Lifting the Lid on Stonyfield's New Plant-Based Packaging

Today, Stonyfield Farm, the organic yogurt company, is unveiling a new packaging solution: A yogurt cup made from corn.

It's not the first revolution in yogurt cups, or the first packaging innovation made from corn. But Stonyfield's journey to today is a case study in sustainability, innovation, persistence, and systems thinking that I think is worth sharing.

First, the basics. Stonyfield's new cup -- now being used in its multipack Yo-Baby products and a few others -- replaces polystyrene with a plant-based plastic called polylactic acid, or PLA. Essentially, it's a plastic made from corn.

Stonyfield Farm VP Nancy Hirshberg talks with corn farmer Robert Hawthorn. / Source: Stonyfield Farm.The PLA is made by NatureWorks in Nebraska, which is owned by Cargill, then sent to Clear Lam Packaging in Illinois, where it is mixed with colorings and other additives and turned into rolls of plastic that are formed into cups at the Stonyfield Yogurt Works. The new package is 93 percent plant-based, with the balance being nontoxic colorings and additives.

The cups offer a number of advantages. Aside from the obvious -- substituting plants for petroleum -- PLA uses less energy and releases fewer greenhouse gas emissions than polystyrene over its lifecycle.

PLA is made from corn, which captures carbon as it grows, so PLA releases 48 percent less carbon into the atmosphere than polystyrene does from cradle to grave. For Stonyfield's 200 million-odd cups that translates to reducing its carbon footprint by 1,875 metric tons a year. That's no small number, since packaging represents Stonyfield's second-largest carbon footprint, after cows.

Moreover, the new packaging is stronger than the oil-based plastic it replaces, and offers some other performance characteristics. For example, it reduces breakage during shipping and forms a tighter seal with the lid. The plastic is stronger than polystyrene, so less is needed, making packages lighter. (One downside: PLA's strength dulls industrial cutting blades on packaging machines more quickly.) Because of PLA's higher efficiencies and lower losses, the shift to plant-based plastics can be done at no net cost increase to Stonyfield.

So far, so good.

But it's never that simple.

While PLA can be made from a range of materials, in the U.S. it is made from corn. And 70 percent of U.S.-grown corn contains genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service. That means that in using PLA, Stonyfield, a company maniacally committed to organic farming, is supporting GMOs. And therein was a dilemma.

Stonyfield is not the first company to grapple with such issues. Sustainably minded apparel and footwear companies, for example, have looked at using PLA in their products and have become stymied, fearing backlash from consumers and activists for supporting GMO crops.

Many of the objections to GM technology stem from its potential use to create unnatural organisms -- for example, a plant modified with genes from another species of plant, or even an animal.

Another concern is that genes used to modify crops could escape into wild plants, creating "superweeds" highly resistant to pests, or alter plants in other ways that might cause damage to the environment. It is possible, this argument goes, that plants emitting their own toxins could lead to insects and other pests mutating into bigger, stronger, more resistant beasts.

A further concern is that GM crops themselves might prove to be harmful to either wildlife or the people who eat food harvested from the crops. Still another key concern is that genes escaping from the crops could pollinate non-GM crops that are being grown organically.

Stonyfield found what it determined to be an acceptable workaround: GMO offsets.

Next Page: Stonyfield's "open-book" strategy for its solution.