Sustainability and Dietary Supplement Packaging: Is Industry Waiting?

May 24, 2011

Is the dietary supplements industry waiting to embrace greener plastics?

In case you haven’t heard, consumer product companies across all industries have been moving toward-or at least looking into-packaging that’s friendlier to Mother Earth. “Most companies are definitely feeling the pressure to ‘go green,’ especially from consumers,” says Heeral Bhalala, coordinator of the Sustainable Biomaterials Collaborative, an organization supporting the use of biomaterials.

Candy Scott, CEO of dietary supplement brand Highland Laboratories, agrees that more consumers are demanding “green.” “Consumers are increasingly concerned about the impact of plastic on earth’s environment,” she says. “It makes sense for those of us providing organic and wholesome nutrition-including dietary supplements-to complete the cycle with earth-friendly packaging.”

However, while many industries have started going green, has the supplements industry lagged behind? Perhaps, but maybe it’s because supplement marketers have safety precautions in mind.

“Our focus is on making sure our vitamins and supplements are effective by using the highest-quality ingredients,” says Stephen Rosenman, vice president of marketing for International Vitamin Corp. (IVC), a dietary supplement contract manufacturer that packages many private-label brands for retailers. “It is very important to select packaging that maintains the quality of the nutritional ingredients. It is often necessary to protect the ingredients from UV and environmental exposure, and to incorporate tamper resistance.” IVC offers sustainable packaging options to its customers, but proceeds with caution by only using materials whose integrity is proven.

Although the majority of IVC’s customers may not be switching to greener plastics, Rosenman says many retailers are adopting greener initiatives and are continually looking for ways to decrease packaging waste. “We eliminate cartons and fillers whenever possible. We consider corrugate and bottle-size options,” he says.

Marny Bielefeldt, marketing manager for packaging firm Alpha Packaging (St. Louis), says she also hasn’t seen many dietary supplement manufacturers rushing to go green. “I wouldn’t say anyone has been rushing, but nutritional companies have definitely taken a little bit more of a ‘wait and see’ approach,” she says.

For one, she notes, the cost to switch into green packaging can be an issue for supplement marketers. “A high-end beauty brand may be more able to move into a new type of package more quickly because packaging is probably a smaller percentage of their total product cost,” she says.

Additionally, the process-and confusion-of deciding which type of eco-friendly material is best may also be slowing the movement to green. For instance, many experts don’t agree on which type of plastic is best for the environment. It’s often a debate between traditional resin that contains a percentage of recycled material, or plant-based options.

Some companies may be waiting for more research to be done on new types of plant-based plastics before considering a switch. “At the present time, the question seems to be recyclable versus degradable. Both have advantages; both have costs. But the jury is still out on which method is better,” says Rosenman.

“One solution won’t be right for everyone,” agrees Bielefeldt. “It depends on the product, the application, and other factors.”
 

Industry Pioneers

That’s not to say that all companies in the supplements sphere are waiting. A few supplement manufacturers are leading the green brigade and have chosen to switch to greener plastics. Whole Foods Market chose rPET (recycled PET) containers containing 100% postconsumer-recycled (PCR) PET material for many of its supplement brands. It began using the new bottles last November. A message to consumers is printed on the bottles: “100% PCR, please recycle.”

“As a leader in sustainability, we know that postconsumer waste–recycled materials are the way to go,” stated Jeremiah McElwee, senior coordinator, on the retailer’s blog. “They require less energy and water to produce, and they generate far fewer greenhouse gases, while diverting reusable materials out of the landfill and reducing reliance on virgin petrochemicals.”

Supplements brand Rainbow Light Nutritional Systems also uses rPET, made from 100% PCR, for all its supplement bottles. The bottles are made by Alpha Packaging. “They recently converted all their bottle sizes over to 100% recycled PET,” confirms Alpha Packaging’s Bielefeldt.

Alpha Packaging’s source of PCR PET is FDA compliant, which is important for a plastic that will be in contact with an ingestible product.

Highland Laboratories was the first supplement manufacturer to pioneer the use of a 100% corn-based polylactic acid (PLA) bottle, in 2005. Alpha Packaging molds the bottles, and NatureWorks LLC (Minnetonka, MN) supplies its Ingeo PLA resin.

“While on a plane, I read an article about PLA and was inspired,” says Highland Laboratories’ Scott. “We did stability tests and switched.” The PLA bottles aren’t compatible with liquid supplements, but they have worked well for the company’s non-liquid products, she says.

There are still a few caveats with PLA. PLA doesn’t react well to heat. The bottles can’t be exposed to direct sunlight for too long, or be left in a hot car. “Once it reaches 120 degrees and sustains that temperature for a period of time, the bottle just melts-not to a liquid, but taking on the form of whatever is inside of it,” Scott explains.

Communicating with retailers and consumers has solved the few issues that have arisen. When Scott’s team explains to customers that exposure to such high temperatures isn’t good for the ingredients either, they’re happy to comply, she says.
 

Additives for Degradables

Green options include much more than the choice between postconsumer-recycled resin, plant-based materials, or even hybrids. Additives can be mixed with traditional resins, before a bottle is molded or blown, to transform any type of plastic into a degradable material, allegedly. Additive suppliers claim to each have different technologies for this, some of which work in similar ways.

There is a lot of controversy over which types of additives work best-and controversy over whether such additives should be used at all. “Additives are a huge issue in the industry right now, and many suppliers claim to have ‘miracle dust.’ To date, we’ve not yet seen third-party certifying agencies and industry trade associations comfortable with this,” says Steve Davies, marketing and public relations director for NatureWorks.

Every additive has different properties. Some claim to biodegrade in your backyard, while others need exposure to sunlight, heat, or pressure in order to degrade. Another consideration is that each type of virgin plastic has a different shelf life-so these additives may not be suited for certain applications.

Packaging supplier Casey Container Corp. (Scottsdale, AZ), which specializes in supplying PET pre-forms that can be blown into bottles of various shapes, is in the process of rolling out FDA-compliant biodegradable plastic. Biodegradable PET will be available first. Later, other types, such as HDPE, will be offered, the company says.

Casey Container’s proprietary, organic additive is called Eco-Pure, and it was developed by Bio-tec Environmental (Albuquerque, NM). This additive is already being used for different applications in other industries, but now the company is hoping to bring the technology to the beauty, beverage, and nutritional supplement categories. “We’ve been receiving a lot of inquiries from companies all over the world and are anxious to begin production very shortly,” says Martin Nason, president, CEO, and CFO, Casey Container.

Testing and data supports the biodegradation claims, according to the supplier. Nason says that packages will biodegrade in 2 to 10 years, depending on the type of resin and package size, thickness, and weight. The company is also awaiting results from further tests.

The Eco-Pure additive disperses organic material through the matrix of the resin. When the package is exposed to certain conditions in which microorganisms thrive, such as in a landfill, the microbes will attack the organic material in the resin, explains James Casey, vice president, technical services and sales, Casey Container.  

“The microorganisms will digest the package completely,” says Nason. “Unlike most additives I’ve seen, plastics with Eco-Pure are capable of being completely decomposed by biological agents,” adds Casey.

In addition, the additive won’t change a plastic’s properties, so the shelf life of a package is not an issue, the company says. “Our biodegradable PET maintains the same physical properties as conventional PET,” Nason confirms.

Enso Bottles (Mesa, AZ) is another packaging supplier offering a biodegradable additive. It utilizes different technology than Eco-Pure, but works in a similar way-by biodegrading plastic through the process of microbial digestion. The supplier says that plastics with this additive will also biodegrade completely, not just fall apart in small pieces.

“We’ve been seeing a lot more interest in our additive lately,” says Teresa Clark, vice president sales and marketing, Enso Bottles. The supplier can provide customers with turnkey solutions for many types of packaging applications, including supplement bottles.

 

End-of-Life Issues

Many environmental experts agree that recyclable plastics trump those that are compostable or biodegradable because it typically takes more energy to create a new package from virgin materials than to break down an existing package. This supports the principles that environmentalists live by, including the idea of “closing the loop,” “no waste,” and “reduce, reuse, recycle.” For this reason, some are concerned that the new types of green plastics entering the plastics world could affect the recycling stream.

“The recycling industry is very concerned about the use of additives claiming to impart degradability to conventional resins and understandably wants first to understand their impact on the recycling stream,” says NatureWorks’ Davies.

Casey Container maintains that its additive poses none of these issues. “Our biodegradable PET can be recycled alongside conventional PET,” explains Casey. He says that a plastic’s ability to biodegrade could be a real solution to the world’s issues with plastics. “Recycling is great, but if plastic ends up in a landfill, it’s around for 800 years.”

Enso Bottles’ Clark agrees. “Our biodegradable additive is designed to support and encourage recycling, but the reality is that the majority of plastics are not being recycled, and many plastics are ending up in a landfills.”

“We’ve got plastic everywhere. It’s so awful. And it could all be biodegradable,” adds Casey.

In particular, some worry that PLA has the potential to contaminate the recycling stream, especially if more of it starts to be used. For this reason, Davies says NatureWorks has limited sales of its bottle-grade resin, in an effort to make sure PLA stays out of the current PET bottle-recycling infrastructure.

“We’re sensitive about the recycling issue and have only sold to folks who have shown us they could address the end-of-life issue. The one market that is understandably not really growing for us is clear bottle applications,” he adds.

He points out that the best solution would be to create a better recycling infrastructure so that clear rigid containers made with NatureWorks’ Ingeo PLA resin could be collected and sorted. “A plan like this hasn’t been figured out until now because there has been no buyer [for recycled PLA material]. We would love to do this one day and are pleased that buyers of PLA scrap are beginning to emerge,” he says, calling the concept “feedstock recovery.” Recycled PLA can be turned back into lactic acid using heat and water, and it could then be reused as a virgin polymer, closing the loop, he explains.

 

 

Sidebar 1: Green Growth

Now for a few stats. Demand for green packaging is projected to increase 3.9% yearly, to reach $41.7 billion by 2014 and 58 billion pounds of material, according to the Freedonia Group’s 2011 Green Packaging study. In its estimates, the market forecaster includes recycled, reusable, and degradable materials in the category of green packaging.

Breaking it down further, Freedonia’s study forecasts degradable packaging to expand 13.6% annually, to $685 million by 2014. By contrast, packaging that contains recycled material (the majority of green packaging) is forecast to increase 3.6% annually, to $37.3 billion by 2014. Growth of plastics containing recycled materials is expected to stem from better collection efforts and an increase in processing capacities-especially for food contact–approved resin grades.

 

 

Sidebar 2: Fresh Greens

Exciting new launches in the food and beverage categories are pioneering the use of greener plastics.

Beginning in 2012, Pepsi’s PET bottles will be made entirely from plants such as switch grass, pine bark, and cornhusks. The bottles can be recycled in the same way that standard petroleum-based PET bottles can be. In the future, Pepsi says it plans to find ways to make bottles using the byproducts of its other brand products, such as orange peels from Tropicana, oat hulls from Quaker, and potato peels from Frito-Lay.

In January, PepsiCo’s Naked juice and smoothie brand completed the transition to rPET that contains 100% PCR plastic, for its entire line. The bottles made with this material now include the 10-, 15.2-, and 64-oz sizes. (The company first used rPET only for its 32-oz bottle in 2009, becoming the first nationally distributed beverage brand to use the material.) The plastic bottles can also be recycled again.

This July, Heinz ketchup will debut on store shelves nationwide in 20-oz “PlantBottles” developed by Coca-Cola and first introduced in 2009. The PET Heinz PlantBottle will contain up to 30% plant-based material derived from Brazilian sugar cane. In late 2010, Coca-Cola switched its Dasani water brand to the PlantBottle in the United States, Pacific Northwest, and Western Canada. In March, Coca-Cola’s Odwalla brand began the transition to the PlantBottle for its entire line of single-serve beverages. The HDPE bottles are made from a minimum of 96% plant-based material, derived from Brazilian sugarcane. The bottles are recyclable.

Last October, Stonyfield Farm replaced its multipack polystyrene (PS) yogurt cups with ones made from 93% plant-based plastic. The new yogurt cups-the first of its kind-are made from NatureWorks’ Ingeo PLA resin. Clear Lam Packaging (Vernon, CA) produces the material used to make the cups.