Gerber Products Co.'s first major change in its baby-food packaging in 60 years is causing concern about its possible impact on recycling.
The Fremont, Mich., company last week said it has canned the glass jars for three of its flavors in favor of thermoformed multilayer containers. After three years of market research, nearly 70 percent of consumers said they would prefer the convenience of plastic containers, the company said.
Gerber will market three of its most popular recipes - applesauce, bananas and pears - in the new containers. The company will repackage most if not all of its product line in the next few years if consumers like the container, said David Yates, Gerber senior vice president.
``We listen to parents every day, and we recognize that they need new, convenient feeding options,'' Yates said.
Gerber says the container is made from recyclable plastic, but some in the industry are skeptical about the recyclability.
``To me, the issue is, `Here's another plastic container that's hard to recycle,''' said Pat Franklin, executive director of the Container Recycling Institute in Arlington, Va. ``Essentially, they're creating more headaches for recycling programs.''
Officials from Gerber's research and development department were unavailable to comment on the company's choice of plastic resins or on the recyclability of the new packaging.
But Gerber's move, the most significant product packaging change since the advent of plastic beer bottles, could have an even larger impact, said Ben Miyares, vice president of industry relations for the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute in Arlington. Other baby food companies, including H.J. Heinz Co. in Pittsburgh and Beech-Nut Nutrition Corp. in St. Louis, will follow suit if the containers are successful.
``They've done with baby food what Heinz did with ketchup bottles a few years ago,'' Miyares said. ``Three to five years from now, there probably will not be a glass baby food jar.''
Beech-Nut has looked at using plastic containers for some time and will continue to study the possibility, said Jean Sellberg, director of consumer services. But the firm, which was the first to package baby food in glass containers, is satisfied with the advantages of glass, such as rigidity and the ability to hold a vacuum.
``At this time, we're not ready to make the switch,'' Sellberg said.
The Washington-based Glass Packaging Institute is unhappy with Gerber's decision. The group wouldn't comment extensively, citing limited information. ``It's definitely a concern to the industry because Gerber's been with glass for so long,'' a spokesman said.
The types of plastic in the new container will make them difficult to recycle, said Pete Dinger, director of technology at the American Plastics Council in Arlington. ``The thing that would make this probably not very recyclable is that it's a pretty unique animal,'' Dinger said. ``You can't set up a program for one container.''
But mixed materials are not all that uncommon in the food packaging industry, said Matt Croson, a spokesman for the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute. The industry has used multilayer plastic for years for items such as applesauce and individual snack pudding containers. Lightweight plastic containers usually require fewer resources to produce, and consumer goods companies are becoming more aware of their products' environmental impact.
``Gerber is a well-respected company that's taking a pretty big risk,'' Croson said. ``This decision was not taken lightly.''
But manufacturers are more concerned with the marketability of their products than the recyclability of the packaging, Franklin said. Until they are held accountable, manufacturers will not take recycling and disposal into consideration when designing products.
``We have moved from packaging being used to deliver the product to it becoming a means to advertise the product, to the stage we are now, where packaging almost is the product,'' Franklin said.
This is not Gerber's first packaging change since introducing its product in 1928. In 1943, the firm began packaging its baby food in glass jars rather than tin cans.
The new plastic containers could have similar reuse applications as glass jars, Miyares said. The company could license technology from Lego Co. to make stackable containers that children could use as building blocks.
``They're usually a pretty consumer-sensitive company,'' Miyares said. ``They've got a lot of potential with this, and this is just the beginning.''