This Common Packaging is a Recycling Nightmare

This Common Packaging is a Recycling Nightmare

Aug 2nd 2019

Energy Bars and Foil Lined Packaging: A Tale of Two Crazes

The emergence of foil lined film

When you hear "Mylar," you likely think of balloons. 

But  Mylar is actually the brand name for a special type of stretched polyester film, commonly known as BoPET - Biaxially oriented PET film (BoPET), which is commonly metallized. NASA's Echo II balloon was launched in 1964, and was constructed of 9 micrometers thick Mylar film sandwiched between layers of 4.5 micrometers of thick aluminum foil.

Thus, multi-layered flexible film was born. Once this film was developed, food companies quickly began using it to package their goods.

In the 1970s, Capri Sun began pouring its juice drinks into their iconic gusseted pouches made of melded, ultra-thin layers of plastic and aluminum foil. 

Capri Sun

Potato chips began being packaged and sold in metallized films consisting of layers of biaxially oriented polypropylene (BOPP), low-density polyethylene (LDPE) and thermoplastic resin.

They found that these various layers could collectively keep chips fresh and crisp much longer than previous packaging could (because stale, soggy potato chips are pretty gross).

Today multi-layered film made with both plastic and aluminum is ubiquitous, and is used for everything from snack bags to candy wrappers to baby food pouches to energy bars. We'd bet that you’ve even had a snack or convenience item packaged in metallized film within the last 24 hours!

The rise of the energy bar

Like metallized film, energy bars also had their origins in NASA and space exploration.

Pillsbury first created  Space Food Sticks in the 1960s for NASA astronauts and soon after, filed a trademark for a “non-frozen balance energy snack in rod form containing nutritionally balanced amounts of carbohydrate, fat and protein.” 

Space Food Sticks

In 1970, Pillsbury repackaged their astronaut food for consumers, marketing them as a “nutritionally balanced between-meal snack.” Power Bar entered the scene in 1986, founded by a Canadian marathoner, Brian Maxwell, who was “creating the perfect energy bar to help athletes survive long-distance events without running out of glycogen.”

Competitors emerged soon after, including Clif Bar, which is now arguably one of the most popular energy bar brands that serves the needs of endurance athletes and busy moms trying to feed themselves and their kids. 

Today, the market for health, energy and protein bars includes a few heavy hitters (Clif Bar, Larabar, Power Bar, Muscle Milk, Rx Bar) as well as emerging startups (such as Scratch Labs, Verb and This Bar Saves Lives).

The vast majority of energy bar wrappers are made from two layers of flexible polypropylene plastic with a layer of aluminum sandwiched in between. The packaging ensures the bars stay fresh, tasty and healthy for as long as possible. 

While Clif Bar doesn’t have a public, official statement on the shelf life of a standard bar, most bars I’ve come across have best buy dates that are at least a year out. Keeping a naturally produced product like an organic energy bar fresh and safe for over ONE YEAR is no small feat, and this innovative multi-layered packaging is to credit for this.

Another advantage of these multi-layers metallized films is that it produces gorgeous prints, allowing energy bar brands to shine on retail shelves. A single layer of film typically can’t provide the level of safety and preservation a bar needs while also being an excellent printing surface.

A recycling nightmare

Unsurprisingly, the increased convenience and shelf life of these foil-lined wrapped energy bars comes at the expense of sustainability.

Not only are these wrappers never made with recycled content, they are also extremely difficult to recycle. Our team has searched dozens of curbside recycling programs nationwide and have yet to find a single one that accepts foil-lined (metallized film) wrappers.

Energy Bars and Foil Lined Packaging

The reason for this is twofold.

First, flexible film in general is terrible for curbside recycling programs. Single stream recycling is typically taken to a materials recovery facility (a MRF) where a combination of talented workers and insanely expensive, massive equipment quickly sorts plastic, paper, corrugate, glass, aluminum and more. Flexible plastic (whether it is multi-layers or not) gets caught in the gears of this equipment, leading to costly repairs and even costlier halting of plant operations.

Second, before multi-layered films can be reground or remelted, the different layers have to be separated (and in order to be separated, a human or machine has to identify what materials are in a wrapper). Equipment has been developed that can separate some types of metallized film, however, the process is energy intensive and expensive, and as such, only a few reclaimers have made this investment thus far.

Additionally, when recycled metallized wrappers are separated, some of the material is often landfilled. 

For example, film that is 18% foil and 82% plastic will be separated and the foil will be discarded while the plastic will be recycled.

What is an energy bar lover to do? 

You have a few options.

The first is to stop eating store bought energy bars. In fact, nutritionists often lament the fact that energy bars have become a meal replacement or daily snack for so many of us, even when we’re not in the midst of a marathon or Ironman. By relying on the energy bar as a standard meal, we are losing the benefits of whole, unprocessed food.

If you need access to a quick snack to avoid becoming your hangriest self, switch to healthy snacks that aren’t packaged as single serve, such as peanut butter.

For some of us, this switch is totally doable.

For others, letting go of the convenience of that stash of bars in your purse or desk is unthinkable. Or even harder? Letting go of the bar in your diaper bag you know can help feed a hungry or tired kiddo. We get it!

Mail In Recycling Program 

So the second option is to utilize TerraCycle’s amazing programs to recycle hard-to-recycle goods.  TerraCycle and Clif Bar have created a free recycling program* for energy bar wrappers (and other similar metallized wrappers). Participants collect their waste and then send it to TerraCycle who then upcycles or recycles wrappers. *Note: as of early 2020, Clif bar no longer recycled with TerraCycle. Please let us know if you come across any recycling solutions for these!

Upcycled means that wrappers are converted into items like wallets, purses and totes (which can be purchased on sites like  Home Dweller).

Upcycled Bag

Recycling means that TerraCycle will sell these recycled wrappers to a reclaimer who has invested in the equipment needed to extract the different materials.

The great thing about this program is that it provides an outlet for those who want to ensure their wrappers don’t end up landfilled or, worse, as ocean pollution. It is also free for consumers (supported by Clif Bar) and Clif Bar donates $0.01 per wrapper to American Forests American ReLeaf Program. Our favorite part of the program is that even though Clif Bar sponsors it, they will accept any foil lined energy bar wrapper!

On the other hand, it is important to recognize how much packaging, shipping and time is required to collect these items and get them sent out. TerraCycle recommends that shipments are made only when the entire collection of wrappers is over 5lbs to ensure the carbon footprint of the shipment doesn’t outweigh the benefits of recycling.

Additionally, some people question the ecological merits of the upcycling and recycling process of these wrappers. While repurposing wrappers into handbags creates a cool, niche product, some argue that it basically generates another unnecessary novelty item.

Hopefully we can move towards technology that can efficiently separate the various film layers in a way that enables each layer to be fully recycled into new, needed material.

Look for alternative bars 

A handful of emerging companies are trying to change the game when it comes to energy bar wrappers.

Companies like Unwrapp’d are trying to change the format of energy bars into bites that can be stored in curbside recyclable jars.

Curbside Recyclable Jars

Made in Nature makes a great line of energy balls and bites, such as figgy pops, that may give you the boost you need without the single serve packaging.

Creation Nation is one of the many brands who provide energy bar mixes, allowing you to make your own energy bars at home (which you can then package in reusable storage containers or beeswax wraps.

And finally, companies like  Regrained have been experimenting with new packaging innovations, though the progress has been challenging thus far. They began using a single layer of compostable cellulose film for their packaging. Soon after they heard reports of stale product and frustrated customers from the field. While they are continuing their research and development for a more sustainable and functional wrapper, they did make the switch to multi-layered metallized film, recognizing that tons of stale, discarded product was actually a worse form of waste than their wrappers. Regrained’s experience highlights how difficult packaging innovation can be in this space, but that progress requires persistence and a willingness to believe in what is possible even in the face of short term setbacks.

We look forward to continued advancements in the world of energy bar wrappers.