Nancy Hirshberg Of Stonyfield Farm On End Of Life, PLA In Packaging & More

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Intertech Pira

Nancy Hirshberg, Vice President of Strategic Initiatives, Stonyfield Farm, Inc., has worked at the nexus of food, business and the environment for nearly two decades, emerging as one of the field’s thought leaders. Nancy will presenting at the Biopolymers Symposium 2011 on Sustainability Factors in Stonyfield’s Decision to use PLA for its Multipack Yogurt Cups the morning Tuesday, September 27th in the Moving Toward Sustainable Biopolymers session, but provided us with a preview of her presentation.

Stonyfield Farm started a trend in the yogurt industry on the use of PLA for the yogurt cups, recently we saw that Danone in Germany is following your steps, do you foresee this trend spreading across the dairy industry? Are there any barriers or concerns that need to be addressed in order to achieve this across the board?

One of the challenges is capacity as there is currently not enough PLA to replace the PS used in dairy. Also, if like Danone Germany other companies were to purchase Working Landscapes Certificates (WLCs) to offset the GMOs and other non-sustainable agricultural practices used in growing the corn feedstock, it would take time to transition farmers to the Working Landscape practices. From 2010 to 2011 the number of farms transitioning to meet the WLC sustainable agriculture growing standards tripled. Additionally finding enough non-genetically engineered corn seed could be a challenge, but it’s exactly the kind of challenge we all want to take on! It’s using the marketplace to drive more sustainable production of bioplastic feedstock and creating a market for non-GMO corn.

Can you please share with us your experience on the end of life side of things? How did you communicate to the consumer what to do with the PLA cups once the product is consumed? I know that you will be covering the end of life recovery strategy at the symposium, but could you give us a preview?

We moved to PLA from PS because we believe strongly that the benefits of PLA outweigh PS, including reduced global warming impact. PLA and PS currently essentially have the same end of life scenario which is trash. We never wanted to invest in the PS recycling infrastructure because we wanted to get out of PS. PLA has two potential recovery streams- composting and chemical recovery where the PLA is broken back down into lactic acid and made back into PLA. There are two places to chemically recover PLA now. We’ve sent a load to one of them and are working on the other. Once we have the system in place to recycle the PLA back into lactic acid, and create what Bill McDonough calls the technical nutrient cycle, we will start with recycling pilots. We were not really thinking of pursuing the composting path because we love the technical nutrient route, but we’ve been convinced by some people in the solid waste community that compostable packaging has some benefits to municipal recovery programs so it’s been put back on the table as as option. As for what we tell consumers, everything I just said here. We’re committed to transparency and explaining what we’re doing and why.

Are there plans to move to PLA (or any other bioplastic) for the packaging of your other products?
We believe moving to PLA to replace the PS was a clear win. Our other packaging formats have options that the PS thermoformed packaging did not have- such as paper, recycled content, etc. Our Sustainable Packaging Team is currently researching more sustainable alternatives for all of our packaging. Stay tuned……

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