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Environmental Sustainability: 5 Questions about #5 Plastic Cups

September 20, 2013 | Stonyfield Liza

Are Stonyfield plastic cups okay for the environment?

My experience with yogurt cups starts at the store shelf and ends with the recycling bin. Until I started working at Stonyfield, I never really considered the rest of the cup’s life – where it truly started or ended. Then, I met our VP of Sustainability Innovation, Wood Turner, and now I can’t stop thinking about it.

Did you know that what we might think of as the end of a yogurt cup’s life – the garbage can or recycling bin – isn’t really the key to its environmental impact? All this time I thought whether or not a package was recyclable was the best way to determine how much a company cared about environmental sustainability. But there’s so much more to it than that.

I sat down with Wood to get to know our cups a little better.

Me: So, I know our cups are #5 plastic. What does that mean exactly?

Wood: The numbers on the bottoms of plastic containers help to distinguish what kind of resin each cup is made from. Technically, all plastic is recyclable, so whether or not you see the recycle arrows on plastic has nothing to do if the cup is recyclable. But not all plastics – even the ones you throw in your curbside bin – actually get recycled. Some towns collect them all just to make it less confusing for people, but only a few kinds of plastics can be cost-effectively recycled into other things.

The #5 you see on our cups is the code for polypropylene which is the plastic we use for our 32 oz, 6 oz and 5.3 oz Greek cups. Number 5 isn’t a plastic commonly recycled at curbside, but we believe it should be recycled, so we’ve come up with our own program.

Me: But if it’s not always accepted in community recycling programs, why would we choose it?

Wood: One of the things that we care a lot about here is what’s called Life Cycle Analysis where we measure the overall impact of the package from cradle to grave. We start from when the fossil fuel gets extracted, through when the package gets created, how much fuel is needed to move it throughout its life cycle, how it gets used and what happens at the end of life. All of these things, not just what happens when you throw it away or recycle it, factor into the impact of any given plastic.

So we did a comprehensive LCA of every kind of packaging available to see what would be the best for us to use. We looked at everything – all kinds of plastic, even glass – and found that #5 plastic was the best. It allows us to use lighter packaging, still holds our yogurt, and can still be reused when it’s done. We love seeing what our fans do – reusing our cups for sauces, starting seeds, etc. But even if you don’t reuse it, it’s some of the most efficient, low impact material we can use to package our yogurt.

Me: So, does that explain why we never tried glass?

Wood: Lots of people asked us why we don’t use glass. But the answer is really clear. Glass weighs a ton – I mean, not literally, but it weighs a lot. To put heavy containers made of glass on the backs of trains and trucks would use so much extra energy and would have a huge impact. That’s why it’s so helpful to understand the impact that packaging can have at every step of its life.

Me: If someone can’t recycle our cups in their town, is there anything else they can do instead of just throwing them away?

Wood: Of course, reusing them is the very best thing to do. But we have a great program with a great Massachusetts company called Preserve – It’s called Gimme 5. Gimme 5 makes it easy for people to bring back their Stonyfield cups to their local Whole Foods where Preserve picks them up and recycles them into things like toothbrushes and kitchen tools and reusable containers. You can also mail them to Preserve.

Me: Any cool innovations on the horizon for our cups?

Wood: We’re excited about the potential that’s been created by what we call bio-based plastics – which for the most part are plastics made from plants instead of petroleum. When we changed our multipack cups to bio-based plastics in 2010, we reduced the carbon emissions of our packaging by 48%, which to us was a huge deal. So, we’re always looking for things like that – better ways to make the plastics that we use.

For me, the Holy Grail would be to use no packaging at all - to excite enough consumers about bringing their own containers to their stores to refill with our yogurt that we’d never have to sell plastic again. I hope one day to get there.

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