General Mills: Nature Valley Bars

The Need: Two problems needed to be solved: 1) film and flexibles – a large part of General Mills’ plastic packaging portfolio – were not originally designed to be recyclable – they were designed to maximize food safety, taste, shelf life, and quality; and 2) collection streams for film are limited. Driver for action: With “nature” in the brand name and consumers who have been vocal about wanting recyclable wrappers for their snack bars, Nature Valley recognized a need to solve the technical challenge of both the film itself and a collection stream for it. Action is necessary because film and flexibles are a large part of General Mills’ packaging portfolio, and the Nature Valley pilot is supporting the company’s innovation to produce food at the quality, food safety, and shelf-life our customers and consumers expect, while also designing toward recyclable plastic packaging. Additionally, consumer recycling streams for film were limited, but the team saw an opportunity to galvanize retailer and consumer participation in store drop off collection streams.

The Solution: In 2016 Nature Valley R&D team kicked off a project to solve that problem. The team determined that Store Drop Off is the only stream for recycling currently with widespread access for their consumers. The original film was a polypropylene (PP) blend and in order to qualify for Store Drop Off it required a change to polyethylene (PE) and other innovations to meet the barrier needs. Nature Valley worked closely with suppliers Jindal and Printpack to iterate on the film and perfect it. Over the next 5 years the team developed this PE film so that it closely matched technical requirement, performance needs and consumer experience of the previous PP wrapper. After 100s of trials at the manufacturing facilities and consumer testing a successful candidate was developed.  In the early days of the innovation Nature Valley worked with TREX and How-2-Recycle to test the film, including running more robust film studies that provided insights to adhere to The Association of Plastic Recyclers PE Film Critical Guidance testing.  Once that testing Guidance was complete and public, Nature Valley performed the full test with Plastic Forming Enterprises and passed successfully. Nature Valley then worked closely with American Chemistry Council and the WRAP team to help support Store Drop Off at retailer locations and roll out the launch nationally. The wrapper now prominently features the Store Drop Off logo & information for consumers to learn more.

What makes it particularly smart or circular? To encourage adoption of this technology and accelerate the benefits of scale, General Mills has decided to not pursue a patent or exclusivity. If more brands and CPG companies follow suit and adopt this technology, there could be a major positive impact on the environment and planet.  We urge others in the industry to develop and share recyclable solutions, including polyethylene-based designs that can be certified for recycling within the store drop-off program. Nature Valley along with other General Mills brands, are working with leading non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to create infrastructure for plastic film recycling, such as The Recycling Partnership and the Wrap Recycling Action Program (W.R.A.P.).  By not pursuing a patent on this technology or exclusivity with our supplier, General Mills also hopes that this initiative will spark sustainable and lasting change in the whole snacks category and film industry, beyond our own supply chain. We also hope that, as more businesses adopt this film technology, economies of scale will be created. As materials cost fall and supply increases with broader industry adoption, we anticipate that this material will become more financially sustainable for General Mills and others in the snacks category. In addition, we’ve been transparent with sharing the names of our film and converter suppliers, to encourage others to adopt this technology and build scale within the industry. General Mills is also continuing to work with the film supplier to identify opportunities to make the film more economical. Being the first in marketplace, this film comes at a premium to non-recyclable films. General Mills is continuing to work with the film supplier as well as other film suppliers in the industry to identify opportunities to make this film cost competitive, so pricing is not a barrier to entry for the CPG industry.

Results, Benefits, and Outcomes to Date: Nature Valley has a wide portfolio of products and sells 3.6 billion granola bars worldwide every year. This initiative gives millions of consumers the opportunity to recycle their wrappers in-store. In addition, Nature Valley’s multi-channel approach to educate consumers on Store Drop-off recycling, will bring awareness to several other recyclable structures, which can make an even bigger impact beyond our portfolio of products. Progress was measured by the progress in conversion of our Nature Valley Crunchy brand to using the new film: in early 2021, General Mills launched the first-ever How2Recycle® approved store drop-off recyclable snack bar wrapper, for our Nature Valley bars coupled with a consumer education campaign on how to recycle them. This represented a huge win in our progress toward recyclable packaging and a success for the project. This initiative continued to highlight the importance of end-to-end supply chain as we think about supply chain management. As we looked upstream with packaging vendors, to running this packaging material at our plants, to the consumer experience, all the way through to the end of the packaging’s lifecycle and in-store drop-off. It was critical that the new film structure had similar or near identical properties to our existing film, to ensure that we didn’t experience a dip in runability or line performance at our plants.  As we continue to develop packaging solutions that are recyclable, we will look at the entire supply chain from raw materials to disposal, an end-to-end lifecycle management approach.

Which of the Pact’s 4 Targets does your work help achieve? 1, 2, and 3

How are you communicating your success? Firstly, the wrapper uses the How2Recycle® label to guide consumers on proper recycling prep, helping prevent recycling stream contamination and encouraging recycling participation; we use this label on 2/3 of our packaging sold in the US. Nature Valley also invested in consumer education for a national TV spot, social media campaign and website for their store drop-off recyclable wrapper launch. The wrapper now prominently features the Store Drop Off logo & information for consumers to learn more. It will be coupled be a national ad campaign featuring Zac Efron that will help raise awareness about the Store Drop Off stream and help bring circularity to high barrier flexible films. Nature Valley is communicating about the new packaging on their brand website:  General Mills has celebrated this success with our customers to promote their participation in Store Drop Off, and featured this case study in packaging section of the 2020 Global Responsibility Report.

What’s Next? In early 2021, General Mills launched the first-ever How2Recycle® approved store drop-off recyclable snack bar wrapper, for our Nature Valley bars coupled with a consumer education campaign on how to recycle them. The new wrapper is rolling out on Nature Valley’s Crunchy bar line in the U.S.  We plan on extending this technology to the rest of the Nature Valley brand and much of our Snacks packaging portfolio by 2025.

Core Team, Partners, & Participants: A huge cross-functional team effort included numerous staff from the across both our packaging supplier and General Mills teams such as packaging R&D, Nature Valley Brand and Comms teams, Global Sustainability Team, Supply Chain, Manufacturing and more.

Time Frame: 5 years (2016 – 2021) from R&D through commercialization/launch in market

Quote: At Nature Valley, we’re the brand with “nature” in our name, and we know how important it is to protect the environment for generations to come. By investing in our parks and trails, and also by walking the talk when it comes to our products. For us, that starts with our wrapper. This year, we launched our commitment to convert all Nature Valley packaging to recyclable materials by 2025, and our first step on that journey was transitioning our Crunchy bars to a store drop-off recyclable material and educating consumers on how to recycle this way. – Ashley Ver Berg Soukup, Brand Manager, General Mills

Company/Organization Information: One of the world’s leading food companies, General Mills is headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota and operates in more than 100 countries and markets more than 100 consumer brands, including Cheerios, Haagen-Dazs, Nature Valley, Pillsbury, Old El Paso, Progresso, Yoplait, Cascadian Farm, Annie’s, Muir Glen, Yoki, and Blue Buffalo. Headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA, General Mills had fiscal 2020 global net sales of $17.6 billion. For over 150 years, General Mills has been making food the world loves. And by being a bolder General Mills, we will make consumers’ lives better – and return our company to growth. But we have never believed in growth for growth’s sake.  At General Mills, we work to create holistic value throughout our supply chain, from agriculture and operations to our consumers and communities. As of May 30, 2021, we had approximately 35,000 employees around the globe, with approximately 15,000 in the U.S. and approximately 20,000 located in our markets outside of the U.S. Our workforce is divided between approximately 13,000 employees dedicated to the production of our various products and approximately 22,000 non-production employees.

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