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 typically use layers of different materials - almost always including at least one type of plastic as well as paper or aluminum. Multi-layered bags are extremely difficult to recycle, as separating the materials with enough purity is either impossible or requires excessive amounts of energy that defeats the sustainability purpose.

As a results, there are some unfortunate sustainability tradeoffs for pet food bags that can keep food fresh and help avoid the large environmental costs of food waste. We've made some changes to our bags as new options have emerged and are planning additional upgrades to take advantage of more accessible recycling capabilities.

Our baked food packaging currently uses a layer of post-consumer recycled plastic as well a layer of virgin plastic that is approved for food contact. We also still sell some products (5 pound bags of our adult formula) in our legacy packaging that includes a Kraft paper and a virgin plastic layer, but will be phasing that out when we run out of existing inventory. There is nothing less sustainable that tossing out perfectly usable bags!

Reasons to love:

By using a post-consumer recycled plastic layer, we're able to reduce virgin plastic use by ~25% compared to conventional dog food bags. Using post-consumer recycled plastic also provides an end market for recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which increases the demand for recycled materials and incentives for building out more robust recycling infrastructure. Replacing the paper layer with the thinner recycled plastic layer also reduced the total amount of packaging material and weight by ~30%. 

Room for improvement:

Traditional multi-layer bags are not recyclable, as the combination of different plastics (or paper and plastic layers in our legacy 5-pound bag) are difficult to separate and reuse. That means there is no feasible way to repurpose the materials in our bags and achieve sustainable resource usage.  

We are transitioning to a new type of bag that has recently become technologically feasible for heavy products like pet food and is now the recommended solution from most packaging sustainability consultants. The bag is made from plastic, but only a single type of plastic (called a "mono-material"), which means that it can be more easily recycled. 

Moving to a mono-material bag will dramatically increase the percentage of bags that can actually be 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 flexible mono-material bags. For example, these bags are accepted as curbside recycling in most of Canada and Europe, but waste management systems in the US require special sorting, such as store drop-off bins or mail-in programs like TerraCycle. Flexible mono-material bags can jam the recycling sorting machines used by many facilities, so typically only rigid plastics are accepted curbside.  

The lack of acceptance in curbside recycling, even in cities with more advanced recycling systems like our home in the Bay Area, presents a major challenge to providing truly sustainable, reusable packaging. In fact, California recently passed legislation that would prevent plastics that require additional sorting (like mono-material pet food bags) to be labeled as "recyclable." That means that tens of thousands of products currently labeled as recyclable through "Store Drop-Off" are no longer in compliance with California law and other states have put forward similar legislation.  

The California legislature (and many environmental organizations that lobbied for the bill) are concerned that 1) store drop-off bins are not a feasible solution as many people do not have reasonable access, 2) a high percentage of material correctly sorted into store-drop off bins is not actually recycled as there is not adequate equipment or financial incentive, and 3) the use of the recycling logo causes many flexible bags to be inappropriately dropped into curbside bins, which contaminates other recyclable materials. While many items labeled as recyclable through store drop-off are still in circulation, the grace period for non-compliant packaging will expire in 2025.    

The changing labeling rules about flexible mono-material plastics - as well as the ongoing investigation about the efficacy of store-drop off recycling streams - has caused us to delay the transition to the mono-material bags and continue to use bags that reduce our impact through the use of post-consumer recycled plastic. We're keeping a close eye on the outcome of these guidelines and will make the change to mono-material bags when it is clear that the bags meet the standards for effective reuse.   

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. 

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