Is the Ketchup Packet the New Straw?

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There's a movement to make ketchup packets and other one-time-use food packages recyclable. (Photo: Susan Quinland-Stringer/Shutterstock)

It doesn't seem that long ago when Heinz was redesigning ketchup packets to make them easier to use in a minivan, but that was seven years ago. Heinz recently announced another redesign to the ubiquitous packets of ketchup, this time one that's more sustainable.

The company recently announced that it aims to make all of its packaging "globally recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025," according to Bloomberg. That means difficult-to-recycle packaging for products like ketchup packets, Capri Sun juice pouches, and the individual wrappings for Kraft Singles (Heinz and Kraft merged in 2015) will go through major overhauls because they use foil and plastic that are fused together. The materials aren't easily separated and therefore difficult to recycle, particularly in municipal recycling programs.

Just how much of a difference can transforming difficult-to-recycle ketchup packets into easy-to-recycle packages make? Can it put dent in the enormity of the problems we're facing because of climate change?

The change may seem small, but as of 2010, Heinz was making over 11 billion ketchup packets a year, according to NBC News. Given how difficult they are to recycle, it's not unreasonable to believe that few, if any of them, ever are recycled. So a switch to recyclable materials, or better yet, reusable or compostable materials, will keep a good percentage of those packets out of the landfill. Of course, Heinz isn't the only maker of ketchup packets. If the companyt can create a more sustainable packet and share their design with other food manufacturers, that good deed will go even further. The design for the ketchup packets are also used for foods like mustard, mayo and dipping sauces.

But I think there's another benefit to these small changes beyond the small dent they'll put in the enormity of our climate change problems: They keep the conversation going.

Small steps get you going in the right direction

Earlier this summer the conversation was all about plastic straws. Everyone from McDonald's to Starbucks to the city of Seattle began to ban one-time-use, non-recyclable plastic straws. With each announcement, the environmental impact of plastic straws was discussed. Not only are the straws made from non-renewable sources and live virtually forever in a landfill, they are a considerable detriment to marine wildlife. They're hazardous to fish, turtles, birds and other wildlife, frequently poisoning or physically injuring them.

When these conversations happen over and over, they keep the environment, it's problems, and the need for solutions on people's minds. In turn, people contact the companies they frequently do business with and ask them to do better with the sustainability of their products. Bloomberg reports that both consumers and investors pressed Heinz to become more sustainable with its packaging over the past few years. About 13 percent of shareholders asked for a report on the recyclability of the company's packaging at last April's annual meeting.

We have seen over the past several years how consumer pressure can influence companies to make changes for the better. General Mills took GMO ingredients out of original Cheerios. After an online petition, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese ditched artificial dyes. Panera eliminated 150 ingredients in its food offerings, including artificial preservatives, sweeteners, flavors and colors.

Every time a change makes headlines — whether it's a ban on plastic bag or straws, Heinz committing to more sustainable packaging, or even food fights over whether more sustainable alternatives to milk or beef can be called dairy or meat — two good things are happening. Positive, small sustainable changes are taking place, and people are paying attention, speaking up and demanding the next change to happen ... and the next and the next.

Will changing the design of ketchup packets save the world from climate change's dangers? No, not all by itself. But in the absence of one big change, small changes are what we have, and they keep us demanding more changes — some of them small and some of them big.