Food processing

Understand the environmental trade-offs of refillable and reusable packaging solutions

BOULDER, COLO. — Packaging sustainability is a hot topic in today’s pet industry. At Global Pet Expo, NielsenIQ revealed that the presence of sustainable packaging attributes for pet food products has increased by 92.3% over the past two years.

The conversation around sustainable packaging has shifted in recent years, shifting from traditional end-of-life circularity to recycling to include refillable and reusable solutions. This trend is increasingly seen in consumer goods through subscription models for household products, and now some pet food companies are launching with refillable point-of-sale dispensers.

Alison Younts, Senior Sustainability Consultant at Trayak. (Source: LinkedIn)

Trayak, a consulting partner, sustainability software company and close partner of the Pet Sustainability Coalition (PSC), uses life cycle assessment (LCA) as a tool to assess emerging circular packaging options. At PSC’s UnPacked22 Sustainable Packaging Virtual Conference, Alison Younts, Senior Sustainability Consultant at Trayak, discussed how companies in the pet industry can use LCA to determine environmental impacts and benefits refillable packaging solutions.

Life cycle analysis (LCA)

LCA studies can be used to compare certain environmental benchmarks between different packaging materials. These studies can measure environmental impact at multiple levels, including material sourcing and processing, manufacturing, distribution, and end-of-life.

PSC partnered with Earth Animal in 2019 to conduct an LCA of bio-based packaging films versus traditional materials. The study found that bio-based packaging uses significantly less fossil fuels and emits fewer greenhouse gases, but requires more water than ready-to-recycle mono materials and petroleum-based plastic packaging.

For companies looking to explore new packaging options, which can be time-consuming and costly for brands, an LCA is a valuable tool to highlight key trade-offs from material to material in terms of impact. environmental and feasibility.

“Life cycle assessment generally follows a linear pattern where you go from material, manufacturing, transportation, and then end of life is where it stops,” Younts explained. “But if we look at a refillable or reusable scenario, it allows us to have a paradigm shift, and a [more] circular approach, and we [can] incorporate recycling or reuse instead of end of life.

Younts defined refillable and reusable packaging as “a set of different sustainability strategies that companies adopt to reduce their single-use products.” This can be achieved in more than one way. For example, companies can provide a durable container or container for a product and ship the refills directly to the consumer. Brands could also provide durable, reusable containers for products, collect them when the product inside runs out, refill them, and return them to the consumer for reuse.

Canidae kibble refill stations, now visible in some Petco stores in the United StatesCanidae has deployed kibble refill stations at select Petco locations in the United States in an effort to reduce its single-use packaging. (Source: Canidae)

Premium pet food company Canidae is currently rolling out its own kibble refill stations at select Petco locations, following a successful pilot of the stations with Petco in Southern California. The reusable pet food solution is expected to reduce the company’s single-use plastics and save consumers up to 45% per pound on dog food purchases. Currently, only two dry dog ​​food formulas are available through kibble refill stations: Pure Real Salmon & Sweet Potato and Sustain Premium Recipe with Cage-Free Chicken.

In 2020, Nestlé tested reusable and refillable pet food and coffee dispensers in selected stores in Switzerland. Consumers were encouraged to bring their own retail packaging and stock up on Purina pet food and selected Nescafé coffee products. The pilot project was successful and the company announced plans to roll out additional dispensers in the following months.

Nestlé has also partnered with Loop, a circular packaging platform offering subscription-based products delivered to homes in reusable packaging in the United States and France.

Break even

One thing Younts emphasized was the importance of linking upstream innovation with downstream progress. This perspective is useful not only for the refillable category of sustainable packaging, but also for recyclable options. Brands need to consider downstream conditions for collection infrastructure, retail drop-off, and how to take advantage of emerging recycling technologies to guide their upstream packaging innovations.

In a sense, the initial optimism for refillable packaging has been tainted by a deeper understanding of what it takes to make this type of packaging feasible.

“This may involve more intensive materials or processes, reverse logistics, washing or sanitizing cycles – especially with reusable packaging – and redesigning or reconfiguring the entire supply chain,” said Younts said. “These are just some of the challenges that came to mind when we thought about reusability and a more realistic setting.”

To that end, Trayak worked on developing a more comprehensive LCA for reusable and refillable options. The company has identified a few key metrics affecting the durability of these solutions, including product usage or refill rate to determine durability, as well as return rate and reverse logistics challenges such as breakage or loss. expected, transportation and sanitation.

“For example, if a reusable or refillable component needs to be much heavier to withstand reuse, then the expected rate of use must be sufficient to counter more materials [used] in the process that goes into this heavier package,” Younts said.

For rechargeable solutions, she noted that average return rates will almost never be 100%. A usage rate and a return rate must be calculated to determine the effective usage rate, which will then indicate the amount of product that will realistically be returned on average.

To determine an accurate life cycle assessment for these products, Younts said the key is finding the break-even point between environmental benefits and supply chain stipulations. In Trayak’s LCA experience, Younts shared that an impact reduction of more than 10% would indicate a more sustainable strategy.

“All recharge and reuse scenarios should be assessed through a life cycle assessment to determine this environmental balance point,” Younts said. “Due to the nature of these packages, they are generally heavier and made with more intensive materials and processes to be more durable. This usually results in a high environmental impact on first use, which slowly stabilizes as the number of reuses and refills increases. Ultimately, the environmental impact reaches a break-even point where the number of reuses and refills is sufficient to reduce the environmental impact compared to a single-use scenario.

In addition to ensuring that a charging scenario is achievable within a brand’s own supply chain, this break-even point must also be realistically achievable for the average consumer to ensure a lower environmental impact compared to options. for single use.

For reusable packaging, it is important to consider the packaging material and transport logistics by using heavier and more durable reusable bags or bottles. Younts shared an example comparing a single-use plastic bottle and a reusable aluminum container. Using an LCA to compare greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption and the impact of plastic, a consumer would need to reuse a container at least five times to reach this break-even point.

“Reuse and refill is not a golden ticket, and each scenario should be evaluated for your own supply chain to ensure it is feasible,” Younts said. “Circular strategies may also require rethinking your business model and supply chain.

Learn more about packaging solutions and trends for pet food and treats.