Eco Focus: Signature Flexible Packaging Inc. is designing “recycle ready” food packaging.

Eco Focus: Signature Flexible Packaging Inc. is designing “recycle ready” food packaging.

Environmental preservation is serious business in California, and the state’s push to reduce waste is forcing companies — especially those in the food-service and retail space — to change their longstanding relationship with disposable plastic products.

But switching to recyclable plastic or compostable packaging can be both costly and complicated.

Monrovia-based grocery chain Trader Joe’s Co., which operates more than 400 stores nationwide, announced in December it was looking to reduce its plastic packaging. The transition won’t be easy, company spokeswoman Kenya Friend-Daniel said in an email.

“Identifying sustainable alternatives for recycling and composting is complex work, as realistic options are limited and still being innovated,” Friend-Daniel said in the statement. “There are differing understandings of what is the ‘best choice’ for sustainability.”

Still, she said, the company is determined to figure out a solution because “it’s the right thing to do.” Already, many Trader Joe’s locations have replaced thin plastic produce bags with a compostable version.

Analysts and packaging manufacturers said the shift, driven by environmental interests in a few states such as California, could upend the packaging and retail businesses across all 50 states in the coming decade.

“In the next 10 years, the demand will be massive, but the stopwatch hasn’t started yet,” said Jeff Sewell, vice president of sales and marketing for the 56-year-old Commerce-based Signature Flexible Packaging Inc.

The company, which counts itself among the largest privately held retail packaging firms in Southern California, makes packaging for California and Hawaiian Sugar Co., American Licorice Co. and other chips and snack companies.

Most of its products are made with a mix of plastics, meaning they’re almost impossible for recycling processors to break down for reuse. But as more companies and jurisdictions change the rules, Signature Flexible Packaging has begun designing new recyclable products that use a single type of plastic.

“We won’t have such commercialization in the next year, but as the infrastructure for recycling develops, the demand will be beyond tremendous,” Sewell said. His customers have already started asking about it, he added.

The move will mean big changes for the packaging industry as it adopts new material and production methods. Sustainable materials can be more costly and force producers to change the manufacturing process.

Expanding focus

Plastic bags have long been a flashpoint for environmentalists, and they were joined recently by plastic straws. The latest battleground, however, features Styrofoam to-go containers and other nonrecyclable packaging.

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