Each year, Stonyfield Farm sells 200 million of its “YoBaby” and “YoKids” individual, 4-ounce yogurt cups (they’re sold in multipacks of four). This makes up 27 percent, by weight, of all its products sold each year. But these little containers had become a big problem for this forward-thinking company, from both waste and health perspectives. The company started using polystyrene for the YoBaby packaging in 2003, and since then, consumer complaints, based on the material’s links to human health problems, were piling up. Plus, it wasn’t getting any easier to find recycling facilities that would accept the material. So last month, Stonyfield began transitioning to a material composed mostly of polylactic acid (PLA), which is corn-based.
This is a major transition for a company of Stonyfield’s size, especially given its cache among sustainability-focused firms. But it’s also not a perfect solution. For one thing, the PLA is produced by NatureWorks, a subsidiary of the agri-giant Cargill, and a company one might be surprised to find linked to the yogurt-maker, which prides itself on using organic ingredients and supporting sustainable agricultural practices. Also, the PLA cups are no more recyclable than the polystyrene they are replacing—in fact, there are only two facilities that recycle the PLA, and only one in the U.S.
Still, as Nancy Hirshberg, Stonyfield’s vice president of natural resources, told Triple Pundit, while PLA isn’t a perfect solution, it’s a better one than continuing to use polystyrene. Because the new packaging is comprised of 93 percent PLA, it’s mostly corn. And regardless of whether that corn is from genetically modified seed, it’s still not the oil used in polystyrene. In fact, Stonyfield figures that 48 percent fewer greenhouse gases will be emitted each year by transitioning from polystyrene to PLA for the yogurt cups.
And while you’re not going to find any municipal systems that will take that empty PLA cup away in the blue bins, Stonyfield says it is a priority for the company to launch a pilot program to take back the packaging from consumers and send it to the U.S. recycling facility (in Wisconsin), where it will actually be recycled back into PLA, and not downcycled into other products, which is the fate of petroleum-based plastics (such as the polypropylene used in other Stonyfield packaging). And speaking of that other packaging, she says Stonyfield is always researching alternatives to petroleum-based plastics for all its products, but for now, the PLA will only replace its polystyrene containers.
But the bigger impact that this decision may have on makers of consumer packaged goods, in general, is to inch the industry a bit closer to bio-based plastics. However, it’ll be a long and bumpy road before PLA is truly sustainable packaging, and building out a proper take-back and recycling infrastructure for this material will take many years. In the meantime, most YoBabies will end up in the YoLandfill.
That said, Stonyfield doesn’t plan on settling. It considers the corn feedstock to be merely transitional, and intends on pursuing bio-plastic based on agricultural waste and other sources, such as switch grass, as soon as they become “commercially feasible.” In the meantime, it’s also purchasing a type of credit designed to balance the impact of the conventional farming practices behind the PLA. To do so, it’s purchasing Working Landscapes Certificates from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) and Green Harvest Technology (GHT). The idea is that these groups will use these certificates, which are modeled after renewable energy credits, to push for sustainable agricultural production for emerging biomaterials sectors, including the bioplastics industry. Hirshberg says Stonyfield is initially purchasing 1.7 million pounds of PLA, which is derived from 490 acres of corn. They’re buying the certificates for $74 per acre, and the lion’s share goes directly to the farmers involved in the program, to help them transition to sustainable practices.
And as for that other 7 percent of material used in the new packaging? Four percent is titanium dioxode, used to color the plastic. But Stonyfield hit a brick wall when it requested a list of the remaining 3 percent. “[The vendor] said, ‘hey, it’s FDA-approved,’ but that’s all,” says Hirshberg. So the company tried another tack, providing the packaging vendor a list of 2600 chemicals (including carcinogens, endocrine inhibitors, etc.) that they did not want anywhere near their yogurt. The list cleared, and they moved forward, she says.
The full list of products that are transitioning to the PLA packaging includes YoBaby, YoToddler, YoKids, B-Healthy, B-Well, Probiotic & O’Soy. And the prices for these products will remain the same.