The problem with packaging (and what we're doing about it)

Environmental sustainability in the pet food industry is severely lacking (...and we wrote a whole manifesto about it here). The long and short of it - as consumers demand higher-quality fresh and frozen meat for their dogs, the environmental footprint of pet ownership is skyrocketing.


Like any food product, the bulk of our environmental footprint will come down to ingredients. While packaging makes up a small percentage, it’s an important consideration for many consumers as it’s the part of the product that they are physically left with after use. For many brands, packaging is the focus of their outward sustainability efforts, often because their core ingredients have a large footprint (ex. factory-farmed animal protein) and they are unwilling or unable to meaningfully address that problem by selecting better ingredients.


We think about packaging the way we think about any other business decision we make: sustainability is the second-most important consideration after functionality. In this blog post, we will transparently walk through the tradeoffs in our current packaging and where we would like to make improvements going forward.


Sweet Potato Jerky

 

Our Sweet Potato Jerky bags are made from certified home compostable materials, including a plant-based cellulose layer and a plant-derived 'bioplastic.' 

Reasons to love:

From our research, the compostable plant-based options are the most sustainable choice when available. Home compostable means that customers can toss in their own compost bin or curbside compost, if available. The bag will fully compost or biodegrade and won’t break down into microplastics (like many other materials).

Room for improvement:

While we love this eco-friendly packaging for our treats, these bags can only withstand ~1 lb of product so we are unable to use them for heavier products. Compostable packaging also has a tendency to absorb moisture, which means its best used for dry and low-moisture content items.

Compostable material does tear more easily than conventional plastic, which makes our bags easier to open but more delicate to ship. Choosing a compostable solution also means that the bags cannot be recycled, as plant-based materials are designed to break down quickly. 

Last but not least, compostable packaging is much more expensive than plastic and does require some customer education to ensure it doesn’t end up in a landfill. However, we know Petaluma customers are concerned about their environmental impact and are happy to provide a non-plastic bag for our jerky.


Baked Food

 

Shelf-stable dog food packaging has tricky requirements to ensure the food stays fresh while also supporting heavy weights. As a result, traditional pet food bags use layers of different materials - almost always including at least one type of plastic as well as paper or aluminum. Our baked food packaging uses one paper layer and a plastic layer, as plastic acts as a very efficient barrier to oxygen and moisture.  

Reasons to love:

By using a recycled Kraft paper layer, we're able to reduce ~40% of the plastic content compared to conventional dog food bags. Recycled craft is a renewable resource and does not contribute to fossil fuel extraction.

Room for improvement:

Traditional multi-layer bags are not recyclable, as the combination of different plastics (or in our case the paper and the plastic) are difficult to separate and reuse. Paper is also weaker than plastic, meaning that we need to use more of it in our bags to have the same amount of strength, which increases the total packaging waste and shipping weight (although this is a very small amount) 

We are in the process of switching to a new type of bag that has recently become technologically feasible for heavy products like pet food and is the recommended solution from most packaging sustainability consultants. The bag is plastic but uses only one type of plastic (called a "monomaterial"), which means that it can be recycled by most facilities. Moving to a monomaterial bag will dramatically increase the percentage of bags that are actually reused and repurposed into other products. That said, the recycling systems in the US are very complicated and regional, so there isn't an immediate easy solution. For example, these bags would be curbside recyclable in most of Europe, but most waste management companies in the US will require special sorting (store drop-off or mail-in programs like Terracycle). 


Boxes & Inserts

 

Our boxes and inserts are made from 100% post-consumer Kraft paper that can be easily recycled by nearly every curbside recycling program. Today, we include a single card with each order that details nutritional information and feeding instructions, and first-time customers also receive a welcome booklet with more information on Petaluma.

Reasons to love:

All of these paper materials - cardboard boxes and package inserts - can easily be recycled in U.S. curbside recycling programs.

Room for improvement:

Recyclable is great, but reusable is better. We hope to find ways to reduce waste for our subscription orders in the future by shipping orders in a reusable box, like Boox. While this isn’t feasible today with our bag size and weight, we are excited to keep tabs on continued innovation in this space.

We’re also rethinking how we share information with Petaluma customers. For example, we re-designed our next set of food bags to include printed nutritional information and feeding instructions on the bag, which eliminates the need for a separate insert. We also give new customers the choice to opt-out of our welcome booklet at checkout and instead view the information on our website. 


To wrap things up (in a certified compostable bow, of course):

At Petaluma, we do things differently. We prioritize sustainability at every step of product development. Nutrition is always our utmost consideration, but whenever we have a choice between two nutritionally-equivalent ingredient options, we assess the carbon, water, and land use impact and pick the eco-friendlier choice.

Petaluma became the third U.S. pet food brand to become a Certified B Corporation in 2022 to codify our commitment to upholding best practices for social and environmental sustainability, from the ingredients we choose to the vendors we work alongside. Our bakery runs on solar energy, we annually offset 100% of the greenhouse gas emissions as a Climate Neutral Certified business, and we support non-profits fighting climate change and food insecurity through 1% for the Planet. While perfection isn’t possible, we are always looking for ways to incrementally improve and iterate on our packaging design, and welcome feedback from customers on what’s most important to them.