Jeff Schuetz is the vice president of Sonoco’s consumer packaging technology and a key figure in the company’s ongoing efforts to identify and implement more sustainable packaging technology. Ahead of his scheduled talk at the Sustainability in Packaging conference (March 9-12), we spoke with Jeff about Sonoco’s work to address current challenges in that sphere, the company’s open innovation efforts, and the future of packaging.
What is the biggest challenge currently in sustainable packaging?
We have a lot of R&D programs around improving the sustainability of our products, but the biggest challenge, I believe, is around the supply and demand of recycled materials that are suitable for packaging, and then the overall infrastructure of recycling packaging materials. There’s a lot of packaging that technically can be recycled, but the infrastructure in most parts of the world is not capable of effectively collecting, sorting, reprocessing and then identifying end-use markets for the recovered material.
How is Sonoco dealing with this challenge?
A part of our diversification is that we are in the recycling business. We are looking at our overall sustainable packaging strategy–taking a whole life cycle view of it. We start with raw materials and package design and go all the way through to identifying markets for recycled packaging materials. We do that either internally or collaboratively with external open innovation partners.
What are some new areas of research or technologies that you are excited about?
We’re very excited about advancements in the plastics industry that will enable our move from multi-material packaging to mono-material packaging, which will make recycling easier. An example is the development of new grades of resins and films that have the performance attributes of flexible packaging but are primarily made from polyethylene, one of the most recycled polymers today. Another exciting area is functional paper packaging that can be heat-sealed, is resistant to moisture and grease and provides an oxygen barrier. Some advanced sorting technologies have also been developed in recycling facilities using artificial intelligence, robotics and digital watermarks. We think it’s going to take both packaging design and technical advancements in the recycling infrastructure to come up with optimum solutions.
What are the near-infrared detectable black plastics and how will they help in recycling?
We have developed alternatives to carbon black (used in black plastics), which interferes with the near-infrared reading systems. (As a result, traditional black plastics went undetected in sorting or recycling factories and ended up as residue in landfills). The challenge has been to maintain the performance and color quality of the plastics, but we have found alternatives that are detectable. We’re now offering these alternatives to our customers. We also have to work on the demand to make sure that, if these new black plastics end up in recycling streams, there’s actually a market, somebody wants to take them and the recycling value chain can make money out of them.
How does Sonoco collaborate with universities or startups to promote open innovation?
Clemson University in South Carolina is a land-grant university. We gave them a donation to start a hub called Sonoco Fresh to look into the overall environmental impacts of food packaging and its contents. We have also made a five-year commitment to fund research at the university in this area. The goal is that it will be a place for industry, academics and government entities to collaborate on new solutions.
We’ve joined Holy Grail 2.0, a consortium in Europe focused on improving the recycling of mixed flexible and rigid plastics, and are about to announce a small consortium with a startup in the U.K. interested in opportunities in North America. They are in the space of advanced chemical recycling and polymer-to-polymer recycling. Currently, we are partnered with a chemical recycling start-up in North Carolina, Braven. We take waste destined for landfills to their processing facility where it gets converted to fuel that can potentially be used to make raw materials for new packaging.
What will the future of packaging and recycling systems look like?
We’re in the flexible, fiber-based and rigid plastic packaging sectors and not trying to make one win over the others. Our position is that there is a place for most types of packaging. From a design perspective, we’re going to see a simplification of packaging structures. Today, it’s not uncommon to have 10 or 12 or 15 different materials in a single package, making recovery difficult. Fewer types of material mean more volume of one material. Volume helps with the [material’s] economics and gives people a reason to invest in new solutions.
There will be advances in the recycling, composting and reusable closed-loop supply chains. Our challenge in the U.S. is that recycling is generally managed at the municipal level, and there’s less state or federal oversight and legislation around that. The packaging industry as a whole would like more consistency. I don’t know if legislation is the ideal situation, but I’m starting to see the industry taking control of its destiny and coming up with solutions that can be effectively sold to the recycling industry, the local governments, etc. Industry-funded recycling systems such as the ones you see in Europe and Canada could come up here.
What is Sonoco doing on the compostable and reusable packaging fronts?
In the paper packaging space, there’s an opportunity to look at compostability versus recyclability. We’ve recently launched Natrellis, a molded fiber package made from a by-product of the sugar manufacturing processes. Our goal is to get it certified as compostable and recyclable in the paper streams. On the plastic front, a lot of compostable polymers are being developed but most of our consumers do not have access to industrial composting. We generally don’t talk about biodegradability because that is not a well-defined term. We also haven’t had a lot of customer interest in reusable systems. We’re primarily in single-serve food packaging but are developing reusable solutions in the secondary packaging space (pharmaceuticals and durable goods packaging).
Any final thoughts?
This is a very complex problem. I’m very pleased with how the industry is responding. Almost all companies and our customers and suppliers have made certain commitments over the next five years, but it takes a very coordinated and collaborative effort as it relates to open innovation and working closely with startups, entrepreneurs, other companies, even competitors to figure this out. We’re very open to that. What I hope is that maybe we get some new opportunities to engage with folks through this interview.
Hear more from Jeff during his presentation Uncertainty, Ambiguity and Corporate Goals- Oh My! How Sonoco Designs for the Next Generation of Recyclable Packaging scheduled to take place on March 11, 2021 at 10:00 AM EST (Track A).