The food-service packaging giant advances recycling inside and outside its campus on North Street
Chances are your lunch from the Wegmans Market Café was packed into a container made at the Pactiv plant in Canandaigua. Same goes for your rotisserie chicken, cakes, pies and a lot of other prepared foods.
Walmart’s Great Value brand and Hefty brand plates and bowls also come out of Pactiv’s North Street plant, which is one of Ontario County’s largest employers.
Pactiv LLC is the world’s largest maker and distributor of food packaging and food-service products, operating more than 50 sites and supplying every major food-service retailer and distributor in North America.
With New York state’s single-use plastic bag ban set to go into effect March 1, concern over landfills, and everyone talking sustainability, packaging companies are drawing attention. People wonder why they can’t recycle foam containers and, like plastic bags, should foam be banned?
While Pactiv doesn’t have all the answers, the company is ahead of the curve on many fronts. That goes for its role as a manufacturer of EarthChoice sustainable products and as a founding member of the Foam Recycling Coalition. The coalition promotes recycling of food-service packaging made from foam polystyrene. Promotion includes funding assistance for programs ready to start or strengthen foam recycling for consumers. Along with encouraging recycling of foam food-service packaging — think cups, plates, bowls, and cafeteria trays — efforts extend to other foam food packaging like egg cartons and meat trays.
Recycling happens here
Machines hum inside the massive manufacturing facility at 5250 North St. Recycling happens here.
Plant Manager Terry Lafferty, a transplant from Wisconsin who moved to the area a few years ago, shows off the 350,000-square-foot plant. Spanning 220 acres at the corner of North Street and Brickyard Road, the campus also houses a 1.2 million-square-foot warehouse and a technology center.
Lafferty explains how Pactiv recycles, pointing to the webbing connecting hundreds of containers rolling on the line. After cutting out the containers, the webbing is reprocessed to go into making more containers. Using a simple analogy, Lefferty said it’s like making cut-out cookies and reusing the scrap dough from between each cutout to make more cookies.
The company buys resin and from there uses engineering methods to produce and reproduce packaging products. Part of the process takes place inside a towering silo on the Pactiv campus. On display in a room at the plant are samples of products made at the Canandaigua site, along with jars showing beads and pellets from various stages of the process.
Pactiv does not make plastic bags. But as single-use plastic bag bans pop up across the nation — New York’s ban takes effect March 1 — discussions mount about what’s best for the environment.
“As customers look for other materials, Pactiv is adjusting and using other materials,” said Lynn Dyer, vice president of sustainability.
The sustainability statistics Pactiv published, gleaned from multiple sources including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Foodservice Packaging Institute and Harvard Business Review, show consumers want sustainable products.
Forty-five percent say they consider a restaurant’s use of environmentally friendly packaging an important factor when they choose a restaurant; 72 percent of restaurant operators say they buy at least some packaging or supplies that contain recycled materials.
Seventy-five percent of consumers would pay more for a food or beverage item if the packaging had environmental attributes they found important, and 40 percent of millennials choose an employer based on sustainability performance. Millennials will be three-quarters of the workforce by 2025.
Dyer talked about Pactiv’s role as a manufacturer of EarthChoice products. Considered the largest sustainable line of products in the U.S., EarthChoice products range from recycled paper boxes to recycled plastic cups, compostable fiber-blend plates, recycled plastic deli containers and compostable fiber trays.
When considering sustainability, “nothing magically disappears,” said Dyer. “We talk about — is it recyclable or compostable?”
Going forward, Dyer said Pacitv is always working to improve its products and methods toward sustainability.
“In 2020, Pactiv will be debuting a new strategy, scaling up sustainability throughout the company, with a specific focus on our resources, materials and people,” the company said. “Given Pactiv’s size and position in the marketplace, this will be challenging, but these industry-leading efforts will have far-reaching benefits for the company as well as the environment.”
Dyer couldn’t give specifics on future plans. But examples of ongoing efforts include energy-efficient lighting, heating, air conditioning and ventilation in all Pactiv facilities, and minimizing energy consumption in production and transportation. The company also minimizes the use of raw materials, “a goal that we balance sensitively with the responsibility of delivering high quality products to our customers. To that end, we are committed to exploring the use of renewable and recycled materials to produce functional and innovative products,” Pactiv said.
Reducing solid waste in operations, the company said, is “an ongoing, company-wide pursuit through its industry-leading recycling program.” Working with its suppliers and recycling services, Pactiv recycles over 90 percent of its plastic manufacturing scrap, as well as aluminum, corrugated boxes and corrugated scrap metal, and other plastic scrap waste.
Keeping foam out of the trash
Food-service packaging accounts for less than 2 percent of the materials sent to landfills, according to the EPA report, Advancing Sustainable Materials Management. Still, the big question is why can’t consumers recycle those plastic and foam products that now must go in the trash?
In Ontario County, discussions are underway to see if programs being tried elsewhere might work here.
Last year, the Foam Recycling Coalition gave Otsego County a $50,000 grant to help residents recycle polystyrene. The county program will focus on receiving cups, plates, takeout containers, egg cartons, trays and blocks from local commercial businesses and self-delivery from residents, according to a July 30, 2019, report in Recycling Today. The grant funding allows the county to buy and install needed equipment, finish building a polystyrene processing center, collect materials and focus on education and outreach.
According to the report, Otsego, a county of about 60,000 with Cooperstown its county seat, is the 11th grant recipient to receive FRC funding since 2015. “More than 3 million additional residents in the U.S. and Canada can recycle polystyrene as a result of FRC grants,” according to the report.
Pactiv and other FRC members help fund the grants through annual membership fees.
Carla Jordan, Ontario County director of Sustainability and Solid Waste Management, said her department is “very interested” in the opportunities around polystyrene recycling. During a conversation with Pactiv earlier this year, Ontario County learned more about the Otsego program and the potential for grant funding, she said.
“We will be researching potential options for recycling this material,” Jordan said.
Canadice Town Supervisor Kris Singer is chair of the Ontario County Planning and Environmental Quality Committee. Singer said there is a lot of interest and that extends into the community where groups are exploring ways to reduce landfill waste. Singer identified Pactiv as a partner in this.
“We are looking at all the ways to recycle,” Singer said.