CHARLOTTE, NC. – Plastic waste has become an ongoing problem that consumer products companies are grappling with as consumers demand solutions for single-use plastics. At SNAXPO21, held August 22-24, Todd Fayne, Associate Director, Global Snacks R&D, PepsiCo, Inc., Purchase, NY, outlined North America’s largest snack manufacturer’s strategy to address its plastic waste role.
“PepsiCo envisions a world where plastics never go to waste,” he said. “Our philosophy is to give plastic an alternative end to life.”
There are many ways PepsiCo can achieve this goal, whether it be through reconfiguration of packaging, new materials, or even systemic changes in recycling approaches.
PepsiCo’s strategy focuses on three principles: reduce, recycle and reinvent. By reducing the packaging size, the company can save not only plastic, but money and improve the consumer perspective.
“One of the biggest complaints about our bags is the space they take up and we know this is caused by product buildup,” said Mr. Fayne. “We are working on improving the early familiarization with the product and improving these metrics.”
PepsiCo’s investment in recycling programs is aimed at the systemic changes that need to be made to optimize the effects of recyclability. Much of this work is focused on Europe and includes the latest technologies and strategies for identifying and sorting plastic waste.
This requires working with local governments, regulators, food manufacturers, and the Association of Plastics Recycling to drive the collection and disposal of the waste. Mr Fayne also explained that Europe is moving towards chemical recycling: the packaging is being broken down into its components to obtain new resin that can be reused.
“We support this because we know that there will not be a system that works worldwide,” he said. “We’re going to have to have different kinds of strategies to combat this.”
However, these new technologies and systems require some changes to the packaging itself. For example, bags must be made either entirely of polyethylene or entirely of polypropylene, so PepsiCo responded by removing as much polyethylene as possible from the packaging.
“We were able to get more than 90% and in some cases more than 95% polypropylene,” he said. “This gives recyclers a cleaner starting point than mixed plastics.”
Mr. Fayne also spoke about digital watermarks that can identify the packaging material for the vision system that sorts recyclable materials. And then there is the exciting prospect of how artificial intelligence can improve sorting systems.
“I think what happens in this area is going to be one of those breakthroughs we need in terms of film waste,” he said. “You can teach these computers, and with just a small amount, they can tell which bags are made of which material.”
In North America, PepsiCo chose to focus on investing in compostable packaging for a number of reasons. While not many Americans compost food waste, PepsiCo sees it as a valuable task for two main reasons. First and foremost is the topic of garbage. Although all garbage is bad for the environment – whether in the sea or on land – branded garbage damages the image of the company.
“If there is trash on the beach or in the park and it’s a Doritos or Cheetos bag that will likely be one of us, it’s not a good brand image,” said Mr Fayne.
While the company doesn’t want its packages to land in landfills, parks, or the ocean, the harsh reality is that at least some of them will. By investing in compostable packaging, PepsiCo ensures that it doesn’t last long.
Second, PepsiCo sees compostable packaging becoming more common in the future and one of the many strategies companies are pursuing and consumers are adopting regarding single-use packaging.
PepsiCo focuses on polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) and not on packaging made from polyacetic acid (PLA). However, one of the biggest challenges with compostable packaging is communicating and educating consumers. It’s complicated to say how long the packaging will last in the environment, explained Mr Fayne, as temperature, humidity and soil all have an impact on this timeline. This makes it easy for consumers and observation groups to call CPG companies who are seeking compostable packaging for failing to meet their commitments.
“The communication aspect of this is something that hasn’t been fully figured out,” he said. “As an industry, we are struggling with this: How can we not only market them properly, but also educate consumers and governments about how these polymers work.”
As technology improves and snack manufacturers introduce packaging alternatives, consumer education will be another issue they need to address.