Introducing the snack bag of the future
Now Reading
Introducing the snack bag of the future

Introducing the snack bag of the future

Snack companies are looking at alternative packaging materials due to consumer demand and potential regulations


Florencio Cuétara is the kind of person who crosses the street to tell people to pick up their litter. One day, Cuétara, an avid diver, was swimming in the Mediterranean when he came across a plastic cookie bag. “This bag hits me in the face as I’m swimming. And I’m cursing whoever put it in there, as if it’s somebody else’s fault,” Cuétara says. “Then I realised that the bag was one of my bags – with my last name on it.”

Cuétara’s family business is Switzerland-based snack company Cuétara Foods, which makes 25 brands of cookies, biscuits and crackers sold all over the world. For Cuétara, who was CEO for the Americas at the time, that moment was a turning point. “I was like, ‘I want to blame everybody else for this,” he says. “But I’m not an innocent party here. I’m part of the problem.”

Most bags for potato chips and other crispy snacks are made with three layers of polymer materials: a moisture barrier on the inside, low-density polyethylene in the middle and an outer layer of thermoplastic resin. From an environmental standpoint, polymers – like all plastics – have two marks against them: They’re made from petroleum, and they’ll never decompose.

Today, according to the UN Environment Programme, humans produce about 400 million tonnes of plastic waste every year.

Half of that is single-use plastic, like potato chip bags, that ends up in landfills or in waterways, where it breaks down into microplastics that are consumed by aquatic life, and eventually by people. At the behest of consumers and under the shadow of potential regulation, snack companies are now looking for a way to break that cycle with alternative packaging materials.

The great repackaging

Cuétara swam into his cookie bag in 2015, setting off a four-year quest to find a different packaging material that didn’t rely on fossil fuels. In 2019, Cuétara and Dr Russ Petrie, an orthopedic surgeon in California, founded Okeanos, which uses calcium carbonate to create bags for snacks, rice, coffee and salt, as well as wraps for flowers.

Calcium carbonate, a mineral naturally found in stone or rocks, has been used as a filler in packaging before, but only in small percentages. Cuétara and Petrie developed a technology they called “Made from Stone” that is up to 70 per cent calcium carbonate; the rest is made of resin. The company’s bags are both flexible and light – they float on water – and the technology is now used by manufacturers in 15 countries including Brazil, India, Canada, the Philippines and the US.

For Sean Mason and Mark Green, co-founders of British crisps company Two Farmers, it took five years to find a packaging material that would both biodegrade and keep their chips crunchy. When it came to identifying an alternative material, though, Mason and Green were stumped. First, they considered cardboard boxes. “We suddenly realised that we would still have to put a plastic bag inside to keep it fresh,” Mason says.

“So we were effectively just over-packaging; packaging for packaging’s sake.” Next they looked at tins. “Too expensive and probably too much waste for a small 40-gramme packet.” Finally, they came across eucalyptus cellulose films in their raw state, and started talking to the producers about their potential for crisps bags. The duo found a laminator, which helped them figure out how to add plant-based glues and inks for printing.

After producing the film, they sent it off to TŪV Austria – a third-party certifier that verifies whether packaging is compostable – to have it tested for compostability and eco-toxicity. Following some trial and error, their material passed muster, and in 2019 Two Farmers officially launched its gourmet potato chips in 100 per cent compostable packaging made from eucalyptus cellulose. Mason says his company’s bags take 30 to 36 weeks to decompose in home composting systems, or 11 weeks in an industrial composter.

Big chip

In the world of US potato chips, for example, Frito-Lay, a division of PepsiCo began its own foray into alternative packaging over a decade ago, with the 2009 debut of a 100 per cent compostable bag for SunChips. The company has a goal of making all its packaging 100 per cent recyclable, compostable, biodegradable or re-usable by 2025. In 2021, it debuted a bag made of 85 per cent polylactic acid – typically composed of corn starch – for two of its Off the Eaten Path veggie chips.

The Off the Eaten Path bag is industrially compostable, which means it can be put into city compost systems. The bags can also be sent back via a free shipping label to New Jersey-based TerraCycle, which partners with Frito-Lay on the venture.

Looming regulations

Companies that aren’t moving towards plastic-free packaging yet may be forced to in the future, as regulators start to step in. Last year, the European Union (EU) proposed new rules that would require companies selling products in EU countries to make their packaging easier to reuse, recycle or compost.

The rules would also limit unnecessary empty space in packaging, part of an overall goal to to reduce packaging waste by 5 per cent by 2030, compared to 2018 levels. If effective, the EU could set a standard for other nations to follow.

Hurdles for snack companies

But the hurdles remain enormous, and snack bags are just one piece of a much bigger problem. Most developing countries don’t have recycling or composting facilities, and in the nations that do, those systems are often broken or dysfunctional. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates a US plastic recycling rate of just below 9 per cent, while Beyond Plastics, a project out of Bennington College, pegs it at an even bleaker 5 per cent to 6 per cent.

In the EU, almost 38 per cent of plastic was recycled in 2020, and regulations imposed in 2021 halted the sale of the 10 most common plastics to wash up on European beaches, including bottle caps and straws. But addressing plastic packaging writ large will require changes at every part of its life cycle: from raw materials to duration of use to the nature of disposal.

Those hurdles are part of why Cuétara says Made from Stone bags are catching on: Packaging manufacturers can keep using their existing equipment, and calcium carbonate is naturally abundant with relatively stable pricing.

Read: Sustainability: Not just a responsibility, but also an opportunity

You might also like


Scroll To Top