The Right Chemistry

Coop, Walmart bring safer materials to the circular economy

The typical microwave popcorn package in the market is not recyclable, which creates waste.
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The typical microwave popcorn package in the market is not recyclable, which creates waste.

Harmful materials present a significant barrier to shifting many products and supply chains to sustainable and circular economy solutions. The typical microwave popcorn package in the market is not recyclable, which creates waste. Even if these packages could be recovered and recycled, they would not be sustainable: A remaining challenge is that the packages contain fluorinated chemicals (PDF) with known human health concerns that not only contaminate food but would continue to circulate, leading to even more exposure.   

The key is a system built not just on the productive use of resources, typical of a circular economy, but one that also uses safer materials. Pure Strategies outlined these strategies for a sustainable and circular economy, which also includes clean energy and fair opportunities, in a research report that demonstrates momentum in this area. Notably, companies are ramping up their efforts and investments in sustainable chemicals management.

Coop leads by example

Denmark’s top food retailer, Coop, was the first to remove the known human health hazards in microwave popcorn bags. The company shifted from the grease-proofing packaging additives linked to a host of issues from cancer to endocrine disruption to a package comprising only bio-based, cellulose fibers and paper. 

Its innovative delivery of a product without added chemicals is inherently safer than the offerings across the market and allows the package to become recyclable. Additionally, the company expects to gain a competitive advantage by tackling this chemical of concern before it is regulated and by meeting growing consumer demands for safer products.

Coop is not alone in proactive chemicals management. Moving to safer products is a leading sustainability strategy, according to companies analyzed in Pure Strategies’ report, ranking above efforts such as resource efficiency and renewable energy. Even more promising, the companies surveyed anticipate additional progress, growing from 64 percent of companies currently with well advanced or leading efforts to 79 percent in three years.

The Danish manufacturer continues to chart an aggressive course. The company made the shift with microwave popcorn packaging in 2015. Prior to that, it was among the first to commit to reduce hazardous chemicals in textile production with Greenpeace in 2013. In 2016, the company established a "dirty dozen" list of chemicals it is working to remove from its own brand products. The effort covers food and apparel as well as personal care products and other categories, for a store-wide approach to safer materials, similar to the initiative Target announced in 2017.

Walmart drives investment

Walmart is the top retailer driving investment in sustainability, according to the survey. When asked about sustainable chemicals management, meeting customer requirements spurred the greatest activity. Seventy percent of those surveyed indicated they already had well advanced or leading level efforts. As a result, the largest retailer has made impressive progress. Walmart reported that 95 percent of the weight of its high priority chemicals in home and personal care products was removed from Walmart stores in the U.S. between 2014 and 2015.

Companies indicated that they plan to focus their investments on identifying the chemicals in products and supply chains. This is key as it is the first step to developing safer products. Ingredient transparency was a critical element of Walmart’s achievement to date, with suppliers required to disclose product ingredients to them and to the public. However, the retailer does not have complete ingredient information as proprietary compositions do not need to be disclosed. This is an active area for improvement, with Unilever’s 2017 commitment to disclose fragrance materials to 0.01 percent by 2018 being a notable step forward.

Walmart announced additional goals to stimulate a sustainable and circular economy in November. The plan includes efforts with its suppliers to reduce Scope 3 greenhouse gas emissions by 1 gigaton and to have all of its private brand packaging be recyclable. However, as the microwave popcorn example showed, recyclability isn’t the only challenge; material safety also is important. 

A report in 2016 found that two-thirds of brand and retailer food cans, which are recyclable, contained bisphenol A (BPA) and carry with them concerns about endocrine disrupting activity. A key challenge with replacing BPA and other chemicals of concern is finding safer alternatives. Sometimes the available options are not safer, or there is not enough data available to support a change. Companies are recognizing this challenge; they noted in the survey that just behind identifying the chemicals in products and supply chains they are ramping up efforts to evaluate chemicals of concern and safer alternatives.

The survey results signal that companies are not only already making progress, but that they are committed to accelerating the shift to safer products. Gone will be the days with microwave popcorn and canned food containing endocrine disrupting chemicals. Within reach will be a future of a sustainable and circular economy with safer products at its core.