'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 the aspect of packaging and paper goods, often part of the office coffee and vending service.

Many operators report more locations being concerned about the environment, whether customers are asking about switching to biodegradable products or more recycling programs. Being knowledgeable about these products and able to offer 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 office coffee service without affecting his or her operations.

"There's a tremendous opportunity for operators to sell these products," said Ralph Bianculli, director of business development of Paradigm Group about 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 green products.

Similarly priced green products succeed

Whether 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 go all green from energy star rated equipment to as many eco-friendly products as possible. He notices that more OCS accounts ask about eco-friendly products compared to manufacturing locations. Also, larger companies will ask, where small business owners assume they can't afford greener products.

Price is still a barrier to implementing green products

Balancing environmental products and price is a challenge. Werner sets up 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 its plastic coated. When Werner suggests something made from corn or rice, a more sustainable solution, and the client sees the price, he backs off the idea.

Single cup machines become an issue when a location is concerned with going green since the packets are plastic and/or foil.

Increasing recycling proves challenging

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 is a real 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 pickup driver couldn't take the load that day, and they attract rodents, so 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 beverage companies, but under the new bottle bill 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 its cardboard. All five branches collect and either bundle or compact the cardboard from their warehouses. The company also tries to operate paperless, getting more orders via email than ever before. They also have started replacing delivery and sales vehicles with greener options, such as the Ford Transit Connect and Toyota Prius.

Increasing PET recycling rates important next step

Polyethylene terephthalate or PET bottle recycling rates stand at about 28 percent, according to Sophia Dilberakis, owner of SD Communications, a public relations company for packaging and plastic suppliers and 30 year industry veteran. That percentage rate is lower than for aluminum beverage containers (which have a rate of 57 percent according to the Aluminum Association). Many associations and bottlers are trying to increase it.

Recycling the PET bottles is even more important now because at the forefront of this recycling initiative is a new process where the used bottles become rPET or recycled polyethylene terephthalate bottles, according to Dilberakis.

"It used to be that you could only recycle the plastic to other things, like lawn furniture, but technology exists to make bottle to bottle right now, and some companies are doing it 100 percent," she added.

Manufacturers are adapting quickly with rPET beverage packages. On the PepsiCo 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 key international markets.

Probably the toughest part of these PET recycling initiatives is getting a recycled material that is safe for food, explains Ron Puvak, director of marketing for Plastic Technologies, Inc. Still, he sees some manufacturers taking on the extra costs of making these processes work. Puvak points to the Coca-Cola plant based PET bottler as an example. "That's a company who did it the correct way," he said.

Bottles become renewable and recyclable

"At Coca-Cola, our approach to sustainable packaging considers the entire lifecycle 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 sugarcane 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 sugarcane 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.

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

Snacks 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 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.

Consumer environmental concerns inconsistent

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 really be driven by government regulation, much like stricter emissions rules have led to vehicles with more emission 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 these initiatives more than 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 products initiative, many of these manufactures 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 real challenge.

Green 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 ECO-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 page XX.

Offer Sustainable products and reports

According to Bianculli, Paradigm's eco-friendly products are comparable in quality and price to competitors, but are more sustainably, making them "greener."

"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.

Additionally, Paradigm runs reports for end users about how many trees they're saving or how much they are reducing their carbon footprint. "We do these on a biannual or yearly basis," said Bianculli. The companies can then use it to craft press releases or show it on their website to promote their image as a company interested in preserving the environment.

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.

For more information

Coca-Cola, www.thecoca-colacompany.com/citizenship/index.html, 800-438-2653

Green Planet Beverage Co., www.greenplanetbottling.com, 312-962-4444

Paradigm Group, Emerald Brand, http://www.emeraldecoproducts.com/default.asp, 866-937-6872

PepsiCo, http://www.pepsico.com/Purpose/Environmental-Sustainability.html, 914- 253-2000

About the Author

Emily Refermat | Editor

Emily has been living and breathing the vending industry since 2006 and became Editor in 2012. Usually Emily tries the new salted snack in the vending machine, unless she’s on deadline – then it’s a Snickers.

Feel free to reach Emily via email here or follow her on Twitter @VMW_Refermat.

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