ConAgra chief talks sustainability

By: Dan Hockensmith

November 1, 2011

ATLANTA (Nov. 1, 3:15 p.m. ET) —   Robert Weick is vice president of packaging and sustainability at ConAgra Foods Inc. He is responsible for directing all aspects of packaging innovation, commercialization and cost reduction for the Omaha, Neb.-based packaged foods company. Weick also has been an executive in PepsiCo Inc.’s beverages and foods divisions and at Tropicana Products, and worked in product development for Gerber Products Co., Metal Box and International Paper Co.

Plastics News reporter Dan Hockensmith interviewed Weick Sept. 12 at the Closure and Container Manufacturers Association’s annual meeting in Atlanta, where Weick discussed ConAgra’s recent moves in the areas of packaging sustainability and closure recycling.

Q: What is the biggest challenge for closures, in ConAgra’s view?

Weick: Closures are not really something that consumers really focus upon. They [see] a bottle with a cap on it, or a jar with a lid. A key piece is making sure with our suppliers that the focus doesn’t become the cap — and [that] the cap’s a problem. So is keeping ahead of issues: Last year [at the CCMA meeting] we brought up the fact that polypropylene closures are an increasing percentage of the PET waste stream. As the awareness of sustainability and recycling goes up in the [plastics] industry, there’s a greater potential for awareness to be focused on the role of the closure.

PP as a resin doesn’t have that value stream that draws it into a recycling pathway. Polyester [by comparison] had value as a recycled product early on as fiber — more so now as a recycled material going back into container manufacture and other recycled goods. PP doesn’t have that right now. My focus within ConAgra is working with the industry to create and identify what those opportunities are to use that material.

There are number of groups out there; [the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers] is very active. The closure manufacturers have not been active as a group; they’re active individually — lightweighting closures and so on — but there’s not a story around it. So if we can create the story, then you have the understanding of everything that the closure industry has been doing [on sustainability] and also a focus on where the opportunities are for them to create that value stream.

Q: What are some of ConAgra’s most recent sustainability achievements?

Weick: We’re very prideful of the fact that we just made the Dow Jones Sustainability Index. That was a goal that [the in-house sustainability team] set and they deserve the credit, not me.

When I came to ConAgra five years ago, we didn’t have a sustainability organization. [ConAgra’s] program is very grassroots. In the springtime we have a sustainability awards program. We’ve seen plants eliminate water usage, eliminate waste; reductions in energy usage — they have done tremendous things.

Sustainability in packaging has been around at every company for as long as I can remember — it used to be only be called “cost savings.” When I was at PepsiCo, when sustainability became a focus, the initial piece was to look at something that could be measured quickly, which was the amount of packaging waste you reduced. The only measureable quantity you had was cost savings. I think it’s a tribute to organizations across the spectrum that sustainability has really taken on a much more complete meaning. Packaging is but one component.

There’s an image that [consumers have] that plastics can be bad. Plastics really aren’t a bad material, but there’s the imagery of millions of bottles in the ocean and on beaches … There are a limited number of structural materials for any packaging, so if you look at it in that perspective, you can’t say that any one of those is better or worse than the other. Aluminum had a really early value stream that Alcoa drove. Many, many moons ago, I had the privilege of working for a gentleman at Alcoa who had developed their recycling programs. His focus was built around creating value. The value for Alcoa was that it was cheaper to take [post-consumer] cans and to turn them into roll stock than to mine for bauxite.

Q: Some of the big consumer packaged goods companies like Procter & Gamble Co. have indicated that they are looking ahead to a time when they can move packaging away from petroleum-based plastics to bio-based material. Do you envision a point when ConAgra makes a statement to the effect that you want suppliers to move toward bio-based materials?

Weick: It’s an aspiration that we have to have. In the food industry, however, we have a number of challenges to overcome. You have regulatory issues; shelf-life issues; materials performance. Even from the converters’ side, there are challenges that they have to undertake in terms of their ability to run the materials. [Polylactic acid] is a good example: It’s a good material, but if it’s entered into the polyester [recycling] pathway, it becomes a contaminant. So it sounds good to the consumer, but the reality is you take one of your primary pathways and put it in jeopardy.

Talking with P&G, they’ve done a great deal of work looking at material and ensuring that those don’t interrupt existing pathways and recyclability. That’s the important part. For a non-food application there’s arguably more latitude than in the food industry.

Another underlying question is the impacts of going to plant-based materials on the agricultural industry. You see it and you feel it just in the ethanol conversion or increase of ethanol usage for fuel in America, and the major impact it has had on the food industry in terms of prices. Biodiesel and its impact on soybeans and corn — we feel those in the food industry, not so much on the packaging side, but on prices for our [food] ingredients. The consumers feel it at the retail level when the chicken or beef prices go up.

Q: People still throw a lot of food out. Is there a way that ConAgra can influence consumers — an opportunity to sell smaller portions with less packaging — to reduce waste?

Weick: There’s an enabling factor of prepared food in a package providing a controlled, shelf-stable, ready-for-use application that can create a value for consumers. You can create value in portion-controlled meals.

In America, there’s a challenge that I see. When you go out to eat, oftentimes the value is measured by the amount of food that is on the plate. On the [home-] prepared foods side, you have to have a package that delivers the right-sized component for the consumer so that they utilize it and perceive that same value. The antithesis is that they look in their trash can and see a lot of waste packages. There’s a delicate balance.

There has to be an understanding related to the consumer that packages have value in a re-use capability. Our [crystalline PET] trays for frozen foods have up to 40 percent PCR [post-consumer recycled] material. The challenge is making sure there’s enough PCR [material] to go around. Coca-Cola and Pepsi fight in the same space [for PET]; they also have to deal with the fact that so much PCR [material] goes to China for fiber.

Our concern is making sure that we’re doing everything we can working with industry to find solutions and the balance that’s needed out there. If we can do that, our material suppliers will be successful, our converters can be successful and we’ll be successful.