that we’re only a couple pennies per pound off the cost of virgin plastic as well, so we are at a premium, but it’s a very small premium for a very big environmental savings.”

Throughout its nearly decade in business, TerraCycle has seen the sustainability movement grow, Zakes says.

“We have seen a massive explosion as ‘green’ and ‘sustainability’ have moved from sort of a fringe topic,” he says. “It has moved from Whole Foods to Walmart, from the [corporate social responsibility] department of major corporations right into the boardroom, the c-suite, the executive level. We see great momentum from retailers, from corporations that we partner with to fund these programs like Capri Sun, Honest Tea and PepsiCo, and we also see a great enthusiasm for it from consumers. All of that said, I think there’s a caveat for both corporations and consumers that it has to be price-competitive and it has to be equally effective.”

In addition to sponsors for existing or new Brigade programs, TerraCycle invites anyone to start their own free Brigade to collect approved pre-consumer or post-consumer food, beverages, office supplies and a variety of other materials.

 “We’ve heard that depending on how much and how serious people are collecting, there are opportunities to actually save on the tonnage cost of their waste collection so it becomes a cost-saver for some offices and manufacturers,” Zakes explains. BI