Driven by consumer and industry expectations, every step in the process of developing a dairy package is being scrutinized to ensure it is produced responsibly.

Creating packaging that promotes a circular economy requires creative innovation as well as consumer engagement to ensure a continuous supply of post-consumer recycled content.

Recruiting the consumer

The California Milk Advisory Board, Tracy, Calif., developed the “Recycle the Jug” campaign after discovering just how valuable gallon milk jugs are to recyclers and how confused consumers are about what happens to their milk jugs when placed for recycling, said Bob Carroll, vice president of business development.

“There was such a gap between perception and reality with consumers and their behavior,” Carroll said.

Consumers often lacked an accurate understanding of what happens to their jugs after putting them out for recycling, so CMAB partnered with MilkPEP to launch a campaign. CMAB utilized a website, social media content and influencer backing to see if it could make a difference in the state’s recycling rates. After the campaign ran for a year, the result was an increase in both consumer perceptions about recycling and actual recycling rates, Carroll said.

Clover Sonoma, Petaluma, Calif., made the decision to use post-consumer recycled materials in its packaging because of the campaign, and the company’s gallon milk jugs now contain 30% post-consumer recycled material. The company also launched a biodegradable paperboard milk carton.

Overall, more post-consumer recycled materials will become available if more milk jugs are recycled, thus driving down the cost of materials and making its widespread use more accessible.

“One of our goals in increasing recycling is to bring in more materials that make it possible and available for others to do it,” Carroll said.

While many might be quick to say that using plastics in packaging is problematic, Carroll said this isn’t necessarily the case.

“There is a lot of backlash around plastics in general, and part of the story and truth we want to tell is when the right plastics that are actually recyclable are used in packaging, they can be reused in other food-grade packaging again and truly create that circular economy for packaging,” Carroll said.


A holistic approach

Creating a circular economy goes beyond the packaging and starts at the source of the materials for Tetra Pak, said Jason Pelz, vice president of sustainability. He said this involves ensuring the materials the company uses are sourced as much as possible from renewable sources.

For aluminum or polymers that aren’t plant-based, the company has standards for how these materials are captured. There also are standards to ensure raw material is being converted into product responsibly, and the company ensures its plants are environmentally friendly and energy efficient, Pelz said.

“We work with our customers to make sure they have efficient equipment, and we have efficient equipment,” Pelz said. “It’s part of our DNA. It’s what we do. We will continue to drive until we have a more sustainable package.”   

Tetra Pak’s aseptic cartons reduce food waste and promote low-carbon logistics by eliminating the need for refrigeration and allowing the product to have a long shelf life. The packages are shipped out in roll form, allowing more empty packages to fit on a truck, thus reducing the number of trucks on the road.

One of the biggest challenges in developing more recyclable packaging is replacing non-renewable materials like aluminum, Pelz said. Aluminum plays a key role in functionality from sealing to keeping oxygen and light out, and these essential functions of food safety can be challenging to replace.

In terms of future innovation, Pelz said Tetra Pak is looking to reduce the number of materials in its packages, and it is exploring other ways to increase recyclability. Tetra Pak is eyeing partnerships with other companies, from paper mills to polymer producers, as shared ideas will be essential in advancing innovation, Pelz said.

TC Transcontinental Packaging uses a 10-step process to ensure its packaging products are produced responsibly and promote a circular economy, said Tim Kieny, vice president of marketing for the dairy, protein and pet segments. This process involves sustainable product development, third-party certifications, consumer education and product life-cycle assessments that evaluate overall environmental impact.

The company focuses on high-barrier films to extend shelf life, promote safety and run efficiently.

“The added challenge of making the packaging recyclable, reusable or source reduce by using PCR while maintaining all the positive aspects of the current packaging has led TC to look at new technologies or materials that change what is possible,” Kieny said. “These include mono-materials for recyclability, PCR containing packaging and downgauging for source reduction without sacrificing quality.”

The company’s recyclable non-barrier secondary overwrap packaging is made from 100% polyethylene and pre-approved by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition for the How2Recycle label that communicates recycling instructions to consumers. It also incorporates up to 35% post-consumer resin in dairy packaging, and it expects that percentage to increase in the future.

Tetra Pak and TC Transcontinental have both signed on to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy Global Commitment as a way of working collaboratively with the industry to ensure sustainability.


Continuing the loop

With many advancements already in development, more innovations are needed to meet future requirements.

Kieny said forthcoming innovations will be more than just product-driven and will be done in partnership with the whole supply chain, from the well head to the consumer and back again. This will involve collaboration with municipalities, recycling centers, legislators, suppliers, manufacturers and consumers, he said.

“Our focus is to continue developing new sustainable structures for recycle-ready or made from recycled plastic packaging that are ready to commercialize,” Kieny said. “We have an extensive team of research and development gurus that test and analyze structures to ensure they meet our customers’ needs – performance, in terms of production efficiency, as well as shelf life for product freshness, cost and sustainability.”

Carroll said there is currently work being done to see if dairy byproducts can be used to create packaging. Additionally, he said the efforts to boost the availability of post-recycled content are important as more states are creating laws requiring a certain level of such content in various products.

“It’s much better if we are ahead of it,” Carroll said.

Leaders in the recycling industry also agree on the importance of such preventive action and forward thinking.

“We are seeing more packaging shift to recyclable materials such as high-density plastics and polypropylene,” said Brent Bell, vice president of recycling for Waste Management. “These are materials that have really good end markets and make the recyclability easier. With minimum content regulation in certain states, we know the demand for these types of materials will grow and the dairy industry utilizing recyclable packaging is critical for the circular economy.”