'Green' packaging solutions break into vending and OCS

Going “green” should be part of every operator’s corporate commitment, but also part of the services he or she offers to locations. While there are many aspects of going “green,” this article will focus on packaging and paper goods used in vending and OCS.

Many operators report more locations being concerned about the environment, whether customers are asking about switching to biodegradable products or having recycling programs. Being knowledgeable about these products and offering the best value to locations is imperative in the eco-friendly packaging and paper goods market.

Additionally, using the programs and sustainability information from the national brands can help an operator offer “green” solutions in vending and OCS without affecting operations in an adverse way.

“There’s a tremendous opportunity for operators to sell these products,” said Ralph Bianculli, director of business development of Paradigm Group, concerning environmentally friendly products. Paradigm offers a line of “green” products called the Emerald brand, which includes cutlery made from corn starch to toilet paper made of sugar cane stalks.

“Our green sales from 2009 to 2010 were up 123 percent in green products,” said Bianculli. The increase was driven by more customers asking for them.

Competitive pricing helps

Whether or not a location is looking for environmentally-friendly options depends greatly on its size and management, according to Carey Werner, regional director for Answer Vending in Farmingdale, N.Y. “At locations with 150 or more people, products that are green are a major selling factor,” he said. The eco-friendly toilet paper, paper towels, etc. are lower in price and very competitive, although the end user will still notice a difference between the green product and a premium, name brand product like Cottonelle or Bounty.

“When (companies) talk green with me, it’s mostly about image,” said Werner. He recently had a law firm that wanted to use as many eco-friendly products as possible. He noticed that more OCS accounts ask about eco-friendly products compared to vending locations. Also, larger companies will ask, where small business owners assume they can’t afford greener products.

Price is still a barrier

Balancing environmental products and price is a challenge. Werner offers an example using a coffee cup. The client is concerned about the environmental impact of Styrofoam, so they want to switch to paper cups. Paper costs twice as much, and the cup is plastic coated. When Werner suggests something made from corn or rice, a more sustainable solution, and the client sees the price, he backs off.

Single-cup brewers also become an issue when a location is concerned with going green if the packets are plastic and/or foil.

recycling challenges some

Recycling programs are part of the sustainable packaging process because they reuse containers and provide recycled material for new containers. However, these initiatives still have problems. Where Werner is located, in the tri-state area, recycling has a logistics challenge.

“I personally did start a recycling program at locations with our beverages, but it became a major issue,” said Werner. Tens of thousands of containers had to be stored somewhere when the driver couldn’t take the load that day, and they attract rodents, so they must be stored outside and washed. “We still do it,” said Werner, despite the challenges.

New York also recently changed its laws about uncollected deposits from beverage containers. The previous, unclaimed 5-cent minimum refundable deposit per beverage used to be kept by service providers, but under the new bottle law, 80 percent of the unredeemed deposits are required to go to the state general fund. “Not enough people are recycling, so they are putting the onus on the vendor,” added Werner.

Another thing Answer Vending recycles is cardboard. All five company branches collect and either bundle or compact the cardboard from their warehouses. The company also tries to operate paperlessly, getting more orders via email than before.

Next step: Increasing PET recycling

Polyethylene terephthalate or PET bottle recycling rates stand at about 28 percent, according to the 2009 Report on Post Consumer PET Container Recycling Activity. That rate is lower than for aluminum beverage containers, which have a rate of 57 percent, according to the Aluminum Association.

The majority of PET bottles collected during recycling efforts are currently being turned into “rPET,” or recycled polyethylene terephthalate, via relatively new processing technologies. This means that old bottles can be used to create new containers, according to Sophia Dilberakis, a 30-year industry veteran and owner of SD Communications, a public relations company which specializes in representing packaging and plastic suppliers.

“It used to be that you could only use the recycled plastic to create other things, such as lawn furniture, but technology has been developed which now makes ‘bottle-to-bottle’ possible, and some companies are using up to 100 percent rPET,” she said.

Beverage companies have embraced rPET as part of their packaging strategy. On the PepsiCo Inc. corporate site, the company vows to incorporate at least 10 percent rPET in its primary soft drink containers in the U.S., and broadly expand the use of rPET across international markets.

The toughest part of these PET recycling initiatives is getting a recycled material that is safe for food, explained Ron Puvak, director of marketing for Plastic Technologies, Inc. Still, he sees some manufacturers taking on the extra costs of making these processes work. “Examples such as the recent developments in bio-derived technology, (such as) Coca-Cola’s Plant Bottle, show the potential for the future of these materials,” he said.

renewable and recyclable bottles

“At Coca-Cola, our approach to sustainable packaging considers the entire life cycle of our packages, from their initial design to the recycling infrastructure in the marketplace,” said Scott Vitters, general manager of PlantBottle™ Packaging at The Coca-Cola Co.

The Coca-Cola PlantBottle is a PET plastic bottle that contains up to 30 percent plant-based material and is 100 percent recyclable. It looks and functions just like traditional PET plastic and the plant material used in the bottles is sustainably sourced from sugar cane ethanol in Brazil.

“Our use of the PlantBottle package in 2010 enabled us to eliminate almost 30,000 metric tons of CO2, the equivalent of 60,000 barrels of oil from our PET plastic bottles,” explained Vitters. “In 2011, we are expanding PlantBottle to all Dasani packages in the U.S. As a company, we are continuing to take steps to transition all our plastic bottles to PlantBottle packaging by 2020.”

Additionally, starting in April 2011, the Odwalla packages in the U.S. will be made using up to 100 percent plant-based material. The current bottles are made from HDPE (high density polyethylene) plastic which needs ethylene. Ethylene can be made entirely from sugar cane based ethanol, a renewable resource.

One important distinction in the PET bottle industry is the difference between a biodegradable bottle and a PlantBottle. According to Vitters, typically, biodegradable bottles are made with corn-based polylactic acid (PLA), instead of PET.

PLA is compostable in industrial composting facilities, but is not recyclable in current recycling facilities.

There are also other biodegradable bottles available to operators.

Continental Dining Services in Sterling Heights, Mich. recently met a college’s request for biodegradable water bottles by offering such a product from Chicago-based Green Planet Beverage Co.

Just last month, PepsiCo announced its new “green” PET bottle, produced from 100 percent plant-based, renewable resources. The “green” bottle pilot program is scheduled for 2012.

Snack packages become compostable

Another common type of packaging is the flexible material used in snack packages and candy wrappers. While these remain relatively unchanged as far as eco-friendly materials, there have been some manufacturers taking a lead role.

Frito-Lay introduced a biodegradable bag for its Sun Chips line of snacks in April of 2009. Unfortunately, the bag was met with a lot of negative comments about the noise when it opened. Many operators remember the customer comments.

This year, Frito-Lay has come out with a quieter version of the eco-friendly bag. The company is limiting the introduction of the new package to only the original chip flavor and asking consumers to comment about the bag on social media Websites like Facebook. It is not yet available to vending.

customer concern comes in waves

Randy Parks, owner and founder of ProStar Services, Inc. in Carrollton, Texas, finds requests for environmentally friendly products come in waves. “It’s high on people’s social agendas, then it wanes, then comes back even stronger,” he said. He believes it will be rising in the coming months due to the increasing oil prices. He also believes it will be driven by government regulation, much like stricter emissions rules have led to vehicles with more restrictive equipment.

Parks has both a vending business and OCS business, but the vending side has almost no sustainable packaging efforts outside of what manufacturers are doing. He notices most end users aren’t asking for anything beyond a recycling program. “On the coffee side, however, we are selling a lot more paper cups than we were before,” said Parks, “although we still sell more Styrofoam overall.”

Perhaps because it’s the coffee customers driving the environmentally friendly products initiative, many of these manufacturers are racing to make greener packaging. Parks runs a roasting plant and buys film to package his coffee. Recently, there were claims about a recyclable film that could still maintain the freshness of the coffee. “It can do that,” said Parks, “But it doesn’t want to roll and stretch through the machine like the oil-based products.” He admits finding a product that’s green, protects freshness, has printability and “machinablity” is a challenge.

eco-packages worth investment

“I think it’s an opportunity for some vendors who can have products that are recyclable, compostable or made from renewable resources,” said Parks. “There’s a big opportunity for green packaging.”

Parks dedicates a section of his company’s Website to green products. He clearly spells out what the products are made of and whether they are compostable. The products include cups, cutlery and straws. The site includes clear labeling and definitions, which are important when advertising these types of products.

The Environmental Protection Agency and Federal Trade Commission are actively engaged in monitoring green marketing wording so consumers aren’t fooled by claims that mean very little. (See the sidebar on the opposite page.)

Offer products and reports

“Sustainable, in our category, means being able to use a product that’s made in a more environmentally preferable way and disposed of in a more efficient way, and that is also cost effective…(sustainable products) shouldn’t cost more,” said Bianculli of Paradigm.

Additionally, “green” reports such as those showing how many trees the end user is saving are available from Paradigm.

“The decision maker for OCS is usually the same for facility products, so it’s an easy conversion to make and being about to offer similarly priced environmental products is a win-win,” added Bianculli.