Environmental investors are claiming a win in a shareholder vote asking Tyson Foods to use less virgin plastic and more recycled materials, saying that a majority of independent shareholders backed their plan.
In a Feb. 15 statement, Boston-based Green Century Capital Management said 59 percent of the company's independent shareholders supported its proposal at Tyson's Feb. 10 annual meeting.
But Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson shot back that it was already taking steps to reduce plastic and packaging waste, as well as researching alternatives to PVC film and expanded polystyrene trays.
A company spokesman pointed to detailed information Tyson provided to shareholders ahead of the annual meeting, where it urged a vote against the Green Century plan. It said it shared their goals but did not think the proposal would help the food supplier.
Still, Green Century said it was significant that a large portion of Tyson stockholders not directly affiliated with the company backed their plan.
"A meaningful percentage of independent shareholders have made it clear that Tyson needs to take plastic-related risks seriously," said President Leslie Samuelrich. "Tyson is simply way behind in the food industry when it comes to sustainable packaging."
Green Century said Tyson competitor Smithfield Foods recently set a goal to cut its use of virgin plastic in half by 2030, and it noted that major Tyson customers such as Kroger, Target and Walmart have all set goals for reducing their plastic footprint.
The green investment group said Tyson uses significant amounts of flexible plastic and PS foam, which are largely not recyclable in curbside systems. It called on the company to use less plastic.
Green Century said inaction could leave Tyson vulnerable to changing regulations, like the extended producer responsibility laws passed in Maine and Oregon last year and recycled content mandates passing in other states.
The shareholders said they estimate, based on Tyson's reporting of annual meeting results, that a majority of independent shareholders voted for their plan.
Green Century said more than 70 percent of Tyson voting shares are controlled by company insiders and it said it assumed all of them voted against the plastics proposal.
Tyson said in its annual meeting proxy report it agreed with Green Century's goals but wanted to continue its existing programs.
"We share the proponent's commitment to environmental sustainability and recognize the need for efforts aimed at reducing plastic and packaging waste," Tyson said.
The food company said it had taken steps like using more post-consumer plastic packaging, reusable packaging and bioplastics.
It said it had expanded use of reusable plastic containers in case ready meats and its beef and pork business and was researching "eliminating [PVC] film overwrap" in its operations.
Tyson also said it working on the "development of replacements for polystyrene foam trays" and was partnering with various plastics industry and recycling organizations on packaging. It also said it was boosting use of recycled paperboard.
At the same time, it said its packaging needed to be sufficiently durable to ship and protect its meat products and maintain food quality.
It said it faced challenges with plastic beyond its control, including "severely limited" plastics recycling infrastructure in the United States, as well as factors unique to its products, including that plastic in contact with raw meats and blood are not accepted for recycling.
"Despite these challenges — many of which are out of our direct control — we remain committed to our sustainability efforts and to collaborating with our partners to develop sustainable solutions for the future of plastics recycling," Tyson said.