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August 01, 2021

Pet food sustainability, in and outside the bag

Programs to recycle packaging, alternative ingredients are part of companies’ efforts
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Most pet food companies know that consumers are interested in sustainability. Not surprisingly, then, many have shifted to more environmentally friendly models, and at least some are working to develop more sustainable practices.

The Pet Sustainability Coalition, a nonprofit organization working with companies to employ sustainable practices, reports an estimated 300 million pounds of pet food and treat bags are generated in the U.S. every year, and over 99% of those bags aren’t recycled.

Illustration: A bag of pet food and a bowl dog biscuits

However, 12% of pet owners prefer food with environmentally friendly packaging, and 7% of pet owners prefer sustainably, humanely sourced ingredients, according to a preview in Pet Business of the 2021-2022 American Pet Products Association’s National Pet Owners Survey.

“Pet lovers care about how their pet’s food and litter are made and that it’s done in a responsible way,” said Brian Seevers, director of technical packaging at Nestlé Purina.

Reduce, reuse, recycle

Purina is working to make 100% of its packaging reusable or recyclable by 2025. Currently, the packaging for about 80% of Purina’s products is recyclable, and packaging for another 15% is recycle ready or made from materials that are capable of being recycled, although most recycling facilities don’t currently have the infrastructure to process those materials, Seevers said.

“One way we’re approaching more sustainable packaging is by investing heavily in research and development of new packaging solutions,” Seevers said, adding that Purina is also working to use more post-consumer recycled materials in its plastic packaging and eliminate unnecessary packaging.

For example, the company’s Tidy Cats Naturally Strong litter container is made of 50% recycled content, primarily recycled milk jugs.

TerraCycle, a recycling company that operates in 20 countries to collect hard-to-recycle materials, is currently partnering with 11 pet food companies to make it easier to recycle packaging through free recycling programs.

The process includes creating an account with TerraCycle, signing up for a program, then downloading a free shipping label and mailing in waste packaging to be recycled by the company. Once TerraCycle receives a shipment, the materials are sorted and separated by characteristics and compositions and then cleaned, shredded, and molded into plastic pellets to be used for new products. More information is available at terracycle.com.

WellPet, a pet food brand, is one of the companies involved in a TerraCycle partnership.

“Taking action to improve the sustainability of our business remains a top priority to align with the values of our team and customers and do our part in protecting the planet we all call home,” said Chanda Leary-Coutu, director of consumer experience and marketing at WellPet.

Since the company began partnering with TerraCycle, more than 360,000 empty dry food bags have been diverted away from landfills through the program, Leary-Coutu said. The new raw materials from those recycled bags have been used for things such as pencil cases, storage bins, and playgrounds.

Several other pet food companies have sustainable goals in mind too. Mars Petcare, for example, plans to reduce its use of “virgin” plastic—plastic that has never been used or processed before—by 25% and plans for 100% of its plastic packaging to be reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025.

Hill’s Pet Nutrition is launching a recyclable bag in its European markets this year and is working to launch recycle-ready packaging in the U.S. in 2022.

Currently, no requirements exist for companies to pursue sustainability efforts, nor is there a standard definition for sustainable products. And in fact, much of what is being sent for recycling still ends up in landfills, partly because of various difficulties with recycling many plastics.

Inside the bag

Recycling packaging and developing packaging from recycled materials are just a few parts of sustainability efforts.

Shameless Pets, a dog and cat treat company, has a mission to reduce waste differently.

The company uses upcycled ingredients to make its products. Upcycling is the process of creating a new product from something unused, in this case misfit or surplus food, that would normally go to waste.

Alex Waite, co-founder of Shameless Pets, said seeing the amount of food that gets thrown out at the retail, production, and sourcing levels is what spurred the company’s creation. But the company is working to do more.

“We’re constantly thinking about ways to be sustainable beyond the ingredient level,” Waite said. “Though upcycling foods is our main gig, we recognize the surrounding impact of making and distributing our treats. We want to create a holistic approach to being a sustainable pet company that’s not only nutrition driven but also environmentally conscious. We’re on a mission to waste less at every level, like evaluating our energy consumption in production and reducing single use of virgin plastics in our packaging.”

The Upcycled Food Association, an organization centered around reducing food waste and fighting climate change, has about 10 member companies in the pet food industry, including Shameless Pets and Nestlé Purina PetCare.

Cats and dogs are responsible for 25% to 30% of the environmental impact of meat consumption in the U.S, according to a 2017 study from the University of California-Los Angeles.

Bar chart: Diverse ingredients are used in U.S. dog and cat food
Source: The Institute for Feed Education & Research, the North American Renderers Association, and the Pet Food Institute (Enlarge)

In response to the study, the Pet Food Institute provided the following statement to JAVMA: “Pet food is an important sustainability partner in the production of human food. By using the parts of the animal raised for human food that Americans choose not to eat, pet food makers are able to provide cats and dogs with essential nutrition while reducing environmental impact and supporting sustainability by reducing food waste. These ingredients, called by-products, are strictly defined by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), an organization that develops model regulation for use at the state level.”

One company, Jiminy’s, is focused on using a different kind of ingredient—insects. Anne Carlson, founder and CEO of Jiminy’s, said she started the pet food company after a conversation with her daughter.

“She told me she didn’t want to have kids because she was worried about what the world would look like, so I decided I wanted to do something that would tackle climate change,” Carlson said. After that conversation, she read about how insects could solve world hunger.

After several years of research and development, the company currently sells dog food and treats that use crickets and grubs as their main protein sources. The grubs are specifically dried black soldier fly larvae. The company also has plans to produce cat food.

AAFCO has tentatively defined dried black soldier fly larvae as an ingredient for use in adult dog food. The organization is prepared to receive definition requests for insects to be used in animal food, according to a spokesperson. The definition request process is explained on the AAFCO website, and questions can be sent to definitionsataafco [dot] org (definitions[at]aafco[dot]org).

Hill’s Pet Nutrition has also identified that the protein choices in its food are often a key contributor to carbon emissions, so the company is working on alternatives, said Dave Baloga, head of science and technology at Hill’s Pet Nutrition.

“People are hungry for more sustainable products, and pet owners who also care deeply for their pets do not want to make a choice between the right nutrition for their pet or the planet,” Baloga said. “As proponents of science, we are committed to minimizing our environmental footprint, replenishing natural resources, and leading our industry in more-ethical, -responsible practices. We are evaluating our supply chain, including how our ingredients are grown.”

Because, Animals, a biotech startup, is another brand that is focused on the ingredients inside pet food bags.

The company is in the process of developing cultured meat products, or meat made without animals, for cats and dogs.

Shannon Falconer, PhD, CEO and co-founder of Because, Animals, said, “Cultured meat may sound like science fiction, but it’s not. The same technology, namely feeding cells the nutrients they need to grow and divide inside a warm vessel called a bioreactor, is already used to create many of the foods we consume, including probiotics, beer, and Marmite.”

Dr. Falconer said veterinarians will play a huge role in the company’s success.

“In order for us to succeed, we need veterinarians to tell us what their concerns are and what questions we will need to answer in order for them to feel comfortable endorsing cultured meat,” Dr. Falconer said. “When it comes to pet food, we must all acknowledge that there’s a sustainability problem.”

The AVMA supports environmental sustainability. Read the policy.

Petfood Forum 2021, being held Sept. 22-24, will have several sessions focused on sustainability. See the agenda.