Beyond Materials: Sustainability in Packaging

The environmental impact of plastic packages has become an issue customers, brands and governments can no longer ignore. The EU is poised to ban certain single-use plastics within a few years, and other governments are exploring similar policies as we speak. Younger consumers place an even higher importance on environmental issues, making this an important problem for brands to solve. Companies know this, but there isn’t a perfect solution – at least not yet. Today we are speaking to James Downham, President & CEO, PAC Packaging Consortium, who has spent a great deal of time and energy studying this issue, about the options, the challenges and promising future solutions.


Melinda: Hi, I’m Melinda with SLD’s “Think Retail” podcast. Thanks for listening. Today, we’re talking to James Downham about the environmental impact of plastic packages. This has become an issue that customers, brands and governments can no longer ignore. The EU is poised to ban certain single-use plastics within a few years and other governments are exploring similar policies as we speak. Younger consumers place an even higher importance on environmental issues, making this an important problem for brands to solve. Now, companies know this, but there isn’t a perfect solution, at least not yet. Today we’re speaking to James Downham, he’s the president and CEO of PAC Packaging Consortium and has spent a great deal of time and energy studying this issue about the options, the challenges, and promising future solutions. Welcome, thank you for being here this morning. It’s an early Monday morning, so thanks for coming in. James: Nice to be with you. Thanks for having me. Melinda: Can you start us off by just telling us a little bit about yourself and your career with PAC? James: I’ve been a career packaging geek for too many decades to mention, but I’ve lived my life in it and it’s been awesome. I’m grateful to be able to be here today on behalf of PAC Packaging Consortium because of the fact that what we’re all about is education and really advocating for sustainable and safe packaging. Melinda: As somebody who is talking to companies all the time, what is the conversation that you’re having with these brands about sustainability right now? James: Sustainability is top of mind and it has been for some time, really driven back in the mid-2000s by Walmart. The Walmart Scorecard was a big deal and it brought in the entire supply chain for several years. It slowed down a little bit around 2013, but now Walmart is back with a vengeance and they’re really taking a tremendous leadership role for sure. I was in Bentonville last week, in Arkansas, and they had their Walmart sustainability milestone. 750 people in the room led by the CEO. All of the executives for Walmart were there, 700 suppliers and NGOs. And it was a day of celebration. It was very, very impressive. Melinda: I think a lot of the time people think of companies as not caring about this, but I mean, as someone who works with the companies, we know that they do. So when we’re talking about innovative materials, what are they leaning towards now, something that’s available now? James: First of all, companies are leading this discussion in my view for sure. The politicians are behind. They have been for a long time. Although now it seems to be the topic du jour so it’s very, very popular. Primarily, these things lead out of Europe, UK, and of course, our environmental prime minister today is very proactive with this agenda. Companies are focused really on the subject of sustainability, number one, but the language today is “circular economy.” And it’s really all about bringing a product and a package into the marketplace that can continue on into its next life. So, it’s circular, it’s not going into a landfill. Melinda: Right. In terms of the actual materials that they can use now, is there something that people are leaning towards? James: This is a big issue. It’s a very, very complex issue and it’s not as simple as a good package versus a bad package. Many of these large corporations, Walmart being one of them, Nestle’s, Unilever, Procter & Gamble to name some of the bigger ones, Coca-Cola, they’ve all made commitments to 2025. So they’ve set these goals. The thing that’s fascinating for me as a packager is that, a lot of those innovations haven’t even been developed yet and yet they’re out there making these commitments. So it’s pretty bold. It’s pretty courageous and I think it’s brilliant leadership on their part. What they’re doing is they’re primarily working on areas where the lightweighting discussion continues. The reuse discussion is certainly ramping up dramatically. We work closely with Tom Szaky who’s going to be speaking at our event on May the 30thhere in Toronto. And Tom launched in Davos, in fact in January in Switzerland, the product called Loop. And they’re calling him the 2019 milkman because basically what he’s done is he’s partnered with Procter & Gamble and Nestle and Unilever and I think it’s 18 or 20 brand owners who have put in products into a package that’s a reusable package. It’s delivered to your house. It’s picked up when it’s completed and then it’s refilled and brought back. So that’s a reuse application. That’s a big one. Another one is, where Aeroflex has been developed by Procter & Gamble, and that’s the brand name, but it’s basically a lightweight, flexible packaged plastic bottle so it’s replacing rigid plastic bottles. Now the solution isn’t there yet to recycle that, but the flexible package is 50 percent lighter than a bottle. So again, it’s reduction. The first one is reuse example. The second one I’ve just given you is the reduction example. And now there’s some technologies that are being developed by very, very large corporations where they’re taking back post-consumer plastics and they’re taking them right down to the virgin materials so that they are going to be a 100 percent recycled back into pure flake. So those are the three biggies. Melinda: So that leads me to another point. For a long time the sort of conventional wisdom has been that, “I buy this bottle of water and I just, once I’m done with it, I’ll just throw the bottle in the recycling bin and we’re done and it’s fine. That bottle isn’t going to make it to landfill.” But that hasn’t been the case necessarily. Can you talk a little bit about the issues with recycling, because I think for so many of us it’s been out of sight, out of mind. “We are doing our part, we’re recycling and everything’s okay.” What’s happening with recycling? Why are we not seeing that happen? James: So the stakeholders in the, let’s call it the value chain, are basically the product manufacturers and the consumer, so the ones who buy it and use it, and those that recover it. Typically in municipalities it’s the re-processors. So I call them the stakeholders. And the forgotten stakeholder typically is the consumer because the consumer thinks if they pick up that bottle and then put it into their blue bin, then the world is solved, but the problem is it’s not. First of all, you’ve got the demographics moving into the cities, you know, and multifamily dwellings like condos and high rises typically don’t recover those materials very well at all. Melinda: Yeah, I’ve noticed on the subway they’ve got signs right now saying, “Hey, condo dwellers, hey apartment dwellers, put your recycling in the recycling.” I don’t know if you’ve seen those. James: It’s a big issue in Toronto and it’s a big issue in all metropolitan areas. And if you’ve got a building that’s more than five years old, I mean, you’ve maybe got one shoot to throw your garbage in where you’re recycling or composting. And in Toronto as an example, I mean, you have all three. You’ve got garbage, you’ve got recycling, and you’ve got composting. But most of these old condos and apartment buildings which house thousands and thousands of people, they’re not very good at it. So then you’ve got the stakeholders themselves. Some of us love to do this and recover and recycle, but there’s a lot of people that still don’t do it and they’re not very good at it. You’ve also got the food service industry whereby, you know, you may go into your local hamburger joint and buy all of your food, but then half of the packaging is left in the store, the other half is taken out. And if people don’t dispose of it properly, it’s not going to get recycled. The other critical part is that when it does go to what they call an MRF, a Municipal Recovery Facility, and that’s essentially where all of the packaging waste and garbage goes from your home or your residence. When it gets there, they’ve got to sort it and it’s not an easy process and there’s a lot of contamination that goes on there. So it’s very, very difficult to put that through the process, through the system. And then it’s got to be reprocessed back into something that they can make something out of again. So it’s very complex. It’s not simple, it’s not simply designing a package the right way to think that, oh, you know, this is utopia. We’ve now created this slice bread machine, and it’s not going to happen that way. It just doesn’t work that easily because the system, it’s very, very complex and the system is linear, so it’s one step after another and after another. So it’s a straight line. Whereas we’ve got to start thinking and designing the entire system in a circular motion. That’s the circular economy. And that’s what that’s all about. Melinda: You mentioned a couple of interesting innovations like Loop. What about innovations in terms of materials that are maybe biodegradable or compostable? Have you seen anything interesting in that? James: Things are happening there but here’s the complexity which we haven’t talked about in terms of the recovery system. So essentially, there are seven types of polymers, plastics in seven different types of packaging. And the problem is that when they go into the recovery facility if they get mixed together, everything’s contaminated, so they’ve got to be kept separate. So you’ve got those seven that are fossil fuel based. Now we add one or two or three or four, whatever bioproducts. Those bioproducts multiply the complexity and the contamination process. So a biodiverse package can be a very, very good development but if it’s not cleaned up and aligned with everything else in the system, it’s going to just contaminate the entire system. So you’ve almost got to go all or nothing on one particular product. Melinda: Right. Right. So we talked a little bit about legislation, and you’re saying governments are behind and you know the EU has banned certain single-use plastics that’s coming into effect I think in 2020, and here even in Ontario, even the Conservative Party, not typically a party we would associate with progressive environmental policies, but they’ve even talked about banning some single-use plastics. What are your thoughts about future laws? You say industries are leading. How could laws sort of come in sideways? What are you anticipating on that? James: It’s happening. It’s happening right now. There’s going to be regulation this summer coming out of the federal government. The issue is again, the complexity of what I’ve just described. And as good as the analysis and study and research is done on it, this is a holistic problem. It’s a holistic solution. And if you just force it back onto industry to say design better, they can design a great package but as I’ve just described to you earlier, it’s still got to have a circular system all the way through so that it can get all the way through the system. It can’t just be forced on the packaged goods industry as an example to, let’s say, design the best package because it just doesn’t work that way. You’ve still got to get it out the other end. So you’re really dealing with it. Think about it this way. You’re really dealing with it. I was thinking about an analogy the other day where you’ve got all of these smart tablets and smartphones and things like that, but the waste system is like the old dial phone with a cord. So you try to push, you modernize everything on the front end, but you’re not modernizing it on the back end. And if you don’t do that collectively, you know, the goals that they want, that the government wants are zero waste. And you’ve got to get these processes in sync and the system designed properly so that they can be in a circular motion, not in a linear motion. Melinda: Absolutely. And education would be a big part of that. James: Education is huge. Melinda: For consumer as well. James: Well, the problem is with social media. I mean David Attenborough did the Blue Planet IIand that was last year talking about marine debris and ocean plastics and things like that. And it just went like wildfire. And that’s really what’s one of the things that’s really escalated the conversation, which is a good thing and it needs to be held. But you can’t pass judgment on something in social media and spread that around to all of your friends without the knowledge. And to try to educate everybody on this is incredibly difficult and challenging to do so. Melinda: So outside of new materials, and you talked about Loop, this idea of reusing things and companies picking it up, which I think is really interesting. Are there any other really interesting innovations that we’ll be hearing about at your upcoming event? James: Well, we’re going to talk about the things that I’ve talked about already. I mean, Tom Szaky is a fascinating individual. A Canadian who’s living down in Princeton, New Jersey now, and he’s created TerraCycle and he’s created this product called Loop. And he’s been doing this now for 10 or 12 years in terms of Terracycle and he’s really a brilliant guy because he takes on waste that nobody else wants to deal with. So think about the most complex waste and Tom wants it. Baby diapers, cigarette butts, things like that, razors. He’s taking that and he’s finding solutions. So he’s going way above and beyond. Tom will be talking about that. This Aeroflex design, it’s for liquids and it’s the flexible package design product that’s going to replace a rigid plastic bottle. And it’s a brilliant, brilliant innovation for sure. On the raw materials. I mean, there’s a lot of raw materials. As an example, you probably buy frozen fruit for your smoothies. It’s a multilayer laminate material that will stand up because it’s a pouch and they haven’t been able to do that. They can’t take that package and recycle it because you’ve got two materials together or three materials together. And so what they’re doing is now there’s a lot of development going on with single ply, monomer ply materials that can stand up. And so those things are in the development. Dow has been doing it. Novacam is doing it, so there’s a number of these things that are happening but you’ve got to change the whole system, otherwise you end up getting mixed materials together. You know the most famous one and probably the best sustainable package has been created back in 2010 launched at the Vancouver Olympics was the plant bottle that Coca-Cola did. So they’re taking that technology made from sugar that, the brilliance of it is that it’s a renewable material number one, but number two, you can put that renewable material with fossil-based material and you can regrind it and make another bottle out of it. So they’re taking that plant bottle, and Coca-Cola were the drivers of that innovation, but now you’re starting to see it in another areas, starting to see it in other types of bottles in terms of haircare and things like that. So that’s happening. One of the other really meaningful initiatives, it’s all about education is what Procter & Gamble and Unilever have been doing where they take beach plastic and they’re turning it back into Head & Shoulders bottles and things like that. Herbal Essence is going to be launched in the U.S this year and they’ve been working with Tom Szaky on that. Fascinating. But it’s really, it’s not a good cost model. It’s really an educational model. What they’re trying to do is create awareness of the issue. Melinda: Thank you so much. It was excellent. It’s such an interesting topic and yeah, very, very complicated. Thank you for joining us. James: Pleased to be here with you, Melinda. Thank you for having me. Melinda: This is a much more complex issue than most of us understand. Seeing images of beached whales with their stomachs full of plastic, it hits us really emotionally and we’re very rightly outraged, but it’s going to take a much more holistic approach than just relying on new materials to save us. Brands, fairly or not, are going to take a lot of the blame when it comes to this issue. Here are some of our tips for how to position your brand as doing its best to contribute to this complicated issue. One is to use materials that are more likely be recycled such as glass and tin. Both of these materials can be recycled in most facilities and studies show the consumers are more likely to throw packaging made of these materials into recycling bins than any other. Foodservice brands that use take-out containers can move to bamboo cutlery and biodegradable paper carton containers. It’s a good idea to clearly explain how to properly dispose of these items as consumers may not be aware. A second way is to find out about innovations like the system James was mentioning, Loop. Get on board or copy these great ideas to ensure your brand is leading the way and not lagging behind. And as James mentioned, the founder of this innovative idea will be speaking at PACs Package Innovation Disruptors Summit in Toronto on May 30th. An important note to add is that greenwashing is something to steer completely clear of. Don’t overstate what you’re doing or imply a package is eco-friendly if it isn’t entirely true. That being said, if you are investing in packaging innovation, you should communicate this very clearly including on the pack. We’d love to hear about what brands are doing in helping to reduce, reuse, or recycle their products or product packaging. If that’s you, please get in touch. It’s a conversation that we’d like to continue.


James Downham is a former package manufacturing CEO. Today he is the CEO of PAC Packaging Consortium and Chairman of LeaderLinx, an executive recruiter. James is the Vice Chairman of the National Zero Waste Council. He is a passionate sustainability, circular economy, brand design and innovation packaging leader and holds Canadian and US citizenships. In 2014 Jim was inducted into the Packaging Hall of Fame. Think Retail is a podcast where top designers, strategists, thought leaders and business people discuss what’s coming next. For more information, email