GreenSpace: That yogurt cup? It's made from corn

Posted: October 18, 2010

A lot goes into a package of yogurt, apparently.

And I don't mean the yogurt. I mean the package.

Last week, New Hampshire organic yogurt maker Stonyfield Farm unveiled new cups, ones that industry experts say put them at the top of the packaging game.

The cups, used for their multipacks, are plant-based, not petroleum-based.

The specific plant is corn.

But before anyone gets too huffy, let Nancy Hirshberg explain, which she was only too happy to do for a full half-hour teleconference.

I never thought there would be that much to say about yogurt containers. But it shows the kind of thought this company, like many others, is beginning to put into packaging.

Hirshberg is Stonyfield's vice president of natural resources. Corn initially gave her conniptions because of the chemical-intensive farming methods. She worried about pesticides, monocultures, and the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, in part from fertilizer runoff. She didn't like using food for something other than food.

Stonyfield is even using a massive Cargill facility in Nebraska that also turns out gobs of high-fructose corn syrup, which nutritionists and environmentalists alike have criticized.

Yes, the company could have used plastic from beets. Or tapioca. Or sugar cane. All are feedstock for the new "bioplastics," but they had impacts as well.

Hirshberg points out that the corn Stonyfield is using is yellow corn, which is not the best for eating, although growing it still uses precious agricultural land.

The company found its ultimate answer in a new program with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a nonprofit that works to ensure fair and sustainable food, farm, and trade systems.

It works kind of like the wind power that people "purchase" through their electric company. The money fosters wind power somewhere, even though no one can guarantee that the specific electrons entering a particular home come from wind.

Likewise, Stonyfield's payments to the program ensure that the equivalent amount of corn it uses - 500 acres a year for 1.7 million pounds of packaging - is farmed with upgraded methods to control soil erosion. Chemicals are restricted. No carcinogens. No Atrazine. No genetically modified corn.

At the plant, corn is turned into a corn starch and then fermented (much like the yogurt itself, it turns out). It comes out as PLA - or polylactic acid. It's in pellets, which then go to a plant in Illinois to be turned into rolls of plastic, which then go to Stonyfield to be made into the little cups.

Oddly enough, the new Stonyfield cups are coming onto the market at the same time that a different kind of PLA packaging - most of the bags for SunChips - are being removed from the market.

Main reason? They were too loud. Talk about a coddled culture! Also, there were questions about whether the bags could be composted as easily as claimed. (The debate got a tad comical, although manufacturer Frito-Lay probably didn't think so. One blogger eventually dubbed the whole fracas a "snacklash.")

Stonyfield's cups can't be composted but can be recycled - sort of. Instead of being "downcycled" like most plastics, being remade into something lesser, PLA can be endlessly turned into new PLA, Hirshberg said.

The catch is, only two facilities can do it - one in Wisconsin, the other in Belgium.

But even without a good end-of-life solution, Hirshberg says that Stonyfield is seeing a 48 percent reduction in its cups' environmental impact. All kinds of information and technical reports are on the company website, www.stonyfield.com.

This seems a hopeful sign.

Indeed, while packaging has undergone huge changes - becoming lighter and squarer, so more can fit in a defined space - using better materials is the new quest, says Anne Bedarf, of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, a project of the sustainability nonprofit GreenBlue.

She and Hirshberg agree that Stonyfield's new package is only a step, not the ultimate. But Bedarf praised it as "progressive."

My main problem with all the new packaging is that consumers could be left in the dark. Not every cup of yogurt can contain a treatise on its sustainability, so the homework factor for shoppers who care is increased.

But the science and the industry are evolving fast. We'll soon have all kinds of new things to consider.

For those who want to have a look at the new cups, they're only on the multipacks - the YoKids and B-Healthy, for instance. (Yes, bulk uses less packaging, but single-serve is thought to waste less food.)

Turn one over. If it doesn't have a recycling code on the bottom, it's the new PLA.


Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147 or sbauers@phillynews.com.

Visit her blog at http://go.philly.com/greenspace.

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