Market News

 August 20, 2007
Small Packages Have Big Impact

  Source: Sarah Fister Gale

When Stonyfield Farms, the organic yogurt manufacturer in Londonderry, N.H., conducted a lifecycle assessment of its yogurt packaging in 1992, it was an early pioneer of the trend to reduce packaging waste in the manufacturing environment.

At that time, being a good environmental citizen was low on the priority list of most manufacturers, but times have changed.

Today, implementing green business strategies and identifying ways to reduce waste in products and packaging has become a common and in many cases required part of doing business. Environmentally savvy retailers and consumers have come to expect manufacturers to meet their desires to reduce waste, and they are taking their business elsewhere if manufacturers don't comply.

Following market demand, food and product manufacturers are responding in droves to this demand by implementing recycling efforts, reducing superfluous packaging, and choosing materials that have a lighter impact on the environment.

It's a new trend for many companies looking to "go green," but for Stonyfield, along with global consumer goods manufacturer Unilever and Aveda, the popular hair- and body-care products company, reducing packaging waste has been integral to their core business strategies for decades.

Stonyfield Looks Beyond Recycling

When Nancy Hirshberg, vice president of natural resources of Stonyfield Farms, set out to revamp the company's packaging seventeen years ago, Stonyfield had been using #2 recyclable plastic cups for its organic yogurt. Assuming it was the most environmentally friendly choice, she was surprised to discover that because the wide mouth injection-molded yogurt cups have a different melting point than the blow-molded bottles made with #2 plastic, the yogurt cups often couldn't be recycled, and most of the containers were being pulled out of recycle bins and thrown away.

At the same time Hirshberg came across a study from the Tellus Institute in Boston that showed the lightest weight package per unit of delivered end product has the lowest environmental impact.

The study also stated that more than 95 percent of the environmental cost of a package is in its production, including the energy used and toxins created in the manufacturing process, and that the end-use of packaging -- whether it is recycled, put in a landfill or incinerated -- makes up less than 5 percent of the environmental impact.

"We had been absolutely focused on the end-use, the recycling of the containers," she says, "and it turns out it was the least significant piece of the total impact that package had on the environment. That changed the whole way I thought about packaging."

In response the company switched from the #2 plastic cups to a less commonly recycled #5 thermoform plastic cup. While not recyclable, the #5 cups have much thinner walls, enabling Stonyfield to reduce the amount of materials it used in its end packaging by 17 percent. The decision was supported by the results of its lifecycle assessment, which was conducted through University of Michigan's Center for Sustainable Systems. A lifecycle assessment is the evaluation of a product's environmental impact throughout its lifespan.

"Without doubt, the most valuable thing we did in regard to our packaging, was having a lifecycle assessment performed on our product delivery system," she says. "It gave us a wealth of information on the environmental impact of our packaging that we continue to use as the basis for making informed decisions, and it guides our thinking in all of our work on developing sustainable packaging."

According to Stonyfield's website, the switch prevents the manufacture and disposal of more than 100 tons of plastic every year, resulting in environmental savings from the decreased air emissions and resource depletion from the manufacture and distribution of the packaging, which is manufactured without the use of chlorine, thus eliminating the hazards of deadly dioxin releases during manufacture and incineration.

The new cup also uses a foil top instead of a plastic lid, which resulted in 16 percent energy reduction, 6 percent solid waste reduction, 13 percent less water consumed, and the use of 106 fewer tons of material in the first year alone.

For those consumers who don't want to toss those yogurt cups in the garbage, they can send them back to Stonyfield where, through a partnership with Recycline, they are recycled into toothbrushes and razors, Hirshberg adds.

But this is just the beginning for Stonyfield, which continues to seek out ways to reduce its environmental impact through packaging reduction and reduced energy use. "We can't keep pulling fossil fuels out of the ground to make or create packages that are not sustainable," she says, noting she's not sure what the alternative is. "For Stonyfield, it might mean when you are done eating yogurt, you eat the package or toss it onto your compost pile to return to its carbon roots."

Unilever Goes Small and Mighty

Like Stonyfield, Unilever, a global supplier of consumer goods headquartered in London, regularly conducts lifecycle assessments of its products and packaging, searching for opportunities to cut back energy and materials use.

One of its great waste reducing success stories is the popular new concentrated All laundry detergent's compact, 32-oz mini bottle, called Small and Mighty.

The detergent is three times more concentrated than conventional detergents and the payoff is substantial for the company, as well as for retailers, consumers and the environment, says Humberto Garcia, Unilever's packaging manager for environmental sustainability.

"The bottle uses 55 percent less plastic while delivering the same number of loads," he says. "Over the course of a year, that saves 50 million pounds of plastic and 300 million gallons of water. And because the washing machine adds water to the product, the concentration doesn't change how the product works."

The new bottle also eliminated 750 million square feet of corrugated for secondary packaging, and the company can ship 200 percent more product in every truck, which saves 26 million gallons of diesel fuel a year.

In the stores, Unilever has seen an added benefit of being able to stock three times the number of bottles in the same space, which saves on labor and out of stock costs.

"This is a great example of how you can start with an environmental goal and also make good business decisions," Garcia says, adding that it took the efforts of the several business units to make the new bottle a success.

Garcia admits that several years ago, Unilever attempted to market a 2x-concentrated detergent that was not embraced by consumers. This time, however, the bottle has been flying off the shelves, thanks to marketing efforts, tie-ins to new front loading machines, and a changing social culture in which consumers want to make better environmental choices. "We always consider consumers, the environment and the business," Garcia says of new packaging decisions. "The great thing about this bottle is it has benefits for everyone."

Unilever is making changes to other products with similar goals in mind, including the redesign of its Suave shampoo bottles in the U.S., which reduces the amount of plastic resin used by 150 metric tons per year. "That translates into 15 million fewer shampoo bottles thrown away," he says. The company also switched its Hellmann's mayonaisse bottles from glass to plastic eliminating 98 million pounds of glass, which requires more fossil fuels to produce and ship than plastic. "The lifecycle assessment process helped us realize the environmental benefit of choosing plastic over glass."

Garcia's team continues to seek out ways to improve Unilver's environmental impact through packaging changes, although he admits, the package is just a small part of any product, and it can't be evaluated in isolation. "We want to be sure Unilever makes the right decision and supports the right technology to improve the environmental impact of the product and the packaging. If you just focus on one aspect, it's easy to lose sight of the rest."

Aveda Lights the Way

Aveda is as well known for its environmentally responsible approach to business as it is for its popular natural hair and body care products. The 40-year-old company, based in Blaine, Minn., actively promotes its Green Leadership initiatives, and regularly invests in organic ingredient production, supporting programs in the rural communities where they are produced.

Its business philosophy states that Aveda is built upon a "business ecosystem in which economic, social equity and environmental goals are synergistic," and that philosophy is applied to every packaging decision the company makes, says Dean Maune, executive director of packaging development. "Our principal goal is to minimize the ecological footprint of each package," he says. A big part of that goal is achieved by using 80 to 100 percent post-consumer recycled high density polyethylene content in its bottles and jars, which reduces its use of virgin high density polyethylene by 300 tons annually.

Aveda also ensures that packages can be easily dismantled for curbside recycling by using removable pumps and simple bottlenecks. "We think of it as cradle to cradle packaging," Maune says of the focus on recycleability.

"Using recycled material is an obvious choice for us and we've been doing it longer than anyone in the industry," adds Deborah Darling, director of packaging development.
"Our packaging performance is never compromised and we are proving that it can be done with recycled material."

The company regularly implements new packaging ideas to reduce environmental impact, and Darling recently won two awards for a simple yet ingenious recycled packaging decision. The company produced a limited edition Earth Month organic lavender soy wax candle, called Light the Way, which was sold during Earth Month to raise funds and awareness for clean water projects globally. The candle sits in a 95 percent post-consumer recycled glass container and the outer carton is printed with soy ink on waste that came from Aveda's own printing facilities.

"We saved 'make-ready sheets' of carton stock from other products for a year," says Darling, "then we flipped them over and used them to make the Light the Way cartons." The carton stock was already 55 percent post consumer recycled paper.

The outside of the carton features Aveda's logo against a backdrop of lavender fields, and the inside is covered with the original product printing overlaid with lines of "light the way" text.

"The packaging was outstanding and it flew off the shelves," Darling says of the design. The candle won the 3M Integrity Award and the Ameristar Best in Category Award at the 2006 Ameristar Package Competition sponsored by the Institute of Packaging Professionals.

The limited edition carton is just one more example of how companies can abandon conventional ideals about packaging to find simple yet innovative ways to reduce, reuse, and recycle that appeal to consumers and the environment, Darling says. "It shows that when you reuse material, it can be beautiful and good for the environment. You just need to think outside the box."

Sara Fister Gale is a freelance journalist based in Chicago.