What is the lay of the land in biopolymers?
We’ve been hearing about bio-based materials for over ten years. I would have hoped we’d be closer to seeing more applications of such materials than we are seeing. Unfortunately, there have been a few applications that set the industry back from a consumer acceptance standpoint, notably the PepsiCo Sun Chips. It meant that everyone had to slow down and take a step back to address that issue of noise. And then, unfortunately, you had political figures posturing and trying to turn it to their advantage in some way, when those of us in the know understand that it’s the right thing to do and more of it needs to be done.
What has Heinz been up to in the realm of biopolymers?
Heinz has been active in building a collaborative around advancing PET bio-based materials with a number of other companies against whom we don’t compete. That’s the kind of activity that needs to be going on, because I think one of the other issues that’s been holding biomaterials back is that you have all these little startups that come to the industry’s trade shows promoting their own material, but they haven’t been able to do a whole lot of research because it’s just them research-ing this one biomaterial. If more companies started collaborating the way Heinz and Coca-Cola did on the PlantBottle, if they started promoting and widely sharing the research being done on bio-based materials, I think progress would be accelerated.
Tell me more about the collaborative.
Heinz, Coca-Cola, Ford, Procter & Gamble, and Nike are part of a collaborative aimed at promot-ing R&D around 100% bio-based PET. The idea is to try to create some critical mass. Coca-Cola had already made some rapid inroads. Michael Okoroafor, vice president global packaging R&D/breakthrough innovation at Heinz, came to Heinz from Coca-Cola, and he was the architect of the Coke/Heinz relationship. But he felt critical mass behind such research was needed. Thus the consortium.
What are your thoughts on compostability?
It’s a difficult subject. Many of the conversations I’m hearing revolve around the definition of com-postability. Is the goal to wind up with something that is denatured back into the soil or something that is broken down in millions of little pieces that don’t quite make it back into the soil? I think it needs to be denatured and go back into the soil. But this is a conversation that will go on for awhile, a conversation among manufacturers, government, and consumers.
What’s next with biopolymers?
Using crop waste holds a lot of promise. Wheat, soy, and corn all produce a lot of biomass once the crop is harvested. Let’s use that for the next generation of biopolymers. With Sun Chips, PepsiCo took a big step forward that was needed to bring visibility to this whole issue of compostability. It was helpful because it brought the consumer into the conversation. Me personally? I think the industrial infrastructure for recycling is so much better established than for compostability that I think we’re going to see much more progress in recycling. A whole generation of consumers has been very exposed to the idea and practice of recycling. I think developing materials that are bio-based and that promote recycling because they don’t contaminate the waste stream is the way to go. If we go the composting route, you go back to square one almost from an infrastructure standpoint. We’ve come a long way. We have challenges left, no doubt, but packaging is going to play a big role in solving them.