Since January, Bumble Bee has switched to using cardboard, instead of plastic film, to wrap all of its products. It’s just one machine, and one company; but the impact is significant — the elimination of an estimated 23M pieces of plastic waste per year.
The global pandemic has shown how much modern consumer culture depends on single-use plastics. The boom in home deliveries led to increased use of plastic, and more waste in our landfills. We’re producing more plastic than ever before, and still barely recycling any of it.
Here’s the thing: Consumers don’t want all this plastic. Many would prefer it if there was a way to purchase food and goods without creating plastic waste. But so far, brands aren’t providing enough plastic-free options to consumers; though, more and more are trying.
“Brand manufacturers continue to search for more sustainable packaging solutions — which can include reducing the amount of packaging used to protect a product, developing shelf-ready shippers, or identifying new material alternatives that eliminate plastics use entirely,” said Nate Smith, Director of Engineering at packaging technology company RA Jones.
The Bumble Bee Seafood Company saw an opportunity to make a small, but meaningful, step in giving consumers a more recyclable package; and considering that significant amounts of plastic waste enter the ocean — the source of the company’s wares — every year, there was clear synergy.
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“To keep feeding people through the power of the ocean, we need to also protect and nurture our oceans; and the packaging we use on our products can play a role in that,” Leslie Hushka, Bumble Bee’s SVP of Global Corporate Social Responsibility, told Sustainable Brands™.
In fact, Bumble Bee had already made 96 percent of its packaging readily recyclable; but there was still that last 4 percent. One area that was particularly challenging was removing the plastic used to hold multiple packs of seafood together.
Plastic wrap, and really any type of flexible plastics, are problematic from a recycling and circularity perspective — they are among the least recycled plastics, as they cause problems for recycling infrastructure by jamming sorting equipment. Few recycling systems, including curbside pickup, accept them. While consumers can return this plastic wrap to grocery stores that collect them, most people find this inconvenient and want brands to make it easy for them to recycle.
So, Bumble Bee decided that it was time to shift from plastic to cardboard. It’s a change that, while small, is significant. Cardboard is recycled at far higher rates than not only plastic film, but any plastics — 81 percent versus just 14 percent. It’s also biodegradable in landfills or composting systems — unlike plastic, which can survive in the environment for centuries.
Shifting from plastic to cardboard sounds like a simple step; but it took two years and significant capital investment for Bumble Bee’s sustainability, operations and engineering teams to make the change. The first step was deciding that the higher cost was worth it.
“One of the most significant challenges that business leaders have today is, how do you manage for short-term profitability with long-term growth and not damaging the ecosystem,” says Jan Tharp, Bumble Bee’s president and CEO. “We took this project and we talked about it in the spirit of our purpose of feeding people's lives through the power of the ocean. Then it started to make sense that we absolutely needed to make this investment and give this a shot.”
Bumble Bee’s shrink-wrap machine was 25 years old, temperamental and getting more difficult to service. Bumble Bee turned to a custom-built machine from RA Jones for its packaging assembly line to begin using cardboard: The Meridian XR was able to meet Bumble Bee’s needs of enhanced operational performance, speed and reliability because of the equipment’s high adaptability.
Since January, Bumble Bee has switched to using cardboard, instead of plastic film, to wrap all of its products. It’s just one machine, and one company; but the impact is significant — the elimination of an estimated 23 million pieces of plastic waste per year. It also means that 98 percent of Bumble Bee’s packaging is now readily recyclable, putting it one step closer to 100 percent recyclability and increased circularity.
“We are continuing to look at our remaining packaging, such as our pouches, and options to use more recyclable materials in these packages,” Hushka says. “There is exciting new technology that is being used to sort and recycle these materials in the United States that we are assessing.”
Innovating with sustainable packaging also helps Bumble Bee meet retailers' needs — 9 of 12 of its top retailers have their own goals around circularity and plastic reduction, Hushka noted.
Bumble Bee is now the first in the seafood industry to move away from plastic wrap for multipacks; and while that is something to be proud of, it’s not enough.
“Imagine walking through the grocery store and seeing an entire aisle of boxes that can be recycled,” Tharp says. “If everybody is doing their part, then we're going to get one step closer.”
The change may seem small (for now, it’s just an increase of 2 percent); but it is often the final steps that are the most difficult — long after the easy, low-hanging fruit goals are achieved. It also shows that brands should invest and act now to meet their plastic-reduction goals — because logistical challenges can very well, as they did in this case, take years to solve and implement solutions.
“We hope the example of the process, where we custom-built the machine and worked long term to bring the technology to life together, will inspire others in the industry to take actionable steps toward innovation by shifting to more recyclable packaging formats,” Hushka says.