‘This is an opportunity to re-invent flexible plastic’: PepsiCo to cut virgin plastic from its chip bags by 2030
As part of its Pep+ transformation strategy that aims to place sustainability at the heart of PepsiCo’s business, the food and beverage giant’s European arm has introduced a new objective: to eliminate the use of virgin fossil-based plastic from all its crisp and chip bags in the region by 2030.
“This is an opportunity to re-invent flexible plastic and move to a circular economy which would have been impossible to achieve ten years ago,” Archana Jagannathan, Senior Director of Sustainable Packaging at PepsiCo Europe, told FoodNavigator.
It is a big commitment from PepsiCo in a bid to tackle a big problem: plastic pollution. If current trends continue it is estimated that there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. And crisp packets are a particularly thorny issue.
Statistics vary but, according to research put together by Resource Futures for the Scottish government, food wrappers including crisp, snack and sweet wrappers are consistently one of the top categories identified in marine litter surveys.
Efforts will span PepsiCo’s billion-dollar snack brands including Walkers, Doritos and Lays. The move away from virgin plastic will be delivered by switching to 100% recycled or renewable plastic in its packets, the company said.
Consumer trials of the packaging will begin in European markets in 2022, starting with renewable plastic in a Lay’s range in France in the first half of the year. Later in the year, a range from the Walkers brand in the UK will trial recycled content.
Increasing recycled and renewable content
PepsiCo currently uses flexible plastic for its snack packaging – the soft wrapping used to make its crisp and chip bags. This offers a number of advantages, including effectively preserving crisps that – because of their high fat content – can quickly spoil when exposed to air. The company said that the lightweight nature of the packaging means that the packaging also has a low carbon footprint compared to other alternatives.
PepsiCo hopes materials innovation will allow it to build on these benefits. The recycled content in the packs will be derived from previously used plastic and the renewable content will come from by-products of plants such as used cooking oil or waste from paper pulp.
The move towards virgin fossil-free materials expected to deliver crisp packs linked to up to 40% fewer greenhouse gas emissions, the F&B giant revealed.
Improving recyclability of crisp bags
Beyond the switch to renewable and recycled content, PepsiCo has developed its ‘Making Bags Better’ program that will focus on a series of investments and innovations so more flexible plastics will be recycled and reused in Europe.
Advancing its own pack design will allow the company to make it easier for crisp packets to be recycled. Currently the complex nature of crisp packaging, which are typically made up of different layers of materials like plastics and aluminium, makes recycling a challenge technically and economically.
“Flexible packaging recycling should be the norm across Europe. Our Making Bags Better approach looks at all of the enablers we need to build a circular economy for the flexible packaging used to make our chip bags,” Jagannathan explained.
“This starts with us creating the right design to ensure we use only the necessary amount of packaging and then making it easier for our bags to be recycled. We’re switching to a different material structure for our packets by the end of 2023 across Europe to achieve that.”
PepsiCo worked alongside packaging company AMCOR to develop the new bag design, which contains ‘greater proportions’ of recyclable plastics like Polypropylene, commonly referred to as ‘mono-materials’.
These meet the design for recycling guidelines developed by the Circular Economy for Flexible Packaging (CEFLEX) which have been agreed by a range of stakeholders active in the flexible packaging value chain.
Gerald Rebitzer, Sustainability Director at AMCOR, explained that this approach makes it easier to recycle PepsiCo’s bags and added that more recyclable and renewable material is making its way into the packs.
“Together with PepsiCo, we enhanced the material technologies on PepsiCo’s new crisp packet to make it easier to recycle. And we are beginning to integrate renewable and recycled content into PepsiCo’s packaging.”
Renitzer said AMCOR is investing partners upstream to increase investment in these materials. “We are building a future where flexible packaging is part of the circular economy… To meet the demands of our clients like PepsiCo, we encourage more partners upstream to invest in the supply chains of these new materials.”
This desire was echoed by PepsiCo’s Jagannathan who told us that one of the bottlenecks the company currently faces is a shortage of recycled and renewable materials.
“Low supply of renewable or recycled plastic is a key challenge we face. We hope this announcement will be a signal to show there is demand from companies like PepsiCo for this material and that this will provide suppliers with the confidence to set up investment to increase the supply, helping us as an industry to overcome this issue.”
Recycling infrastructure and end-of-life
PepsiCo stressed that the right design – one that incorporates recycled material and is itself easy to recycle - is just one element of the approach needed to tackle plastic pollution. It is all very well having a bag that is recyclable but it also needs to be recycled.
“Having the right packaging design is just the first step. We also need the right infrastructure to ensure those bags are collected, sorted and then recycled,” Jagannathan explained.
Investment across the food, packaging and waste management industries needs to be aligned – as does the policy regime in which companies operate.
In 2018, European Union adopted a region-wide strategy for plastics as a part of its action plan for a circular economy. One of the strategies outlined is that by 2030, all plastic packaging placed on the EU market is either reusable or can be recycled in a cost-effective manner.
PepsiCo would like to see regulators go further. “Public policy enablers will also have a vital role to play. We are already collaborating on and financing the development of effective waste collection systems in Europe (through Extended Producer Responsibility). In addition to this PepsiCo would like to see higher recycling targets for plastic overall, and a specific target for flexibles to drive collection, sorting and recycling. This should include mandatory collection and better sorting of flexible plastics. We also believe there should be a ban on landfill and high rates for incineration across Europe, and we also want to give clear and harmonized sorting instructions to consumers. Recognition and support for a wide range of mechanical and advanced recycling technologies will also be key,” Jagannathan told us.
PepsiCo is also exploring ‘new life’ possibilities for its snack bags. Ultimately, the goal for PepsiCo is bag-to-bag circularity which is suitable for food packaging. But, without infrastructure in place to deliver, this objective remains some way off. The Walkers-to-Doritos manufacturer therefore believes that collection, advanced sortation, and recycling of flexible films to produce ‘valuable and durable products’ is an ‘important first step’ towards a circular future for flexible packaging.
For this reason, PepsiCo is also exploring the conversion of packets into plastic pellets to be remade into items such as floor posts and as parts within the automotive industry.
Collaborating for impact
Because this is an industry-wide problem, a collective response is required. PepsiCo is working alongside its suppliers and other companies operating in the space to find innovative solutions on a pre-competitive basis.
“Technology will be pivotal to us achieving our Making Bags Better ambition and that involves collaboration with our packaging suppliers and other companies pre-competitively," Jagannathan said.
“As we look to use more recycled content in our plastic packaging, we are engaged in partnerships to develop advanced mechanical and enhanced recycling technologies. We would like to see more science-based discussion and adoption of the relevant technologies.
“Supply of these materials is also a challenge and so we are participating in pre-competitive projects to ensure more packaging is being recycled.”
This, Jagannathan continued, includes the Holy Grail 2.0 Digital Watermarks initiative driven by AIM – European Brands Association and powered by the Alliance to End Plastic Waste. This project, the sustainability export told us, has the potential to ‘enable more efficient sorting and therefore a greater volume of circular recovery available for recycling’. PepsiCo initiated trials of the technology on some of its packaging in France and Germany in 2022.
A circular future for F&B: Waste can have ‘great value’
PepsiCo’s approach to packaging is demonstrative of the importance the company places on developing circular economy solutions to improve efficiency and allow it to produce more using fewer natural resources.
The Quaker-to-PepsiMax maker is implementing circular principles across a number of areas in its business, we were told, including the up-cycling of production side streams.
“We are already engaged in some circular routes for other waste streams in our business. In the UK, we are trialing taking the waste potato peelings from our Walkers crisps plant and converting them into a low emission fertiliser that is 92% organic. It has the potential to reduce our potato carbon emissions by 70%,” Jagannathan elaborated. "We are also taking the used oil from cooking our potato chips and converting that into biofuel that can power the trucks supplying the potatoes to the factory.
“We need to rethink the concept of waste – it can have great value.”