Packaging Strategies recently reached out to three powerhouses in the arena of pet food packaging — ProAmpac, TC Transcontinental and Dow — to discuss the challenges as well as the successes in the move toward more sustainable pet food packaging.
From film pouches to laminated quad bags to polywoven bags, these companies have a broad offering, and they are looking at sustainability across all formats.
We also discussed other factors that drive consumers toward particular pet food brands, and we talked about whether there is a trade-off between sustainable packaging and packages that offer a unique tactile experience.
Here are the enlightening and informative exchanges that we had with executives at the three companies:
What steps is your company taking to communicate to consumers that it is striving for sustainability in pet food packaging?
Ben Davis: We’re continuously launching new products, and we try to promote them whenever we do. We work with a number of leading pet food brands, so we try to keep them up to date directly. We also do a lot on social media – particularly LinkedIn – and all of that ends up on our website.
Our intention is to educate the marketplace and be perceived as thought leaders. We conduct and sponsor webcasts. We exhibit at trade shows. We’re really trying to convey the work that we’ve been doing for sustainable packaging, as it is a key area of growth and investment. Our clear goal is to offer a sustainable alternative for 100% of our products by 2025, which we articulated with the release of our inaugural ESG report last year.
Sustainability is really broadly applicable, but for pet food especially, recyclability for film products is most important, followed by adding post-consumer recycled content. We also see interest and have solutions for renewable and compostable materials.
Related to sustainability, although it doesn’t always fall under the traditional sustainability umbrella, there’s been a tremendous amount of work in the last year addressing the need to eliminate PFAS from paper-based food packaging as new laws came online at the end of last year. Being able to offer a paper structure that meets these new requirements is a big thing for us.
Rebecca Casey: TC is a part of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition as well as the Pet Sustainability Coalition, and they are really more the consumer-facing associations that we deal with, because we’re business-to-business. But we’ve really aligned around how to communicate to consumers what to do with their recyclable package once it’s moved to what we would consider a recycle-ready package. Either the package is non-recyclable, or you would take it back to in-store drop-off for a flexible package.
Also, we signed the Plastic Pledge with the Pet Sustainability Coalition, which is encouraging pet food manufacturers to make the switch to a recyclable structure. It’s a program trying to push that movement to sustainability.
Michelle Sauder: Over the past five+ years, we have been developing resins to enable recyclable packaging films. As we expand our efforts beyond our proven success cases in stand-up pouches for dry food, we rely on the knowledge and expertise we’ve built and apply it to the pet food market. Our experience and growing capabilities at Pack Studios enable us to design, produce and test new packaging film structures to accelerate developments. In addition, we joined the Pet Sustainability Coalition in 2021 and are working together to understand the challenges and opportunities related to creating more sustainable packaging for pet food.
There are many ways to achieve more sustainable packaging, from the type of inks used to the recyclability of the packaging material to the overall efficiency of the packaging process. Is your company taking a multi-pronged approach toward sustainable packaging?
Ben Davis: We absolutely have to take a multi-pronged approach. The interesting thing from our spot in the value chain is that many of the companies and brands in our customer base want something a little bit different when it comes to sustainability.
A lot of companies have stated goals. There’s some overlap, but there are also differences in what folks want. That has driven us to develop multiple platforms that try to address the different sustainability goals that are out there.
Our No. 1 focus, from a flexible packaging perspective, is packaging reduction. When it comes to rigid-to-flexibles conversions, that’s always a benefit when you do a life cycle analysis.
Most pet food packaging is already in flexibles, so the question is, “How do you take it to that next step?” Options include making the film-based options recyclable, adding post-consumer recycled content, and on the paper side, driving toward a recyclable solution.
As I mentioned, our customer set has different goals. They have different package formats as well. I think that’s where ProAmpac has a unique position among our peers in the diversity of different products that we offer, especially for pet food packaging. From film pouches to laminated quad bags to polywoven bags to paper SOS and pinch bags, we really have a broad offering, and we’re looking at sustainability across the board.
Packaging is highly visible in regards to sustainability. Beyond that, it’s also making sure our operations are becoming more sustainable and that we are making the best impact we can in our communities. Last fall, we published our first formal ESG report, which is available on our website. It’s all of those things together that really speak to our sustainability efforts.
Rebecca Casey: We are. When you look at sustainable packaging, the first thing you look at is: Can we use better materials that allow us to down-gauge and use less plastic? Of course, we still do that. Additionally, we are looking to be 100% polyethylene and have products out in the market for that – for recyclability. We’ve also looked at post-consumer recycled materials, and we’re talking to many of the resin manufacturers about advanced recycled materials. And we do a lot in the compostable area, which we see some brands looking into.
So we really have that three-prong approach where we’re going recyclable, compostable, or incorporating recycled content.
It really is going to take the whole industry and everyone in the value chain to be able to create packaging that is compostable or recyclable, because we have to build up the infrastructure within the United States – particularly to make sure it’s recycled.
Michelle Sauder: Yes, we have a five-pillar strategy, starting with Design for Recyclability. We are innovating to expand the performance boundaries of polyethylene to ensure that mono-material, all-PE films meet the machinability, abuse, barrier and shelf appeal that our customers, brand owners and consumers have come to expect. Design for Recyclability is the first pillar because it is a necessary precursor to pillars two and three — mechanical recycling and advanced recycling, respectively. Creating mono-material films is critical to maximizing yield and value from both mechanical and advanced recycling processes. The higher the input quality, the higher the output quality and efficiency. The fourth pillar is our bio-circular developments, where we are transforming waste sources, like used cooking oil, into renewable plastics. In doing so, we can significantly reduce the carbon footprint of the products in the Dow portfolio without compromising the recycling stream. The final pillar is low carbon, which all other pillars feed into. We have set a goal to be carbon neutral by 2050 and have made many investments in this space to help our customers and brand owner partners reduce their scope 2 and 3 emissions and meet their carbon reduction goals.
Sustainability in packaging is a big focus right now. Do you have any market research indicating the extent to which this is important for pet owners?
Ben Davis: Yes. I’ll give you a couple highlights from some market research that we did in a survey in the fourth quarter of last year.
I mentioned that recyclability and the addition of post-consumer recycled material (PCR) tend to be the two most sought-after packaging changes toward a sustainable format, and our study confirmed that. We also asked how quickly are brands looking to more toward sustainability. In our results, 67% of brands had a goal to be in a 100% recyclable or sustainable packaging by 2025. That number jumps to 84% by 2030.
Sustainable packaging calls for using new materials, or putting them together in a little bit different manner, and still being able to run on filling machines and packaging production machines as they have in the past. Most folks — about 60% of those surveyed — expect to spend 10%-20% more for sustainable packaging. About 20% think it will be less than that, and about 20% think it will be more than that. So there is an expectation in the market that it will cost a bit more.
Rebecca Casey: Overall, many brands have shared their sustainable goals, and consumers want to see measurable progress. According to Mintel (Global Packaging Trends 2022), 36% of US consumers have selected a product because it had more environmentally responsible packaging than a competitor. 47% of US consumers believe companies are responsible for increasing the amount of packaging that is recycled.
Many pet owners think of their pets as part of the family. Human and pet food trends tend to blur together as owners focus on the health and well-being of themselves as well as their pets. According to Mintel’s 2021 “The State of Sustainability in Pet Foods and Treats” report, about 27% of pet food purchasers want to see more "sustainably-sourced" pet foods on the market.
Conscious consumers are also thinking about packaging and whether it is sustainable. In a five-country survey conducted by Yummypets, about 30% of respondents said they're willing to spend more on sustainable packaging for pet foods. And 33.2% said they probably would.
Michelle Sauder: We partnered with Mondi in 2019 and 2021 to conduct consumer research on premium pet food packaging. The research showed that sustainable packaging in pet food is likely to drive brand impressions and trust — 75% of respondents would be more favorable to a brand with sustainable packaging, and 65% would trust the brand more. But this may not cause consumers to switch brands. The survey also showed that recyclability is closely tied to sustainability. It’s clear that consumers want to be able to recycle their packaging structures, and the research showed that younger consumers are even more receptive to sustainability messaging. Our commitment continues to be keeping plastic waste out of the environment. In the short term, the in-store drop-off program remains a valid option to keep clean and dry plastic packaging out of the landfill. But we are also investing and partnering to support a more expansive recycling system across the country, like our collaboration with WM to improve residential recycling for hard-to-recycle plastic films.
Flexible packaging seems to be the ideal format for pet food packaging, as it offers excellent temperature resistance and decent durability while remaining cost efficient. It also has good barrier properties, essential in maintaining the nutrients and health benefits of the food. Is flexible packaging the best format for pet food packaging, or are there equally good alternatives?
Ben Davis: From our perspective, we love flexible packaging for pet food and related pet-care products. I agree on all those points. Durability is key when you’re shipping these bags– from a small treats pouch all the way up to the larger formats like a 50-pound polywoven bag.
Flexible packaging sits well on the store shelf in the retail environment. It also ships well through e-commerce, which has been a growing channel for pet food to get to customers.
And back to the earlier point: Continuing to use the minimal amount of packaging for the amount of product that you’re shipping. We think that flexible packaging is really unparalleled in its ability to do that.
Rebecca Casey: I would say flexible packaging is the best format for pet food. Some of the treats have corrugated boxes, which does not give you the same moisture and oxygen barrier that you want. In the wet category, they use flexibles and they use cans, and I think both of those protect the product the same way. But when you look at the overall lifecycle assessment of aluminum cans versus a flexible pouch — and shipping cans back and forth — a pouch typically is better in most cases.
Michelle Sauder: The most important function of packaging is protecting the contents inside. The best format for any application is the package type that keeps the food or product safe for as long as possible to ensure that it all gets consumed and that there is no waste. When packaging fails, all the resources and carbon used to make the product go to waste. That’s why we work hard to ensure the package is tough with the right barrier. For example, we designed our Innate ST Resins to offer stiffness and toughness at thinner film thicknesses, and our Elite AT Resins offer options for high water vapor barrier and grease resistance. Ultimately, life cycle assessment is the best way to determine the “most environmentally friendly” package. We have tools to help us make this assessment to guide our partners in the best direction for the planet.
Some say it’s important to ensure that your product not only looks premium but feels premium, too. Soft finish matte, paper feel varnish and high shine gloss are all popular surface enhancement options that offer both visual and tactile experiences for consumers. Is there a trade-off between providing these kinds of tactile experiences and moving toward more sustainable packaging? Or is it possible to have both?
Ben Davis: I agree on the value that brands see in different surface finishes. One of the other things that we dug into in that survey that I mentioned was looking at: What elements of packaging drive the best brand awareness and share growth for pet food producers? Number 1 was recyclable packaging. Number 2 was actually surface finishes.
ProAmpac offers a platform of visual and tactile experiences called Signature Surfaces. A few of the ones we focus on are matte, gloss, and soft touch matte. We can also create a paper touch finish. Those technologies were initially designed for conventional film laminates, but we’ve been able to successfully add gloss, matte and paper touch to recyclable film structures as well. So it’s not necessarily an either/or.
One thing that you might see from a standard conventional structure is that you might have a little bit of a price premium to get to recyclable, and there might be another bump in price premium to get to that tactile finish, but we’ve been successful in incorporating them both into the same package.
Our customers all want something a little bit different, so we try to have the platforms that will get them what they need to meet their sustainability goals and help their brands really stand out from the competition.
Rebecca Casey: It’s possible to have both. It’s very important to our customers that, if the product is sustainable, it still performs the same way, it still can look the same way, and still can be as efficient in their operations. That’s what we need to do as an industry in the flexibles – make sure that they can have all three of those.
They also want it at cost parity as well – the least added cost to them as possible. So there are really four things that they’re looking for.
We partner with our customers to ensure they have what they need to present their products in the best, most sustainable way possible.
Michelle Sauder: Consumers have high expectations for packaging in this space. Our research in the premium pet food category has shown that when it comes to features, consumers are looking for packaging that keeps food fresh, offers the ability to re-close, ease of storing and ease of opening. The ability to add these features and make the package recyclable is where innovation comes in. At Dow, we are committed to innovating to minimize trade-offs, but we can’t do it without the support of our partners in the value chain. Sustainability is a team sport, and a systems approach is necessary for addressing packaging waste concerns. Only by working together can we enjoy the benefits of packaging while minimizing the impact on the planet.
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