Most plastic is made from oil or natural gas. The PLA in our multipack cups starts as corn grown in the Midwest. Through a series of processes, this corn is converted into a flexible biopolymer that looks and feels like plastics made from fossil fuels.
Why use corn?
In theory, many types of plants can be used to make plastic, but so far, corn is the only plant being used on a large scale in the United States. We expect other plant materials, such as switchgrass and corn stover (the leftover stalks), to be used within five or so years, and we will move on from corn at that time.
Yes. PLA, the plant-based plastic being used in our cups, is approved by the FDA for use in food packaging. But we’ve gone well beyond legal requirements to uphold our commitment to consumer safety. We hired Pure Strategies, an independent scientific consulting firm, to develop a list of potentially dangerous additives like BPA, phthalates, carcinogens, mutagens, reproductive toxins, and endocrine disruptors, and we signed a contract that prohibits our supplier from using them. We also routinely test the plastic to ensure compliance.
Will the packaging affect people with corn sensitivities?
Our plant-based packaging material (polylactic acid, or PLA) is made from corn starch and glucose, which both contain very small amounts of corn protein. Any recognizable corn protein though would be destroyed by the heat and fermentation processes used to make the PLA. We have tested our PLA cups, and the analysis confirmed that there is no trace of corn in the final packaging, so it will not induce any sort of corn sensitivity.
Are these plant-based plastic cups compostable?
While PLA itself can be composted, our multipack cups are too thick to be considered compostable. Additionally, an independent review of PLA found that composting is not the best option for disposing of the cups—composting would release the carbon dioxide (CO2) in the plant-based plastic (CO2 absorbed by the corn when it was growing) back into the atmosphere, where it would contribute to global warming.
The good news is that PLA is recyclable. The bad news is that, right now, the recycling infrastructure for PLA is in its infancy. So this technology is available in only two places, Wisconsin and Belgium, and these facilities aren’t equipped to separate paper labels, adhesives, or lidding from our PLA cups to enable recycling. This should change as more and more companies switch to plant-based plastics.
We used to think that sustainable packaging had mostly to do with composting and recycling. We’ve learned that it’s more complicated than that, and that the cup disposal represents less than 5% of a yogurt cup’s total impact on the environment. By using plant-based plastic, we’ve reduced the environmental impact of the package far more than would ever be achieved through recycling.
Why isn’t there a recycling number on the bottom of the cups?
There is currently no recycling number for plant-based plastics, so our new cup would fall into the category of “other,” which is #7 plastic. But some #7 plastics contain substances you wouldn’t want near your food, like phthalates and BPA, and many consumer groups correctly warn consumers to be careful of them. We want to make it clear that our multipack cups are safe, so we’ve labeled them “Made from Plants.”
Is the lidding on the multipacks also made from plants?
No, the multipack lidding is made from metalized PET. That’s our next step in our sustainable packaging journey. Stay tuned.
What’s better about this new packaging?
The main advantage of plant-based plastics is lower greenhouse gas emissions throughout the life of the cup. This one move to PLA reduces our multipacks’ life cycle global warming potential by 48%.
PLA was the best choice for our multipacks because of the type of packaging required, which is called “form fill seal packaging.” But we have other options for our other yogurt cups, and our Sustainable Packaging Team is currently researching which one is best for each type of container. In the future, we may use plant-based plastic for all our products, or recycled paper, or recycled plastic, or something else that we haven’t yet thought of. Stay in touch with us on Facebook or subscribe to our newsletter to be among the first to know!
Will I notice any difference in the packaging?
We’ve done a lot of testing to make sure plant-based plastic is the right choice for us. What we’ve found is that PLA cups do not look, feel, or sound different than polystyrene cups, and that PLA doesn’t affect the taste or shelf life of the yogurt.
Stonyfield is opposed to the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and we’ve invested huge amounts of money and time in the fight to rid them from our food system.
Through Working Landscapes, we pay farmers to grow non-GMO corn to very specific sustainability standards. They are growing the same amount of corn needed to produce the plastic we buy. So while we can’t guarantee that those ears of corn will end up in our yogurt cups, we’re making sure that less GMO corn is grown, and more sustainable agricultural practices are used.
We are closely following developments in plant-based plastic technology. We see corn as a temporary measure and expect to be using, within 5 to 10 years, plastic made from perennial plants such as switchgrass.
Why not organic corn?
We’re deeply committed to organic agriculture. But we’re also realistic about what people can afford to pay for a cup of yogurt. Organic corn would add more than 30% to the price of the plastic cup, and we felt that was not a cost we could afford or pass on to our consumers.
Are other companies using this material?
Yes. SunChips® now come in bags made from PLA, and Coca-Cola® is using some plant-based plastic in some of its bottles. PLA is also used in some food service cutlery and deli containers.