Why Mars Wrigley is Turning to Compostable Packaging and Future Ambitions

Arlene Karidis, Freelance writer

April 1, 2021

10 Min Read

Mars Wrigley is about to roll out compostable packaging for Skittles, and depending on outcome of this North American-based “test and learn” initiative, may incorporate the innovation across its portfolio of brands, as well as take it to other parts of the world with underdeveloped recycling infrastructures.

Waste360 talked to Alastair Child, Mars Wrigley chief sustainability officer and Phil Van Trump, Danimer Scientific chief technology officer; Danimer developed the packaging material, an alternative to plastic that’s made through a fermentation process involving soil and plant oils.

Read on to hear Child speak of what Mars Wrigley will need to see before scaling as well as its hopeful next steps. Van Trump discusses how the material is made, how it acts in the environment, and what Danimer most paid attention to in making the packaging work from both a sustainability and functional packaging perspective.

Waste360: Can you describe the packaging and how it will be made? 

Van Trump, Danimer Scientific: The packaging will be made with Nodax PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoate), which is a biodegradable alternative to petrochemical plastic. The material maintains the look and feel of traditional plastics without requiring hundreds of years to break down upon disposal. Instead, PHA will biodegrade in a matter of months in an industrial compost facility.

We synthesize PHA through a process that begins with feeding oils derived from plant seeds (such as canola oil) to soil bacteria. The bacteria consumes the plant oil in a fermentation process and transforms it into PHA, which we extract and process into a resin.

This pelletized resin can be used for a wide variety of applications. In this case Mars Wrigley will use the material to create confectionary packaging that will degrade in industrial composting facilities or home compost bins.

Waste360: What happens to the material at the end of life, and what does this mean for the environment?

Van Trump, Danimer Scientific: PHA has minimal impact on the environment at the end of its life. When it breaks down, it returns to carbon dioxide, water, and biomass. The carbon dioxide is absorbed by plants, and we extract that carbon in the form of vegetable oil. That then serves as the feedstock for creating a new batch of PHA material, and the cycle continues from there.

Further, in an anaerobic environment, PHA breaks down into methane, similar to food waste, and can be used to produce energy through anaerobic digesters or at landfill gas-to-energy operations.

Waste360: How does packaging from PHA work in a compost environment? 

Van Trump, Danimer Scientific: First, there are several options for properly disposing of PHA. This includes at industrial composting facilities that break down materials at temperatures ranging from 135° to 160°f. PHA is also a certified home compostable material, unlike other known plastics and petrochemical materials. This means PHA will biodegrade in home compost bins that consumers set up in their own backyard to dispose of food waste.

What remains after PHA breaks down – the carbon dioxide, water, and biomass—are essential elements that help ecosystems thrive.

There will be variability in how quickly PHA-based materials degrade depending on real-world settings. To account for this, we designed Nodax PHA to degrade as quickly as possible in a variety of environments. In most circumstances, it will completely degrade in a matter of months.

Waste360: What have you most paid attention to in order to meet Mars Wrigley’s packaging needs and address sustainability?

Van Trump, Danimer Scientific: We pay attention to the material requirements needed, which includes those at the beginning of life, performance of the material, convertibility, and end of life.

Waste360: Have you sold this packaging material to anyone else, and can you name them if you have? 

Van Trump, Danimer Scientific: We have created other PHA that is uniquely adapted for each of our customer’s individual needs. This is the first confectionary packaging we have developed, but we have also created compostable chip bags for PepsiCo’s snack brands. We are also in the process of creating biodegradable water bottles for Nestle and biodegradable spirits bottles for Bacardi using PHA.

Waste360:  How does Mars Wrigley plan to scale this packaging technology after launching with Skittles, and how does this fit in with your overall sustainability goals?

Child, Mars Wrigley: As part of our Sustainable in a Generation Packaging [initiative] we are committed to 100 percent reusable, recyclable, or compostable packaging by 2025. We know there is no one single solution so we are taking a test-and-learn approach across different pack types and markets. 

We are committed to testing a variety of initiatives around the world that will help us with our goal of reducing our plastics footprint. For this initiative specifically, we are beginning work in North America to develop applications of PHA with select brands such as Skittles. Our initial focus is on smaller/single packs that have a lower probability for recycling and a higher chance of being littered, given on-the-go consumption.

Waste360: Can you say how much you are aiming to scale with this packaging type?

Child, Mars Wrigley: It’s too soon to estimate a specific scale, but we are excited about the potential for positive societal impact that Danimer PHA provides. Depending on the results of initial development and tests, as well as external factors such as changes in recycling infrastructure, we hope to look to leverage the material on different pack types and in various markets.

Waste360: What will you have to see before taking this “test and learn” PHA packaging project further?

Child, Mars Wrigley: Through our partnership with Danimer we will be focused on maintaining the quality and food safety of our products. We’ll also look to ensure that we can implement best practices across our supply chain, assuring efficiencies for Mars Wrigley, our customers, and our consumers. And of course, we’ll need to see the efficacy of environmental gains in market applications. We know PHA has great promise as a biodegradable solution, but how it performs with our specific pack types as an eco-friendly solution will have to be proven in practice.

Waste360: What would likely be your next product to focus on?

Child, Mars Wrigley: We are considering all of our Mars Wrigley brands and pack types, depending on what we learn from this initial test. We are eager to see how the initial development goes so we can apply those learnings to future initiatives and into other brands and potentially into different markets. 

We are proactively developing alternative packs for target markets, especially those with underdeveloped recycling infrastructures. Mars Wrigley and Danimer will work together to identify and target the markets where leveraging Nodax PHA can offer the best environmental benefits.

Waste360: What do you consider the greatest value to Mars Wrigley of this partnership with Danimer Scientific?

Child, Mars Wrigley: Partnering with Danimer Scientific offers unique and far-reaching opportunities for positive societal impact across a broad range of pack types that are produced and sold in an even broader range of operating environments and associated infrastructure capabilities. This move allows us to extend our [sustainable packaging] commitments …

Waste360: How does Mars Wrigley’s partnership with Danimer fit in with the company’s Sustainable Packaging Plan?

Child, Mars Wrigley: As part of Mars Inc.’s Sustainable Packaging Plan, we’re taking action to redesign our packaging portfolio to reduce the packaging we don’t need, and to redesign the packaging we do need to ensure it’s reusable, recyclable, or compostable. We envision a world where no packaging becomes waste, which is why we’re committed to make 100 percent of our plastic packaging reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025.

We are also focused on a 25 percent reduction in virgin plastics and having an average of 30 percent recycled content in our plastic packaging.  Our partnership with Danimer represents a big play in the REPLACE space, especially for markets where there is minimal or non-existent recycling infrastructure. However, we will continue to explore opportunities across all four “R’s” of our strategy, including:

  • Eliminating unnecessary and problematic waste across our portfolio

    • Testing other alternative materials with increased probability for recyclability, i.e., paper and mono material plastic

    • Incorporating recycled content, especially in our rigid plastic formats

    • Exploring reuse models that eliminate single-use packaging

Waste360: Where else is Mars Wrigley testing sustainable materials, and what are some solutions you are working on?

Child, Mars Wrigley: We have already launched, and continue to plan for, a wide range of material and design test-and-learns for select brands and markets. For example, we are currently testing paper-based solutions for Balisto Honey Almond in Germany. We have also introduced a mono material solution in France for M&M’S and achieved significant plastic reductions for our Easter Egg portfolio in Europe. Moving forward, biodegradable solutions like those we look to develop in partnership with Danimer will be accompanied by additional tests for recycled content and reuse models for targeted products.

Waste360: Do you anticipate the PHA packaging material will actually go to compost facilities?

Child, Mars Wrigley: It depends on the specific markets and / or personal composting use. Composting practices and infrastructure vary significantly by market, so it really depends on the location. But what we are excited about with this particular technology is that it offers added value for environmentally minded consumers in that it can be composted at home and does not require industrial composting.

Waste360: Will you be involved in seeing that the packaging goes on to these facilities and or that consumers compost it themselves?

Child, Mars Wrigley: To close the loop, we also need consumers to be part of the solution. Mars will continue to engage consumers with recycling and composting guidance to help them make decisions about what to do with the packaging once they’ve enjoyed the product. We aim to have this guidance reach all major markets where our products are available by 2025.

Waste360: What interested you about offering packaging that was compostable (as opposed to recyclable?)

Child, Mars Wrigley: We know there is no one-size-fits-all solution for packaging; developing new packaging solutions for our global business is a complex task. We operate in over 80 countries, each with their own waste systems and different abilities to effectively collect, sort, and recycle packaging. Our packaging needs to protect the quality and safety of our food products, while also working with the different local recycling infrastructures in each of our markets and local regions. That is why we will continue to test packaging that is reusable, recyclable, and compostable across our entire network.

Waste360: What have you and Danimer got to work out before launch?

Child, Mars Wrigley: Our joint challenge now is to apply Nodax PHA successfully to Mars Wrigley packaging formats, taking into consideration the specific barrier properties and quality and food safety needs of our products, and the way that our products are packed on our lines. Through our partnership with Danimer, we will work across our supply chain to implement best practices and accelerate proven solutions that will allow us to drive efficiency and scale.

Waste360: How will you continue to work together through roll out?

Child, Mars Wrigley: Our next steps are already underway as we begin work in North America to develop applications of PHA with select brands such as Skittles and then work toward deploying in other high-priority markets. The Mars Advanced Research Institute will also collaborate with Danimer to push boundaries, explore and create long- term innovative packaging solutions.

Waste360: What do you envision as next steps?

Child, Mars Wrigley: There are certain high-priority markets with infrastructure such as China and developing markets like India where we’d like to take this work next.

About the Author(s)

Arlene Karidis

Freelance writer, Waste360

Arlene Karidis has 30 years’ cumulative experience reporting on health and environmental topics for B2B and consumer publications of a global, national and/or regional reach, including Waste360, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Baltimore Sun and lifestyle and parenting magazines. In between her assignments, Arlene does yoga, Pilates, takes long walks, and works her body in other ways that won’t bang up her somewhat challenged knees; drinks wine;  hangs with her family and other good friends and on really slow weekends, entertains herself watching her cat get happy on catnip and play with new toys.

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