Florencio Cuétara is the kind of person who crosses the street to tell people to pick up their litter. One day, Cuétara, an avid diver, was swimming in the Mediterranean when he came across a plastic cookie bag. “This bag hits me in the face as I’m swimming. And I’m cursing whoever put it in there, as if it’s somebody else’s fault,” Cuétara says. “Then I realized that the bag was one of my bags — with my last name on it.”
Cuétara’s family business is Switzerland-based snack company Cuétara Foods, which makes 25 brands of cookies, biscuits and crackers sold all over the world. For Florencio, who was CEO for the Americas at the time, that moment was a turning point. “I was like, ‘I want to blame everybody else for this,” he says. “But I’m not an innocent party here. I’m part of the problem.’”
Most bags for potato chips and other crispy snacks are made with three layers of polymer materials: a moisture barrier on the inside (usually biaxially oriented polypropylene), low-density polyethylene in the middle and an outer layer of thermoplastic resin. From an environmental standpoint, polymers — like all plastics — have two marks against them: They’re made from petroleum, and they’ll never decompose.
Today, according to the UN Environment Programme, humans produce about 400 million tons of plastic waste every year. Half of that is single-use plastic, like potato chip bags, that ends up in landfills or in waterways, where it breaks down into microplastics that are consumed by aquatic life, and eventually by people. At the behest of consumers and under the shadow of potential regulation, snack companies big and small are now looking for a way to break that cycle with alternative packaging materials. The only question is who will succeed.
The great repackaging
Florencio Cuétara swam into his cookie bag in 2015, setting off a four-year quest to find a different packaging material that didn’t rely on fossil fuels. In 2019, Cuétara and Dr. Russ Petrie, an orthopedic surgeon in California, founded Okeanos, which uses calcium carbonate to create bags for snacks, rice, coffee and salt, as well as wraps for flowers.
Calcium carbonate (CaCO3), a mineral naturally found in stone or rocks, has been used as a filler in packaging before, but only in small percentages. Cuétara and Petrie developed a technology they called “Made from Stone” that is up to 70% calcium carbonate; the rest is made of resin. The company’s bags are both flexible and light — they float on water — and the technology is now used by manufacturers in 15 countries including Brazil, India, Canada, the Philippines and the US. “We were called crazy a number of times,” Cuétara says.
For Sean Mason and Mark Green, co-founders of British crisps company Two Farmers, it took five years to find a packaging material that would both biodegrade and keep their chips crunchy. “Obviously the single-use plastic that’s in crisp packets is blighting the landscape and the seas,” Mason says.
Mason also saw a need for consistency. Two Farmers sources all of its potatoes from Green’s farm in Herefordshire, where cover-cropping (planting a crop like clovers or alfalfa after the cash crop) is used to nourish the soil. The farm also has an anaerobic digester that converts farm waste into bio-methane — which in turn produces more than enough electricity to run the entire operation. “Our difference was sustainable farming, so we thought we should see that through to the crisp bag,” Mason says.
When it came to identifying an alternative material, though, Mason and Green were stumped. First, they considered cardboard boxes. “We suddenly realized that we would still have to put a plastic bag inside to keep it fresh,” Mason says. “So we were effectively just over-packaging; packaging for packaging’s sake.” Next they looked at tins — “too expensive and probably too much waste for a small 40-gram packet.” Finally, at a packaging trade show they came across eucalyptus cellulose films in their raw state, and started talking to the producers about their potential for crisps bags.
The duo found a laminator, which helped them figure out how to add plant-based glues and inks for printing. After producing the film, they sent it off to TŪV Austria — a third-party certifier that verifies whether packaging is compostable — to have it tested for compostability and eco-toxicity. Following some trial and error, their material passed muster, and in 2019 Two Farmers officially launched its gourmet potato chips in 100% compostable packaging made from eucalyptus cellulose. Mason, who credits David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II with helping put single-use plastics on Brits’ radar, says his company’s bags take 30 to 36 weeks to decompose in home composting systems, or 11 weeks in an industrial composter.
The eucalyptus film is much more expensive than plastic — over 10 times the cost, to be exact — and each packet retails for £1.20 ($1.40). But quality hasn’t been an issue: Last year, Two Farmers’ Woodland Mushroom & Wild Garlic and Herefordshire Sausage & Mustard flavors won the Great British Food award in the Savoury Snacks category.
There are thousands of companies making snacks all over the world, but any progress on plastic packaging will have to involve a few big ones. In the world of US potato chips, for example, Frito-Lay, a division of PepsiCo Inc., has a whopping 60% of the market share, according to data analytics firm IRI Worldwide.
Frito-Lay North America began its own foray into alternative packaging over a decade ago, with the 2009 debut of a 100% compostable bag for SunChips. Made from 90% polylactic acid, the bag was notoriously noisy when opened or handled — up to 95 decibels, by some accounts — and Frito-Lay discontinued it in 2010.
Frito-Lay has made quieter headway since, and the company has a goal of making all of its packaging 100% recyclable, compostable, biodegradable or re-usable by 2025. In 2021, it debuted a bag made of 85% polylactic acid — typically composed of corn starch — for two of its Off the Eaten Path veggie chips. (The rest is made of aluminum coatings, inks and adhesives.)
The Off the Eaten Path bag is industrially compostable, which means it can be put into city compost systems. The bags can also be sent back via a free shipping label to New Jersey-based TerraCycle, which partners with Frito-Lay on the venture. (Though questions have been raised about the effectiveness of TerraCycle’s plastics recycling program, which involves third-party facilities.)
“We’re going through a test and learn phase [with Off the Eaten Path] as we work towards our ultimate goal of designing 100% of our packaging to be either recyclable, compostable, biodegradable or re-usable,” says David Allen, vice president and chief sustainability officer for Pepsi-Co Foods North America.
Also in the US, Salem, Oregon-based Kettle Foods Inc., which makes the popular Kettle Chips brand, will debut a Made from Stone bag this spring, starting with its sea salt flavor.
Companies that aren’t moving towards plastic-free packaging yet may be forced to in the future, as regulators start to step in. Last year, the European Union proposed new rules that would require companies selling products in EU countries to make their packaging easier to reuse, recycle or compost. The rules would also limit unnecessary empty space in packaging, part of an overall goal to to reduce packaging waste by 5% by 2030, compared to 2018 levels. If effective, the EU could set a standard for other nations to follow.
But the hurdles remain enormous, and snack bags are just one piece of a much bigger problem. Most developing countries don’t have recycling or composting facilities, and in the nations that do, those systems are often broken or dysfunctional. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates a US plastic recycling rate of just below 9%, while Beyond Plastics, a project out of Bennington College, pegs it at an even bleaker 5% to 6%. In the EU, almost 38% of plastic was recycled in 2020, and regulations imposed in 2021 halted the sale of the 10 most common plastics to wash up on European beaches, including bottle caps and straws. But addressing plastic packaging writ large will require changes at every part of its life cycle: from raw materials to duration of use to the nature of disposal. “Even with recycling, you increase emissions,” says Cuétara at Okeanos. “And remember: You can only recycle a number of times.”
Those hurdles are part of why Cuétara says Made from Stone bags are catching on: Packaging manufacturers can keep using their existing equipment, and calcium carbonate is naturally abundant with relatively stable pricing.
“If somebody came to my potato chip company and said, ‘I want you to change everything and get rid of your suppliers and it’s going to cost you more,’ the answer would be, ‘Thank you, but we have no interest,’” he says. “I have to tell you, there’s been almost no calls of, ‘We don’t want to do it.’ It’s an impossible thing to say no to.’”
To contact the author of this story:
Hannah Wallace in New York at email@example.com
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