An organic dairy was the first food company to pay citizens to return empty containers; now mainstream snack-food companies are climbing on board.

Frito-Lay hopes to build its sustainability cred with an empty-bag collection program that will convert used packages into totes and other goods. Source: TerraCycle Inc.

Turning trash into cash is good; turning it into new consumer goods is even better, in the view of TerraCycle Inc. Food companies agree, judging by the growing roster of manufacturers partnering with TerraCycle on waste collection and re-use programs.

In April, both Frito-Lay North America and Mars Inc. announced plans to turn their packaging waste into useful products such as tote bags and school and office supplies with the help of Trenton, NJ-based TerraCycle. They join Kraft Foods, Kellogg and other branded food producers who work with the firm to recapture and re-use packaging waste.

Stonyfield Farm launched the first “upcycling” with TerraCycle two years ago, paying citizens two cents for each yogurt cup returned. The cups are converted into pots, trash cans and other products. The organic dairy wanted to address the inability of recycling programs to process #5 polypropylene, according to TerraCycle founder Tom Szaky, and the 2-cent redemption became a popular school fundraising tool in the Northeast. The Frito-Lay program provides the same reward for empty corn- and potato-chip bags, though the scope is wider: 5 million bags is the target, and competitors’ bags will be accepted. Some of the bags from F-L products will be laminated onto tote bags and offered for sale at Target and other stores, possibly in time for back-to-school merchandising, according to Aurora Gonzalez, F-L spokeswoman.

“This is a nice way to fill out our efforts to reduce packaging impact,” adds Gonzalez. The snack maker has cut 10% of material content in packaging in the last five years and plans to introduce a completely compostable bag next year.

Mars also is setting a 2-cent bounty for candy wrappers, though no target for collection has been announced. The company plans to send 3,000 tons of packaging waste from its plants to TerraCycle and is targeting a corporate sustainability program of 3% annual waste reduction.

Citizen brigades to collect empty bags have been organized in 1,000 locales for the F-L program, says Szaky, with 70,000 collection slots likely by the end of 2010. The $100,000 bag bounty offered by F-L represents a fifth of the company’s financial commitment to the program.

While recycling requires destruction of the original package, upcycling finds a new use without destroying it, explains Szaky. Greenhouse gas emissions are reduced significantly. TerraCycle’s pencil kit, for example, has a carbon footprint 80% lower than HDPE, the next lowest GHG material used for pencil kits, he says. 

For more information:
Tom Szaky, TerraCycle Inc., 609-393-4252