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Introduction

The Pet Sustainability Coalition is excited to announce significant progress toward a national rollout of a retail collection program to gather and recycle flexible pet food and treat bags. PSC is preparing to offer the program in its first region later this year to all retailers within the northeast region of the US. Using lessons learned from PSC’s 2020 Flex Forward pilot in the Pacific Northwest, our inclusive retail program aims to provide a solution for the 300 million pounds of hard-to-recycle plastic in the homes of more than 70% of American households that have pets.

Background

According to research conducted on behalf of PSC, it is estimated that 300 million pounds of plastic pet food and treat bags are generated in the United States each year. It is also estimated that 99% of this packaging does not currently have an end-of-life solution outside of the landfill.

Pet food and treat bags are hard to recycle because they consist of multilayer multi-material flexible packaging and the composition of bags across different brands is also highly variable. Mono-material flexible packaging is rapidly advancing in the pet industry and is a viable long-term solution that would redirect pet food packaging from going to landfill to successful recycling. However, until the pet industry adopts more easily recyclable solutions, the multilayer multi-material flexible packaging remains landfill-bound.

As a means of mitigating this landfill-bound material, PSC pioneered the first all-brand inclusive return-to-retail pilot program that collected over 8,000 pounds of post-consumer multilayer multi-material flexible pet food packaging over 6 months in 2020-2021. During this Flex Forward pilot program, over 100 independent retailers in the Pacific Northwest region participated by encouraging consumers to bring back used pet food and treat bags. The collected bags were stored and back-hauled to a single regional Pet Food Experts distribution center where they were then divided among 17 different recycling tests (mechanical and advanced). Of the 17 tests completed, one pyrolysis partner successfully integrated existing low-value bags at a 15% return rate of polyethylene (PE). Contamination was also minimal, and lower than expected.

Click here for the full report on the Flex Forward Pilot.

Progress

Based on the lessons learned through the pilot program, PSC has spent the last two years identifying what and who it will take to bring a similar retail collection program to a national scale. After publishing a Request for Proposal (RFP) in the Fall of 2023, we are excited to begin developing our first regional rollout with an operations partner in the coming months.

At this time, PSC plans to launch the first Return to Retail region in the northeastern US this fall. Other regions will follow in 2025-2026 based on the success and lessons learned with this first region.

How PSC’s Return to Retail Will Be Unique

  1. We are Inclusive: One of the main goals behind the new PSC Return to Retail program is to make the pet parent experience as easy as possible when returning their pet food and treat bags. Thus, the program will be brand and retailer-inclusive, meaning any pet brand’s flexible plastic packaging can be collected, and participation will be open to any pet retailer in the rollout regions. Pet parents will not have to worry whether their specific brand of pet food packaging will be accepted, or whether one of the nearby pet stores will collect this packaging.
  1. Sortation: After a collection bin is full, bags will be sent to a facility where they will be sorted between mono-material formats and multi-material formats to be recycled accordingly, and contaminants will be removed. The post-recycled materials from both the mono-material and multi-material streams will be sold into markets with the intention of returning as part of a pet package once more.
  1. Fully transparent and traceable for all. Return to Retail will also prioritize transparency and traceability. Regular audits will be conducted to quantify the mix of materials collected and the brands represented. We will also be able to trace the collected material back to the retail location during sortation and will ensure the recycled materials go to the most circular recycling option available in the market today.
  1. Ensuring the continued transition toward recyclable formats: We believe this program will provide a viable bridge solution for the current multi-material structures that make up a majority of the flexible packaging space in the pet industry. It has the potential of preventing thousands of pounds of pet food packaging from reaching the landfill, all while innovations for more easily recyclable alternatives, like mono-material flexible packaging, are adopted industry-wide. However, PSC is adamant that our Return to Retail program will not slow industry progress to move as quickly as possible to recyclable materials. Current estimates suggest that by 2027, the transition to recyclable resins will allow PSC to discontinue the collection of non-recyclable formats. Through PSC’s Packaging Pledge, packaging partnerships, and 1:1 consulting support, we intend to continually support the long-term transition needed to achieve circular packaging solutions for the pet industry. 

What’s Next

Thanks to philanthropic contributors over the last two years, PSC has been able to work diligently toward a national long-term recycling solution. While it is very exciting to have a clear pathway for our first regional rollout in 2024, a sustainable solution means funding a costly collection, sorting, and recycling solution for thousands of retailers through 2030. This investment will create a more sustainable pet industry and we invite support. PSC is developing multi-year contribution opportunities including both sponsorship and donations with the goal of creating an affordable inclusive solution for the industry that maximizes ease for consumers.  For more information regarding the timeline for our first regional rollout and contribution opportunities, please reach out to packaging@petsustainability.org.

PSC