Photo courtesy of Gerber

In May, Gerber replaced its multilayer baby food pouch with a single-material pouch that is designed to be easy to recycle.

“While baby food pouches are valued by consumers for their convenience, durability and light weight, most are considered ‘hard-to-recycle’ in the U.S.,” says Sina Hilbert, a brand manager and sustainability lead at Gerber, Florham Park, New Jersey.

“Gerber is committed to making 100 percent of our packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025, and moving from a multimaterial to a single-material pouch—as we’ve done with the industry-first IncrediPouch—promotes the development of better recycling infrastructure by creating more value for the recycling industry.”

Gerber says its commitment to sustainability connects to its dedication to its consumers and the next generation—babies.

“We believe the baby food industry should help create a world where babies thrive,” Hilbert says.

Designing for recyclability

Nestlé subsidiary Gerber launched its first baby food pouch in 2011 using a multimaterial structure made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), aluminum foil and polyethylene (PE), which has become the industry standard, according to the company.

Justin Welke, packaging project manager at Nestlé, who works in Grand Rapids, Michigan, says the company began the transition to a nonfoil, multilaminate structure in 2017 to provide transparent and window options so consumers could see the product inside the pouch.

“In 2017, we identified a single- material pouch as the goal for our next sustainable packaging innovation,” says Tony Dzikowicz, the associate director of packaging at Nestlé. “From there, we explored 20 different vendors before landing on Gualapack—a world leader in premade spouted pouches that we’d worked with previously. Together, we experimented with five iterations of the pouch before bringing the industry’s first single-material pouch to market.”

Dzikowicz says the process took more than two years.

All elements of the stand-up pouches, cap and spout included, are made from the same material, polypropylene (PP), which is one of the most common and versatile forms of plastic.

In Europe, the pouch has obtained certification from Germany-based Institute Cyclos–HTP GmbH, with a 98 percent recyclability score. The pouch also was certified for its recyclability by Interseroh Dienstleistungs GmbH, an environmental service provider that also is based in Germany, receiving a perfect score, according to Gualapack, which is headquartered in Italy and has North American operations based in Mexico.

The pouch offers a high oxygen and water-vapor barrier for shelf-stable products that undergo hot-filling and pasteurization, such as baby food, as well as for less demanding cold-filled or dairy applications, the manufacturer says.

The single-material IncrediPouch, as Gerber has dubbed it, is the latest initiative in the company’s journey to make its packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025.

Gerber chose to launch this product exclusively on its e-commerce website before rolling it out to brick-and-mortar retailers because proved the quickest way to get the product to market and also gave it the opportunity to gain market experience before hitting stores, Hilbert says.

When designing the IncrediPouch, “food safety, sustainability and performance were our top priorities, with a focus on recyclability, ease-of-use, shelf life and durability,” she says. To address these considerations, Gerber identified new filling parameters and barrier solutions to ensure the quality and performance of its pouch.

Throughout the design process, Hilbert says, the company worked closely with its packaging and production teams to guarantee the package design would work well with Gerber’s existing infrastructure, such as the filling process.

“This was a big effort across multiple teams within Gerber, as well as our vendor, Gualapack,” she adds. “The end result is a product that delivers on sustainability without compromising on efficiency or quality.”

“Moving to a single-material structure increases the value of the recycled material for the recycling industry, promoting the development of better recycling infrastructure and encouraging a circular economy approach to plastics,” Welke says.

Spreading the word

The pouch is 100 percent recyclable through a national recycling program Gerber launched with TerraCycle, Trenton, New Jersey. To ensure consumers are aware of the pouch’s recyclability, the TerraCycle logo with instructions to “Recycle Through TerraCycle” are featured on the pouch.

Gerber launched its national recycling program with TerraCycle in October 2019 to ensure consumers have a free and easy way to recycle Gerber packaging that is not recyclable in curbside programs. Consumers sign up for the program online and ship their empty pouches as well as their rigid plastic packaging, shrink labels, plastic lids and small and large Gerber baby clothing hangers to TerraCycle for recycling, earning points they can redeem for a donation to schools or organizations of their choice.

“Since its launch, the program has collected nearly 59,000 pieces, or over 2,000 pounds, of packaging,” Hilbert says. “While 81 percent of our packaging is recyclable curbside, this program accounts for the 19 percent of our packaging that’s currently considered ‘hard-to-recycle’ in the U.S.”

In addition, she says the IncrediPouch includes the messaging “‘The 1st single-material pouch designed for the future of recycling’ to help educate consumers about the progress being made toward achieving fully recyclable pouches.”

“[F]ood safety, sustainability and performance were our top priorities, with a focus on recyclability, ease-of-use, shelf life and durability.” – Sina Hilbert, brand manager and sustainability lead, Gerber

Rising to any challenges

Gerber says creating the pouch required a multiyear investment in research and development. The company was committed to rising to any challenges in hopes of working toward its goal to make 100 percent of its packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025.

“In developing the single-material pouch, we had to achieve the same level of performance that is typically achieved with multiple materials. Initial challenges included shelf life and fragility,” Hilbert says.

“There is a slight adjustment in shelf life for the single-material pouch, which is nine months compared to the 12-month shelf life of our standard pouch. We’re continuing to explore ways to increase the shelf life of the pouch while maintaining a focus on recyclability,” Dzikowicz adds.

Another industrywide challenge is adapting curbside recycling programs to process pouches and other flexible plastics.

With Nestlé as a founding member of Materials Recovery for the Future (MRFF), a research collaborative examining the recyclability of plastic film packaging in municipal recycling programs, Gerber is helping to expand curbside recycling for the pouch and other flexible plastic packaging, Welke says. MRFF’s pilot program with the TotalRecycle MRF, which is owned and operated by J.P. Mascaro & Sons in Birdsboro, Pennsylvania, is recovering the pouches collected through the Pottstown, Pennsylvania, curbside recycling program.

Hilbert says Pottstown residents “can drop their baby food pouches right into their blue bin for curbside recycling—a first in the U.S. MRFF conducted local outreach via a flyer campaign to inform residents of the new acceptable recyclables in curbside bins, including baby food pouches.”

MRFF recently reported on the early success of the pilot program in collecting, separating and preparing flexible plastics. The collaborative says its efforts verify that flexible plastic packaging, such as baby food pouches, can be captured efficiently for recycling.

“We’ve already seen success from the pilot program and believe designing with a single material will continue to promote the development of better recycling infrastructure,” Hilbert says of MRFF.

TerraCycle and MRFF are working to find markets to consume the recovered pouches, such as roofing and composite lumber products.

Continuing recycling efforts

Gerber says it plans to expand its product offerings in the monomaterial pouch by the end of the year. The company says the initial launch allowed it to gain experience in the market before expanding.

Gerber adds that all parts of an organization must work together to accomplish responsible packaging goals. As the industry moves to monomaterial and other designs, compromises on shelf life, filling performance, cost of materials and more may be required, so support from all business functions is essential.

Additionally, Gerber isn’t stopping its sustainability efforts at recyclable packaging. “We’re also committed to responsible agriculture through our Clean Field Farming practices and expansion of our [United States Department of Agriculture] Certified Organic product lines, and to a responsible supply chain through reductions in energy use, water use and carbon emissions in our factories,” Hilbert says. “In fact, we’re on track to achieve zero waste at our factories by the end of the year.”

The author interned with Recycling Today.