How Sara Lee does sustainability


A real highlight of the “Show Me the Green ($$$) in Being Green” session at yesterday’s TLMI Technical Conference in Chicago, the 350 attendees at the sold-out event got a boatload of insights into how one multi-billion-dollar CPG—Sara Lee—does sustainability.

Steve Carter, senior mgr. of packaging innovation and development for Sara Lee North America, a packaging engineer with “decades” of experience who is also “knee-deep in sustainability,” says that Sara Lee is now in “the front third of the pack of CPGs taking on sustainability by doing things the right way” and not just giving lip service to the issue.

Hillshire Farm plastic tubThe global provider of baked goods, processed meats and coffee first formulated a sustainability policy back in 2005, producing annual reports on the topic since 2008. While packaging isn’t specifically called out, the policy does hit on the three pillars of wellness and nutrition, the environment, and social responsibility. “[Sustainability] has become just a part of everything we do; it makes financial sense, too,” Carter says. “If you make it just about what your company manufactures, it’s not going to work in the long-term.”

Among Sara Lee’s accomplishments since 2005: a 32% reduction in waste send to landfills globally; a 22% cut in water use; and a 3% reduction in energy use. Its goals for 2010-2012 include another 2% cut in energy consumption; a further 10% reduction in water use; and another 12% less waste going to landfills.

Sara Lee uses 5 Rs: Remove, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Renew. Some examples, Carter says, are:

  • Remove—The company continually works at removing environmentally sensitive chemicals from its products and packaging.
    Reduce—A recent 5/8-in. reduction in the dimensions of one specific tray now allows nine items to be put into the package rather than just five, boosting efficiency, productivity and saving on work-in-process packaging.
    Reuse—Plastic tubs for lunch meats can be reused at home, washed in the dishwasher 100 times before they can then be recycled. Bulk totes and CHEP® pallets throughout many plants are also an example.
    Recycle—Sara Lee uses RPET containers as well as many pre- and post-consumer recycled-content packaging.
    Renew—Bioplastics from sugar beets, sugar cane and other biopolymers are being investigated. In one instance, the company found that 35% of the weight of the plastic could be replaced by mineral talc or other non-petroleum-based component.

“Because we’re into so many different kinds of packaging, we can’t be on the forefront of any one type of container like a soft-drink maker that could really push 20-oz or 2-liter bioplastic bottles,” he says.

Recycled-content in packaging does present challenges. “It can mean that you need to use more material to get the same packaging performance, so no good deed goes unpunished. And when it comes to environmental labeling, we can’t say, for example, ‘This box is recyclable everywhere expect in California.’ We don’t want to print on the label complicated composting instructions that take up a lot of space, either.”

For distribution packaging, Carter points out the two-edge sword of trying to be more efficient. “You devise a highly efficient cube for pallet loads, but then the stacking strength of corrugated may need to be stronger. That costs more and can nearly outweigh the better cube efficiency and savings you might get from that.”

When it comes to sustainable materials and bioplastics, Sara Lee has more work to do. “We need to do more development work before introducing a lot of PLA materials,” he says. The company is instead working on higher recycled and recyclable content for all its packaging. “You need to look at the entire carbon footprint and life cycle of a material, rather than just the gauge of some finished packaging.”

His advice for converters and other packaging suppliers when it comes to sustainability? “Suppliers need to not just get on the sustainability bus but drive it. Be proactive, and you’ll stand out from your competitors.”

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