‘Everybody needs to put their shoulder to the wheel’ to improve sustainability, says CBA exec

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty / ridofranz
Source: Getty / ridofranz

Related tags unlocking innovation Sustainability Circular economy

Confronted by trash and recycling bins overflowing with food and delivery packaging during the pandemic as well as near daily stories of essential workers risking exposure to the coronavirus to help keep them fed, consumers are placing more pressure on food and beverage companies to reduce their environmental impact and better support employees and their communities.

In response, CPG companies and industry stakeholders are working together to embrace creative solutions to reduce packaging, improve recycling, eliminate waste, and better support people, according to stakeholders who spoke this week at FoodNavigator-USA’s Unlocking Innovation: Sustainability in Focus​ webinar.

As part of the hour-and-half, free webinar that is now available on demand, experts from the Consumer Brands Association, Bumble Bee Foods and sponsors CP Kelco and Tate & Lyle shared how they are tackling each of these issues to create a more sustainable circular economy for the long-term health and safety of consumers, employees and partners across the supply chain.

Packaging is critical, but also problematic

“One of the things we knew going into the COVID-19 crisis, that certainly hasn’t changed, is that packaging has a really critical role to play in delivering a whole host of consumer packaged goods and products to consumers all around the world with safety and quality intact,”​ Meghan Stasz, VP of packaging and sustainability at the Consumer Brands Association, told listeners.

But, she explained, the pandemic has elevated concerns about packaging because shoppers have changed how the buy and where they consume those products, creating “a dramatic uptick in waste and recycling coming out of the residential sector.”

This increase in visible waste and recycling is compounded by the fact that “even before the COVID crisis, our recycling and waste system was really at a point of crisis of itself, and that is largely because China closed its doors to US recyclables. It really exposed the lack of domestic infrastructure and capacity to process packaging and recycling here in the US, and that is critically important to the consumer packaged goods industry,”​ she added.

In response, CBA has created a policy platform to fix the US recycling system by standardizing and harmonizing the more than 10,000 different systems in place currently, finance infrastructure upgrades where necessary and educate consumers on what and how to recycle.

The trade group also created the Recycling Leadership Council earlier this year, which includes 21 associations, NGO, academic associations and consumer facing industry representatives to develop high level federal policy recommendations for improving the recycling system.

At the same time that CBA is tackling recycling at the macro level, many CPG companies are committed to minimizing packaging and improving the recyclability of that which they continue to use.

The Bumble Bee Seafood Company is ahead of the curve in many ways because 95% of its packaging already is recyclable and highly recycled by Americans, explained Mike Kraft, director of sustainability at Bumble Bee Seafood Co. But he added that isn’t good enough for the company and it is striving to close the gap on the last 5% in part by converting the plastic shrink wrap used on its multi-packs of tuna cans by early next year.

Reducing waste

While improving packaging and the recycling system are visible ways the CPG industry is improving its environmental impact, it is not the only one way. Industry players also are stepping up by reducing waste, and in some cases even becoming zero-waste.

Among those companies with this ambitious goal is Tate & Lyle, which is striving to become zero-waste by 2030 with a mid-point goal of redirecting 75% of waste for other means by 2025.

One way it is doing this at a facility in the UK is by dividing what would be waste into four categories. The general waste from the site is used as fuel for the local power station, cardboard and plastic waste is recycled, powder from the dust collectors feeds an anaerobic digestor that supplies power directly to the grid and other out-of-spec products are used for electricity generation.

“As we look to change the course of the way we manage waste at Tate & Lyle, it is important to know that one size doesn’t always fit all,”​ Anna Pierce, director of sustainability at Tate & Lyle, said, noting the company continues to be creative.

CP Kelco also aims to reduce or redirect 90% of its waste by 2022. Of the many innovative solutions it has found so far, one is to redirect byproducts that would be waste into human ingredients, such as with orange peels that are used to make pectin.

At Bumble Bee there is very little waste from the fish or seafood it uses, but what does not go to humans is redirected to animal feed. The shells are reused as a soil input, to make driveways or are placed back into the water as an excellent source of bedding for oyster larvae, Kraft said.

The company also is reducing waste by helping to recover so-called “ghost gear” or fishing equipment that is lost at sea and if not recovered could harm sea life or the water, he added.

Supporting employees and communities

While environmental impact is a cornerstone of sustainability, consumers have a much broader definition of the term. For example, The Hartman Group’s Sustainability 2019: Beyond Business as Usual​ report found that employee welfare is an important element of sustainability that consumers consider when making purchasing decisions. Indeed, it found 65% of consumers said when deciding on a product or service to purchase it is important that a company provide good wages and benefits to its employees. Likewise, 24% said that creating jobs with good pay and benefits is a most important sustainability issue for companies and businesses to focus on right now.

To this end, CP Kelco  has enhanced safe guards at its operations facilities and found ways to support employees to work remotely to reduce exposure to the coronavirus – in some cases to the extent that it built large scale capital projects to support remote engineering support and new technology, said Brian Williams, VP of environment, health, safety and sustainability at CP Kelco.

The company also has undertaken a robust diversity and inclusion effort, which Williams said came before but has taken an elevated importance during the Black Lives Matter Movement.

Tate & Lyle similar has increased the ways it supports communities and employees in recent years by partnering with Truterra​ to help Midwest corn farmers understand the impact of sustainable practices not just on their crops and the earth but also their bottom lines.

As illustrated by each of these companies’ undertakings, as well as by those of the broader CPG and food industry, it will take a team effort and innovative solutions to tackle the many aspects of sustainability that are important to consumers, employees and brands.

Looking forward, Stasz noted that while “the CPG industry has made aggressive commitments to how to make our packaging better … everybody needs to put their shoulder to the wheel”​ to drive significant long-term change.

[Editor’s note: If you missed FoodNavigator’s Unlocking Innovation: Sustainability in Focus webinar this week you can still catch it on demand HERE​.]

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